The Nick Townsend column: Keegan is not a clown but return remains a circus
No one should doubt the impact the Newcastle manager can make yet competing with the top four is still a dream
Sunday 20 January 2008
Just before five o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, this observer nearly did an Ashley (as in Ashley Cole, I should stress, not Mike Ashley, of whom more later). Nearly crashed the car. Turned it over like one of those Tino Asprilla backflips. But not because my employers had failed to offer me another £5,000 a week to which I believed I was entitled, as the England defender, then at Arsenal, famously believed he had been wronged by the Gunners, but because of those extraordinary words on the car radio: Kevin Keegan returns to Newcastle. The initial assumption was that it had to be a wind-up – oh, how we had chuckled a week before at the concept of Keegan in tandem with Alan Shearer – but by the time I had righted my vehicle, the truth had been confirmed. At least it was half true. Big Al still waits on BBC stage left as King Kev returns to complete, as he put it, some "unfinished business". Some business. Some finish, it could be said, about what many of the faithful considered a precipitate exit from St James' Park 11 years ago. But wasn't it ever thus where the doughty little Yorkshireman is concerned?
And you had to smile, in the nicest possible way. Because Keegan has that effect on you. Probably Peter Hain, in the midst of adversity, smiled, too. Can there have been a wackier story under which bad news had been buried by a government minister?
By now, you will have discerned in which direction this is going. So, let us preface it by stating that the reconditioned Newcastle manager is an amalgam of many virtues and a few vices. A decent man, he can be prickly at times under interrogation. Yet, he is unerringly, almost disturbingly, so honest that he flaunts his flaws as readily as a recovering alcoholic.
Hi, My name's Kevin. And I'm a failed England manager. Could anyone have delivered more candour than his valedictory words when Old Wembley closed its gates, and a 19-month international career ended in ignominy for Keegan on 7 October 2000? "Absolutely no one is to blame but myself... I told the players I don't think I can find that little bit extra that you need at this level".
That is why even those of us with no affinity with the North-east regard this character, who lives his life like a volcano on the verge of eruption, with such affection. Akin, in his own way, to a Mourinho, his mere presence enriches our sporting tableaux. No wonder, Sky News anchormen and women were almost orgasmic in their approval of the second coming of KK and the Sunshine Boys, accompanied, as it was, with vehement reaction from all sides: near-hysteria from the Toon Army; hysterical laughter from Manchester, Liverpool and all points south.
And from those of us nonpartisan? While one can indeed denounce certain elements of Keegan's managerial curriculum vitae, it would be unwise to question what he may achieve, given his record at Newcastle, Manchester City and Fulham as an "impact" manager, particularly if he does indeed benefit from what has been described as Ashley's "bottomless pit", with such diverse targets as Jermain Defoe, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Wayne Bridge, Deco, Scott Brown, Daniel van Buyten and Wes Brown mooted. Certainly in the short term, that injection of SuperKev Serum will enable him to shoulder far more tons of expectation that it should. The enthusiasm, while it lasts, of the little circus-master is second to none. The man who has been running a football theme park in Glasgow will hardly need to exhort his public to "Roll up, roll up".
Take these sentiments: "All those other guys, they've all come in and said the same as me: 'Big club, big squad, great fan base, great stadium, a football city, we should be better than this'. Now it's my turn." Actually, that was Keegan talking to me about Manchester City in early 2002. But it could equally be 2008 and Newcastle, about whom there can be no doubting his affection.
And yet. For all that, his coming again to St James' Park can be no more than the stuff of delusions. Keegan has demanded realism, but he is as aware as anyone that it is a scarce commodity in Newcastle United. Least of all from those in control. This has all the hallmarks of an act of desperation from the owner Ashley and chairman Chris Mort. Having discerned that there was no likelihood of one of the big beasts of world football prepared to seize their bait, they have adopted a populist ploy. Gone back to the future with a gesture designed to gain Ashley someback-slapping from his new replica-shirt-wearing best friends. What it is decidedly not is the adult decision to take the club forward this column stressed was necessary last week. The club has once again become a Big Top of Absurdities.
Witnessing Keegan and Terry McDermott enter Newcastle's Benton training complex on Friday was a bit like that computer-generated advert with images of Steve McQueen driving a modern car. Nostalgia is hugely effective in advertising. On the whole, football's past is best left as that. Fond memories. Eleven years have elapsed since Keegan last passed this way as Newcastle manager, with a team which included David Ginola, blessed with all his pre-Ronaldo wizardry, and Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardsley et Alan Shearer.
Keegan recalls that first term with pride, although he once told me that he accepted that "everyone paints the picture differently". He added: "The cynics would say we spent £60m and never won anything. But that doesn't tell you the story of Newcastle. They were bottom of the Second Division, the last game had been watched by 14,000 people. I went in with 16 games to go, having no knowledge of management, didn't know any of the players apart from Micky Quinn because I'd met him at the races, I took in Terry McDermott, who had also been working at racetracks. We both loved the club, and made it work. The real story there was a rebirth of a real football club. People had forgotten how big it was. That was the Newcastle story in my mind."
Essentially correct, of course. But that was then; an eternity ago in football terms. Even in the three years since he departed Manchester City the market in which he must buy has become a far more competitively ruthless place. He returns to a different era. Sportsmen, these days, and not just footballers, have different priorities and distractions and attitudes. It is not just groin strains that prevent them from playing.
Shane Warne's explanation, for instance, for his absence at the start of Hampshire's season is: playing poker. Keegan may find that Joey Barton – to whom, coincidentally, he gave his debut at Manchester City – is unavailable because of therapy/court appearances.
True, there will be certain pundits prepared to maintain: "It's a crazy idea, but it might just work". Not a chance. It's just plain crazy. Pure and simple. If it has any merit it is as a stopgap measure, designed to appease the faithful until a measure of stability is achieved and Newcastle can convince a David Moyes, Mark Hughes or a foreign equivalent, that they are genuine European contenders. But jousting with the top four, let alone duelling with that grand old adversary, Sir Alex Ferguson, who has remained defiantly, and triumphantly, in situ throughout? The Toon Army can but dream... while the remainder of us wait for them to wake up to realities.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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