City trader who made too many bad calls

Kevin Keegan was a generous and infectious manager but a poor player in the transfer market, writes Sam Wallace
Click to follow
The Independent Football

For a man whose public reputation is that of a damaged, paranoid soul, Kevin Keegan has always been remarkably good at the kind of personal gestures of generosity that can go unnoticed in a profession that tends to reward the most unforgiving.

For a man whose public reputation is that of a damaged, paranoid soul, Kevin Keegan has always been remarkably good at the kind of personal gestures of generosity that can go unnoticed in a profession that tends to reward the most unforgiving.

The mind goes back to a training ground briefing in December when, before yet another uncomfortable examination of Manchester City's many faults, Keegan stopped to make a fuss of a work experience teenager waiting nervously at the back of the room.

He shook her hand, wished her well in her journalism career and resisted the temptation to make a cheap joke about the profession she aspired to enter. The image of the haunted man, headphones clamped to his ears, jabbing away with his finger at the camera forms only one aspect of Keegan's managerial career because even in the darkest days at City, his capacity for random acts of charm was undiminished.

What he eventually found impossible to escape, however, was a squad built around some of the most expensive failed signings of the Premiership era.

He has never been the nation's most progressive manager: a 54-year-old who would rather have a game of head tennis with his players at the end of training than fine-tune a new fitness regime or study data on performance levels. When he first joined City it seemed to matter little that Keegan did not really get to know the youngsters in the academy or that he did not feel it was necessary to have more than five coaching staff. That approach might have been disconcerting to the purist, but it would have worked if Keegan's approach to the transfer market had been a success.

Many of them hardly bear thinking about. There was £3.5m for the Argentinian striker Matias Vuoso, who was so poor that he even made Manchester United's acquisition of his former Independiente team-mate, Diego Forlan, look like a good idea. Somehow Keegan also persuaded the board to spend £3m on Christian Negouai and Lucien Mettomo and when he had finished there they shelled out £5.5m on Jon Macken and £3.5m on David Sommeil.

But it was not simply the expensive signings that proved such a failure. It was the unknowns - Mikkel Bischoff and Kevin Ellegaard for £750,000 each - who pushed the spending beyond £30m, to the point where someone needed to stop it. That someone was the former chairman David Bernstein, who opposed Keegan's signing of Robbie Fowler in March 2003 and paid with his job. Fowler duly arrived for £6m.

As his appetite for players plying their trade abroad diminished, Keegan turned to Claudio Reyna and Trevor Sinclair and spent £5m on two players whose fitness has become a bad joke at City. Steve McManaman's contract runs out in the summer and the City board will hope that his galactico-style wages might just entitle them to one goal in a blue shirt. By Christmas this season, all the indications were that, after surviving a 15-game run without a win the previous year, Keegan's enthusiasm for City was ebbing away fast.

During the painfully predictable defeat to Oldham in the FA Cup on 8 January, he did not once emerge from inside his dugout. By then he was sure that Nicolas Anelka would be leaving and although Keegan had already lost patience with the French striker, he did at least represent a rare success in the transfer market.

In mitigation, the pain from a back problem became so acute last season that Keegan had to hand over to his assistant Arthur Cox for four games and, ironically, they were unbeaten in all of them. Keegan has also been savagely treated by injuries, but the unanswerable balance to any defence of his City reign is that he was given the resources to build a serious team and responded by making some of the worst buys of the Premiership era. The club's only seriously saleable asset now is Shaun Wright-Phillips - a player gifted to Keegan from the academy.

Bernstein negotiated a sweetheart deal on their new stadium and after finishing ninth in 2003, City were handed a place in the Uefa Cup through the Fair Play system but found the Polish side Groclin Dyskobolia too much to handle. Also, Keegan had, in John Wardle, the most low-profile, least adversarial chairman a manager could hope for. He fought for his manager when the side went eight games without a Premiership win in November but finally acceded to the board on Thursday night. The sadness for City is they will never be able to back another manager the way they backed Keegan.

Keegan's shopping errors

Matias Vuoso

Not just Keegan's worst buy, but arguably one of the worst buys of all time. Vuoso cost £3.5m from the Argentinian side Independiente but never played for the first team.

Trevor Sinclair

Sinclair was reportedly the subject of a £10m bid from Sunderland, but joined City for £2.5m. Has scored three goals in a limited number of appearances due to injuries.

Christian Negouai

Signed for £1.5m from Charleroi in November 2001, Negouai has made only a handful of appearances and is currently on loan at Coventry.

Nicolas Anelka

A controversial choice perhaps, given that he scored 39 goals in his first two seasons. However, "Le Sulk" cost £13m from Paris St-Germain in 2002 and was eventually sold to Fenerbahce for a loss of £6m.