James Lawton: Keegan's return testament to terminal madness of St James'

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The Independent Online

After all the years of broken football romance, all the failures to mature into a knowing, fighting organisation able to live in the hard world inhabited by serial winners like Manchester United and Arsenal, what do Newcastle do?

They fire their wobbly old cupid's arrow at Kevin Keegan, who ever so briefly set all their hearts aflutter. They are, yesterday's evidence insisted, terminally mad.

They wouldn't know a professional reflex if it was projected in neon from the statue of the Angel of the North, which is such a welcoming symbol on the A1 for the followers of serious football teams who head to St James' Park with sure-fire hopes of fresh plundering.

Let's not be too dismissive of some of the fine qualities of Keegan. He was a wonderful player. He made himself into one with a dedication and a spirit that still shame so many of the most gifted members of today's generation of performers and for the first phase of his five-year reign as Newcastle manager he produced a stirring cocktail of football that reminded the fans of his warrior impact in the black-and-white stripes. But that was more than a decade ago – and it was promise not fulfilment, it was foreplay not coitus, it was a dream not reality.

Why, so many years on and after the trauma of his departures from Tyneside, England and Manchester City, would Keegan again commend himself to the Newcastle directors at the age of 56? Because the men who run the club continue to fight one long, losing battle with the demand to look around them and learn a few basic lessons about how you make a winning football club.

You don't do as the fabulously wealthy businessman Mike Ashley has done with his call to the past.

You don't deck yourself out as a fan and feed on their fantasies. You talk to a few men who know the business, who could have explained to him why – after Keegan's emotional meltdown and decision to leave the job in which he had promised so much but failed to meet some fundamental challenges of organisation and discipline – football men of the quality of Ruud Gullit, Kenny Dalglish, Sir Bobby Robson and Graeme Souness were all obliged to leave with the brand of loser.

They weren't losers. In one way they were like the fans. They were victims of a corporate incompetence.

What Keegan did achieve – and no amount of sneering here can obscure it – was a thrilling vision of what could happen if Newcastle were truly set alight. Of course there were flames enough when Keegan reigned. But they burnt out so quickly even a 12-point lead in the Premiership was allowed to splutter away. It was like watching a beautiful painting ripped apart in front of your eyes. The trouble was Keegan couldn't protect his work. He had the heart for the job but not the head. In his eagerness to sign the brilliant Faustino Asprilla, a leggy marvel of intricate skill, he omitted to work out what he would do when the Colombian arrived at St James' Park as thelast brushstroke in a masterpiece.

Keegan compromised. He lost the balance of attack which had been provided by two wide players giving the team tremendous width and poise. Newcastle became cluttered in attack – and remained painfully porous in defence.

Do Newcastle now expect Keegan to come back with a harder head and a surer sense of what he wants to do, his wildest hopes tempered by the pain of failure with England and Manchester City? Or do they hope to underpin his appeal with the appointment of an old pro "assistant". It cannot be so if they are even now contemplating a second tier of fan appeal with another great hero of the terraces, Alan Shearer, who has strongly hinted that he is ready to claim what many in the North-east have always seen as his destiny to play a part in the management of the club of his native soil and the one he chose in preference to Manchester United? It is a scenario of nonsense.

With the departure of Sam Allardyce, it seemed that Ashley knew what he wanted and had quickly discarded his inheritance from the former chairman Freddy Shepherd. There was a suspicion that while playing to the gallery of the fans, and laddishly supping his pints, he might just have been taking wiser counsel.

Harry Redknapp might not have been a dream appointment, but he did promise a knack for producing football which pleased the eye and which, with the right financial support, might even have begun to produce consistent results. But Ashley made a mess of that; he forgot the classic rule of cross-examination, the one that insists you never ask a question if you don't know the answer. Redknapp gave the wrong answer and where did that leave Ashley? It should have left him fighting to repair the disaster and making offers to such as Mark Hughes and David Moyes, tough men of a new generation who have already proved that they know how to lick under-performing clubs into shape.

It was really the least you might have expected of the tough businessman who made his fortune by following his instincts and not the kind of palsied received wisdom that for so long left his acquisition Newcastle United in chains.

Almost unbelievably, he has not done that. He has submitted instead to the curse of St James' Park. He has turned his face to yesterday and we all know, in the case of Newcastle United, what you get there. It is empty and, let's be honest, increasingly pathetic dreams.

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