Keegan returns to confront memories

The wounds of departure have yet to heal for former manager on his St James' comeback
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The Independent Football

"You can't go back," Ray Reardon once told Steve Davis when the young snooker player was in his pomp. "You can't pick up where you left off and go back to something that was nice. Life isn't like that; nothing goes back now. It is onwards, onwards."

Kevin Keegan, a man whose conversation is attuned to the here and now and who will walk out of interviews if the subject of his time as England manager is raised, would probably agree but tomorrow night he will be unable to avoid the past. It will embrace him.

Save for a fleeting showman's appearance for Peter Beardsley's testimonial, the man styled the 'Geordie Messiah' has not been back publicly to St James' Park until now. His taking Manchester City into tomorrow's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Newcastle has been painted like Heathcliff's first return to Wuthering Heights, although Keegan will do more than simply peer through the windows.

Newcastle United was his great achievement and it is worth remembering that when he took over a club that was careering towards the Third Division in front of 10,000 crowds it was his first job in management after eight years away from the game.

Very few in the modern age, not Brian Clough, not Alex Ferguson, made such a success of their first job as Keegan did of his. It is a reminder that, despite the disasters at the European Championship, he no more deserves to carry the label of "failed international manager" than do Gérard Houllier or Arrigo Sacchi.

His Newcastle sides were not "tactically naïve" and nor was their defence a gossamer shroud. In 1995-96, the season in which Newcastle's 12-point lead over Manchester United was eaten away in barely two months, they conceded nine goals at St James' Park and two more away from home than the eventual champions.

His management is, nevertheless, more motivational than technical and remains so with Manchester City. Rob Lee, whom he transformed from a run-of-the-mill midfielder with Charlton into an England international, recalled: "No-one could inspire you in the dressing-room like Keegan could. He made you feel 10 feet tall. Because he was always so confident and full of beans, his mood rubbed off on the players. He made us think we could do anything."

Had a Newcastle side, which won 17 of their 19 home games in that 1995-96 season, taken the title, they would have qualified for the Champions' League, which was in its final year of being quite reasonably restricted to those clubs which had actually won their own championship, and the face of English domestic football might have been altered.

Keegan would probably not have quit – although, from the first month of his arrival in the bleak February of 1992, he made serial threats to go, even saying he would resign if the crowd continued to bait his under-achieving goalkeeper, Mike Hooper. Newcastle would also have been given the short-term financial injection the club badly needed.

A new reality, governed by plc boards, was creeping into football generally and into St James' Park directly. The dramatic purchase of Alan Shearer for a then world-record £15m was supposedly the final step in building a team that could unseat Manchester United, but in truth the hero, whose signing was greeted by 18,000 fans massed by the Milburn Stand, came too late and at too great a price. The board demanded £6m worth of cuts – a measure Kenny Dalglish solved in one swoop with the sale of Les Ferdinand – and Keegan offered his resignation for the last and finally decisive time.

It is perhaps significant that Keegan's family will sit with the Manchester City fans rather than take up their place in the directors' box. The wounds caused by his departure have not yet entirely healed. Despite the fact that he lives on the Wynyard Estate near Middlesbrough owned by his former chairman Sir John Hall, the two men have barely communicated with each other in almost five years.

The manner in which Keegan left Newcastle on 8 January 1997 overshadows everything else. It has been compared to the departure of his great mentor Bill Shankly from Anfield in 1974 in that nobody, not even the man himself could give a reason for it. The best he could do in his autobiography was that, in floating as a public company, Newcastle was selling its soul.

It is probably just as well that he is returning when under the direction of another older miner's son, Bobby Robson, Newcastle are resurgent. In the dull, pragmatic season under Dalglish and the bitter, internecine one under Ruud Gullit that followed, he seemed the great, lost leader and the board would not have been comfortable having him back.

The regime under Robson is very different. Unlike the statements that came from Keegan, there is no talk of building a 'Barcelona on the Tyne'. His team died with him. Of the side that played the final game of the epic 1995-96 season, Dalglish removed nine, keeping only Lee and Steve Watson, who was eventually sold by Gullit. Robbie Elliott, who was brought back to Tyneside by Robson, said merely: "If you ask any player from that era whether they will ever experience anything like it again, they will tell you it just won't happen."