Rob Lee: The world has moved on from 1996. For all his talent and enthusiasm, has Kevin?
He made our Newcastle side challengers 15 years ago, but today's Premier League is a far different place
Friday 18 January 2008
Midget Gems. I will never forget the day Kevin Keegan drove me around Newcastle and Durham in his car to look at places to live. We talked and viewed, chewing on Midget Gems. It is a memory of which I am very fond.
This was September 1992 and I was an OK 26-year-old Charlton Athletic winger. Keegan had been in charge at St James' Park for seven months and had helped Newcastle just avoid relegation to the old Third Division. In doing so they finished 13 places below Charlton. The other club in for me were Middlesbrough, who were in the new development called the Premiership. The reason I left Charlton and chose Newcastle over Middlesbrough was Kevin Keegan.
My League debut was at Peterborough United. We won 1-0, Kevin Sheedy scored. Newcastle had 7,000 fans at London Road. Looking back at the records that day, Rothmans Football Yearbook says: "Blackburn beat Oldham 2-0 and cut Norwich's lead to two points as third-place Coventry hold the leaders." Oldham, Norwich, Coventry – Premiership clubs then. Newcastle were a division below.
I point this out to show two things: first, just how far Kevin Keegan took Newcastle in a short space of time and what an incredible achievement that was. Second, to show that the world of football has moved on.
Others have said the same. My immediate reaction to Wednesday's news was that it was great, great for the club, great for him, great for football. It was such a waste of talent and enthusiasm to have him out of the game. But as the dust settled a little yesterday, like the Midget Gems, it became clear there is much to chew on.
It is not just doubters of this venture who think the game has moved on from 1992, and 1996, we all know it has.
There are still 22 players and a ball but the physical and tactical advances on the pitch, coupled with the economic boom off it and the arrival of the Champions League, mean that while Keegan had a tough job in 1992, this could be tougher.
The scale of Premier League football, and the scale of Newcastle United, has increased. Will Keegan now, as he did with me and all his signings then, be able to spend personal time with them? Then he used to run the club from top to bottom: it was Keegan you saw about contracts, for instance. He was involved in every detail. It was his decision to end the reserve-team fixtures. I just do not think the modern football business will allow that control. He, Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley and chairman Chris Mort will have to forge a strong, trusting relationship quickly.
Then there is the opposition. When Keegan created his best Newcastle side, when we nearly won the League in 1996, Manchester United were our only really big opponents. Arsenal were fifth 12 years ago, fifteen points behind us, Chelsea were 11th, 28 points adrift. Now both are huge and, as last Saturday's 6-0 defeat at Old Trafford showed, Newcastle are a million miles away from Sir Alex Ferguson's team.
Ashley is bound to give him money and the good news is that in his first spell as Newcastle manager, Keegan bought well. But he did have a lot of money. Andy Cole cost £1.75m when Keegan punted on him in 1993. Even today, 15 years on, that is a decent sum for a Championship club to spend. Of course, Keegan made a £4.25m profit when he sold him to Manchester United two years later. There may be some added difficulty in that players of my generation grew up idolising Keegan. Today's young men have not.
But he was always able to spot a player and he could change them: Steve Howey was an average centre-forward who became an England centre-half. He changed me into an England midfielder. He had that intuitive understanding of football and I don't think you lose that.
What he did lose was his sparkle. Not so long ago I went up to see him at his Glasgow Soccer Circus and he was chatty enough, but you could tell he was still fed up with football. But then, around six weeks ago, I went to see him and Peter Beardsley at a talk-in at the Federation Brewery in Dunston. You could see some of the colour coming back then. I wish him all the luck in the world.
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