James Lawton: City slackers' lack of passion casts doubt over Keegan future

Maine Road manager denied shot at glory he craves by dismal efforts of expensive triumvirate
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The Independent Football

As Kevin Keegan travels to St Andrew's today it is reasonable to presume that his Yuletide reflections will be warmed neither by the landscape of Birmingham nor that of a Premiership in which he sees his Manchester City rooted firmly in the wide sweep of the mediocrity it has come to represent. There are Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea up on the high ground, utterly detached in their own little enclave. And there are the rest.

It is company Keegan hates to keep because it offends the meaning of his life in football. Separate him from the possibility of glory and he is a parched plant indeed.

Certainly those of his admirers who speculate that his stomach for the scufflings of survival has been stretched to near breaking point these last few weeks will not have been encouraged by this week's home draw with Leeds United. On the face of things, it was not such a shocker. Leeds have been stirring their bones in recent weeks, but not in the City of Manchester Stadium. Eddie Gray was at his daughter's wedding and while he was away, the mice reverted to type - and didn't really play.

They were flattered by their point while City, astonishingly at this point of the season, missed the two points which would have carried them to within four points of the fourth place which gives entry to the League of Champions - and a whole six points away from the drop zone. Such are the fine margins between success and failure in which Keegan, who occasionally wryly recalls that not so long ago his biggest pressure in life was choosing the Andalucian golf course on which he would while away a day, is now obliged to operate. How long will he do it? The portents are not encouraging.

Apart from the missed opportunity which came when Leeds fell back on the folly of trying to defend a lead for more than an hour, there was another blow to one of Keegan's most valued beliefs. It was that when the game was there to be won, when he felt obliged to change his team, two of the men who had to be pulled off were those in whom he had placed most recent faith: the former Spice Boys of Anfield, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler.

It is here, in the huge gap between reward and performance which so bedevils the hopes of so many financially stretched clubs, that we see the real agony of Kevin Keegan.

His view of football is essentially simple. It is about unremitting effort - and passion. And also that honesty which, at the time of his shocking resignation as the coach of the England team, prompted his admission that he didn't really feel up to the tactical and strategic demands of international football. So what was left for him in the game which had dragged him back, after that long dalliance in southern Spain, into its tumult? Perhaps there was an adventure or two, and where better to prosecute one than Manchester City, a place awash with dreams of regaining old glory?

The likes of Fowler and McManaman and Nicolas Anelka, whose performance against Leeds was quite as dismal as the other two members of one of the Premiership's most expensive triumvirates, have been central to Keegan's faith.

After one sparkling performance by the Frenchman at Maine Road last season, Keegan talked freely about the cost of the signing. Yes, the club had taken a mortgage on the flair of Anelka. It was what you had to do if you dared to make a great team. But is last year's investment this year's futile dipping into a disaster fund?

What Keegan cannot do, no more than any of his rivals beneath the lonely élite, is shore up his hopes with sure-fire signings. That is the luxury of a Sir Alex Ferguson and, now, Claudio Ranieri, if not quite Arsène Wenger, whose investment in the central defender Pascal Cygan, with the departure of Tony Adams and the waning of Martin Keown, is looking less of a shrewd masterpiece with each game.

Keegan's tragedy is that he cannot go out and easily find a player in his own likeness. The last time he could sleep easily with such certainty was when he used to write Peter Beardsley's name down on the Newcastle team-sheet. Beardsley, who during a wedding anniversary celebration rejected a bottle of champagne from a restaurant proprietor because even the fanciest alcohol was superfluous to his needs - he had football and his young wife, what more could he want? - was Keegan's banker. "I'd play him even if he had to borrow a pair of boots," Keegan once said. "He is the manager's dream. He is always there, always giving it everything he has."

It was an affection which brought some difficulty when Keegan gambled so hard on the brilliant but erratic Faustino Asprilla - maybe the manager's ultimate act of faith. How best could he accommodate the Colombian? Logic said that he should keep a winning shape and choose between the new man and the ageing Beardsley. Instead he kept Beardsley and dropped the highly effective wideman Keith Gillespie.

But then when passion and logic are in conflict in the world of Kevin Keegan there can only be one winner. For the moment at least, the passion of his Manchester City remains in serious question. It is a reality that darkens the road to St Andrew's today. And makes you wonder how long he will be around.