"Expect anything." So started the improbable second coming of Kevin Keegan as a manager at St James' Park yesterday, an occasion on which this extraordinary, flawed man spoke of making Newcastle United great again. To the embattled Geordie nation it was an impassioned call to arms; for the rest of us it sounded suspiciously like the plot to a familiar tale of doom.
How about this for a mission statement? "The fans don't want us to play drably, win 1-0 and maybe finish halfway up the table. They want us to have a go and that's why I'm here. We will have a go". For the new Newcastle manager it was as if the last 10 years had never happened, an unqualified, no-holds-barred commitment to the kind of football that they played in Keegan's last reign here. It will make for some occasion when Newcastle play Bolton today, but it remains a fragile promise made by a famously brittle man.
Keegan's introduction yesterday was a brilliant performance from the man himself: witty, persuasive, honest, sensible, passionate and credible. What billionaire would not give this man free reign at his club? In fact, it was so impressive that at times you wondered if this was the same Keegan who squandered millions at Manchester City on the likes of Matias Vuoso and David Sommeil. A man whose City players once begged him to stop giving them days off in favour of proper training sessions instead.
It was difficult at times to reconcile the two. The tired and cynical, although always courteous, Keegan who left City almost three years ago having fallen out of love with the game. And then this new Keegan incarnation. But then 24 hours in this city can play with a man's mind. Keegan's appointment has seized the collective imagination of the locals and even the biggest doubters can find themselves starting to believe. Today, 52,000 paper crowns adorned with the legend, "The return of King Kev" will be handed to the Newcastle fans and they will no doubt wear them with the benign joy of an old aunt at the table for Christmas dinner.
This is how Keegan sees the Newcastle supporters: "They would like to win something, but when they've worked all week it's like the people down south going to a theatre: they are going there to be entertained. They want to come to this ground and see something worth seeing. They want to enjoy it. Sometimes it doesn't work out the way they hoped and they are rightly disappointed, but they can go home saying, 'That was good'. That's our market here, that's the way they think."
The hope is back in town, but will the success follow? Yesterday, Keegan spoke eloquently and directly to his Geordie public in the terms they know and love. He invoked the spirit of the mining community and the role his grandfather, Frank, Keegan played in rescuing fellow miners in the West Stanley pit disaster. He talked about the Geordie diaspora, the men who went south to the mines of the east Midlands but never lost their loyalty to Newcastle. And he took the piss out of southerners, which always goes down well around here.
In fact, Keegan even spoke with good humour about his defining "I'd love it" rant live on Sky Sports that was so pivotal to the 1995-96 season and Newcastle's subsequent collapse – although he said that it was not that outburst which handed the Premier League title to Manchester United. "I'm afraid I have still got the passion," he said. "'Expect anything' is the answer in that respect. That day I only said what I wanted to say, maybe just a little bit too loud. But I think what I said was right."
The early days of any job are always the best for Keegan, when hope springs eternal and he has the uncanny knack of articulating the supporters' dreams like no other manager. He also has an extraordinary ability to ignore the evidence to the contrary which, in Newcastle's case, is the failure of six managers since he left in 1997. Six managers who have all tried and failed to repair the confidence of a club who last won a major trophy in 1969. But try telling Keegan that this is the impossible job.
"We are one of the few clubs that can break into that top four," he said. "We are a challenge to them if we get it right here. We have got the support, we have got the backing, we have got to make the structure a little bit better than it is at the moment. That's the challenge ahead of us. This club doesn't scare me. At other clubs I've gone to there were a lot of questions that needed answers in the first few months. I know the answers here."
Vintage Keegan. He spoke to the players at training yesterday when the message was, it is understood, that they should respect the fans and the club and in return could expect the supporters' devotion. Only on the subject of Michael Owen skewering Keegan in his autobiography over their relationship at Euro 2000 – when Keegan was in charge of England – did the new Newcastle manager look discomfited. "I was pretty shocked at what he [Owen] wrote," he said. "You have to ask yourself: 'Why did he think that?'"
Owen had accused Keegan of deliberately undermining his confidence; Keegan said, with typical understatement, that he "loved" Owen as a person and a player. "What I want to do now is build a better relationship with him than obviously he felt we had last time. It was a shock for me but things got written and things got said and that does not change how I feel about Michael. I'm delighted he is here at Newcastle and he is one of the reasons I joined."
As far as the other big personality at the club went, Keegan said he had met the owner, Mike Ashley, only once and they had not discussed a set budget for this month's transfer window. Although it sounded like there was very little doubt Keegan would get his funds. "If we want to bring someone here and he is right for this football club, and I ask him [Ashley], I'll get the finance," he said. "Whether I can get the player or not are other questions. We have to be ambitious."
The question Keegan said that he posed Ashley was what it was he wanted from the club. "He said: 'I want to win something'," Keegan said. Keegan has a small squad now but made no promises about major signings this month.
"We've got two weeks left of the transfer window and realistically a lot of players don't move at this time of year," he said. "We will be trying to fetch two or three players in but we will not fetch them in just to make the numbers up. They've got to be players who can play with what we've got and improve what we've got."
Despite the unrelentingly positive spin on Keegan, there were tantalising flashes of the man who never quite forgives any slight upon him. At a club where Sir Bobby Robson is still revered, only Keegan could have mentioned the occasion in 1982 when Robson – then England manager – left him out of the England squad. But that is Keegan, a man who never forgets. And yet a man who, you fear, is always destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.Reuse content