James Lawton: Too soon for Keegan to call it quits

The widespread belief is that Kevin Keegan is gone, that he has exhausted his dreams at Manchester City and is heading off somewhere beyond his last football sunset. Don't believe it. Well, don't believe it entirely.

No doubt he will nurse his wounds for a while. He will swear that he has played for the last time the managerial game that always seems to leave him in need of emotional repair.

He may indeed return to the south of Spain and play a little golf, something that occupied his time for several years between the end of his extraordinary playing career and his first great adventure at Newcastle. In the first rush of success in the North East he recalled those days: "Everything was mapped out, golf in the day and then you'd go for a drink and find out where the ladies had decided we would eat dinner. It wasn't a bad life but after the playing days, I suppose it just wasn't enough."

It wasn't enough then and you have to suspect it will not be now. Yes, he has been ravaged somewhat by his experiences since he returned to the game after that long and ultimately empty siesta punctuated by golf and flamenco. However, he is a mere 54, which is quite an early age to put away the competitive habits of most of a lifetime.

Perhaps he will tee up the ball again and speculate from time to time how it was he came to put such trust in players like Nicolas Anelka and Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, players of enviable talent, maybe ones who were in possession of more than his own when he first hustled his way from a steelworks team to the regard of the great Bill Shankly.

We can guess his conclusion on his investment in those players will not involve too much self-flagellation. He saw the silky gifts of Anelka, the natural-born killer streak in Fowler, and the energy and presence of McManaman that, in his early days at Liverpool, and in some key walk-on roles for Real Madrid, promised the highest achievement. What he didn't see - because he will always be a football romantic - was how the years of fame and indulgence and, in Fowler's case, nagging injuries, can alter the nature of a player, take away hard edges in such a way that only somebody like Keegan might have believed they could be put back easily by re-awakened passion. So, in the end Keegan gambled and lost, as did a board which couldn't check spiralling debt and a set of fans who in terms of loyalty and resilience are among the most committed in the land. He did the same at Newcastle, but not before leading the Premiership by 12 points and making the Magpies the team followed by most neutrals in England - a charging, thrilling force which almost, but not quite, set aside the fundamental football truth that success always begins at the back. Keegan didn't quite grasp that - and when you reflect on this it is not so hard to remember when he played in a friendly for England against Argentina at Wembley early in his career. The Argentines worked the most subtle of offside traps and when the young Keegan was caught in it repeatedly, eventually a grizzled defender ruffled his hair as though to say, "run along, chico, and learn this game".

Keegan never learned it as deeply as his admirers would have wished and it is idle to pretend that his stewardship of England, and in particular his handling of the sensationally emerging Michael Owen, was anything but a disaster. He admitted as much, stifling his tears, and that was the first time it was thought he was gone forever.

According to any strict accountancy of win and lose, and profit and loss, his reign at City will inevitably be seen as failure, but only partially so. One of the sadnesses is that the club and the manager seemed so perfectly suited. City fans are notorious dreamers. So too is Keegan, but who is to say that in some surprisingly short time a chairman will not look around the scene and see a bunch of dour young football technocrats loaded with coaching badges, but perhaps a little short on heart and humour and prestige, and ask himself: Why not take a last run with Keegan?

There will be plenty of advice against the move and if an offer arrives, many of Keegan's friends will say that it will represent almost certainly an adventure too far. But the counselling will be meaningless. Kevin Keegan's blood will surge again, as it did when he shocked his contemporaries and he refused all blandishments to stay in the fortress he had made for himself at Liverpool. The shock was quickly replaced by admiration when he became the hero of Hamburg and European footballer of the year.

"We couldn't believe it when he broke away from Liverpool," recalls John Giles, the field general of Leeds United who after 12 years of brilliant service and wages that never exceeded £200 a week was denied a testimonial at Elland Road. "But then we spent the rest of our careers admiring his nerve, and wishing we had shown a little of it." Keegan made himself a great player and free man with just one big regret. It is that he never made himself a great football manager. However, the suspicion here is that sooner rather than later he will decide it may just be a little too early to be quite so emphatic about that.