Brian Viner: Keegan's magnificent sevens add to the gaiety of the sporting nation

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The Independent Online

There can't be many St Louis Cardinals fans who know much about Premiership football, but those who do could be forgiven for wishing that the Boston Red Sox were coached by Kevin Keegan. This week, in the best-of-seven World Series, the Red Sox stormed into a 3-0 lead. Never in the long history of baseball's great event had such an advantage been overturned, and nor was it. The Red Sox prevailed, to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. But of course, had Keegan been in charge, the Cardinals would have fought back to win 4-3.

Absorbed as I was in Sky's coverage of the turbulent drama between Manchester United and Arsenal last Sunday, there was an almost more diverting sub-plot unfolding at the bottom of the screen, where the scoreline in the match between Newcastle United and Manchester City was repeatedly updated. With the score at 3-3, and Keegan involved, another goal was inevitable. Craig Bellamy duly scored it for the home team, unwittingly ruining some of the neatest statistical symmetry in football. Prior to that, Keegan had been involved in seven 4-3 matches as both player and manager, and his defeat-win ratio stood, you've guessed, at 4-3.

Some of those matches lurk way back in the mists of time. In a European Championship qualifier in September 1978, England won 4-3 in Denmark. The following year, in a friendly, England were beaten 4-3 by Austria in Vienna.

And the number of goals Keegan's team-mates scored in those two matches, as opposed to the number he bagged himself? You've guessed again: 4-3. Spooky, or what? The age of your columnist, incidentally, is 43. I can feel a cold sweat coming on.

From the beginning of the Premiership to the start of this season, I can reliably if slightly anally inform you, there were just 80 matches in which seven goals were scored. And by no means all of those finished 4-3. Yet Keegan was involved in three that did, not to mention the extraordinary 4-3 in the FA Cup fourth-round replay between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in February this year, City's 4-3 First Division defeat by Coventry in 2001, and of course the ding-dong last Sunday.

What does this tell us about Keegan? Nothing, I suppose, that we haven't known for quite a while. That as a manager he produces attacking teams with leaky defences, and that he is constitutionally unlucky. It seems fitting, somehow, that the match still widely considered to have been the most thrilling in Premiership history was the 4-3 at Anfield in April 1996, when Stan Collymore scored a 90th-minute winner for Liverpool against Newcastle, derailing Keegan's title ambitions. Astonishingly, the scoreline was replicated within a year, when, in March 1997, Newcastle recovered a 3-0 deficit at half-time, drawing level in the 88th minute only for Robbie Fowler to score the winner in injury-time.

Coincidentally - and you'll have noticed that coincidence looms large in this story - it was the same Robbie Fowler, albeit a little larger and a little slower, who scored in injury-time in Wednesday's League Cup match between City and Arsenal, this time for rather than against a Keegan XI.

I watched Keegan being interviewed after that 2-1 defeat, and as so often with him, it felt less like an interview, more like an intrusion into private grief. It's a wonder, sometimes, that he manages to get through these things without crying. He talked with his usual eloquence about how the senior pros had let him, themselves and the fans down. He said that a fan had just berated him for the lacklustre performance of the older players, and that in all honesty he couldn't argue. And although no names were mentioned, it's fair to assume that Fowler did not receive rapturous congratulations from the manager for his goal, the 200th of what, despite such a prolific record, increasingly looks like an under-achieving career.

Nobody can call Keegan an under-achiever in football. As a player, indeed, he was precisely the opposite, squeezing out every drop of his talent and more to become the most garlanded footballer of his generation. And as a manager, if we overlook his unhappy tenure in charge of England, he has added immeasurably to the gaiety of the sporting nation.

The reason I applaud him now is because he has said he doesn't want to stay in management beyond the end of his current contract, and judging by his demeanour on Wednesday night, I have a feeling that he might call it a day even sooner. Whether the end of his managerial career comes at his own behest or that of the Manchester City board, football will be the loser, by about four goals to three.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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