What were the best three minutes of Saturday afternoon at St James' Park? Try 5.10pm to 5.13pm, when Kevin Keegan came out of the tunnel into the gloom of a North-east winter day, his face lit up by the camera flashes, and Geordie rapture all around him. One of those unique moments in English football history that transcends the interminable hype and frequent mediocrity.
Then, unfortunately, the match had to be played.
Had they known what was to follow there may have been a few Newcastle fans who would happily have left then. Who would have folded away their paper crowns adorned with the legend "The return of the King", packed up the Keegan face masks that came free with the local newspaper and headed straight for the exit as the whistle sounded to begin the game. Best to quit while you are ahead. They had seen the afternoon's finest spectacle and from then on it was, quite frankly, all downhill.
When a match that barely warranted comment had finished and Keegan was left to contemplate the remains, conversation very quickly turned to the other key figure in this extraordinary Tyneside football experiment. If this Newcastle team are to be built once again – and at times it looked like a case of Shay Given plus 10 new players – then the owner Mike Ashley's relationship with his new manager will be critical.
However you feel about the wisdom of Keegan's appointment, or wonder at the Geordie public's capacity to be so completely at odds with the thinking of the rest of the population, the truth is that this thing is happening. And if Keegan's second period in charge of Newcastle is to be a success, then he and Ashley will have to form a bond strong enough to withstand a weight of popular opinion to the contrary.
Good news then that Keegan described Ashley as a man with "no ego". It was an interesting description of a man who, as a self-made billionaire at the age of 44, has confounded the financial establishment with his flotation of Sports Direct and its subsequent plummeting share price. But then you speak as you find. Ashley's behaviour suggests an awkward man eager to be loved by Newcastle; Keegan is the man beloved of Newcastle who has been rather too eager to be awkward in the past.
This is how Keegan saw Ashley: "We've got a fantastic owner here. He's given us a lot of responsibility now and we've got to make sure we encourage him to stay in this for the real long haul. If we're successful, he will and we don't want to do anything that makes him despondent. That's the challenge for us. People like him don't turn up at a football club every day of the week. He's incredible. He's got no ego, he wants to go in with the fans and that's fantastic in some ways and he trusts you to get on with it. Let's hope we can repay that trust and faith he's got in us."
All very cordial, but there seemed to be a subtext to Keegan's words that if Ashley does not like what happens at Newcastle, he will be gone as quickly as he arrived. Unlike the new owners of other great English football clubs, it is not immediately clear what is in it for Ashley. He does not live in fear of Vladimir Putin cracking down on retailers of competitively priced tracksuits. Nor does he seek reinstatement as head of an Asian state's government. He has more reason than any other to cut and run.
So first for Keegan this week will be finding out exactly what it is Ashley wants and then delivering it to the man who wore a Newcastle replica jersey emblazoned with "King Kev" on Saturday. "I've never met anyone like Mike, he's definitely different, but I really like him," Keegan said "Even if I didn't meet him again, I would say the same. He's very unassuming, he's got no ego. You're used to dealing with egos in this game, all over the place, not just with chairmen and owners. If we get this place going, we will have the best owner in this country. I say that: the best. But it's an 'if' until we get it going."
After Saturday, Keegan will at least have clearer ideas about what is required to make Newcastle tick. In yet another memorable explanation of his duties Keegan said that he could "help put the smile back on people's faces". "They trust me," he said. "I've been here as a player and they've seen that I care. I don't have to kiss the badge. That's something you can't manufacture. They know I'll look after their club. I did last time as a player and a manager and I will this time."
So what did he learn on Saturday about a team placed 12th in the Premier League? It is no revelation to say that Stephen Carr, Jose Enrique, David Rozenhal and Claudio Cacapa are not up to the job. But those are not the hard decisions. The hard ones involve players like Michael Owen and Damien Duff, two men who were still luminaries when Keegan was last managing in the Premier League but now seemed bereft of their pace and, in the latter's case, his confidence.
Owen is certainly no captain, as he was made on Saturday. He could barely raise his own chin, let alone the spirits of those around him. Keegan bolstered Duff as much as he could but this Newcastle team are dreadfully short of pace, which is a sad thing to say about the Irishman who was brilliant against Barcelona when Chelsea beat them 4-2 at Stamford Bridge less than three years ago. What Keegan needs to answer honestly is whether Duff can still do now what he did that night.
For Given, James Milner, Stephen Taylor, Charles N'Zogbia and Shola Ameobi there is certainly hope. Ditto the nine players who were missing on Saturday. The rest is up to Keegan.
As for Bolton? A footnote on this page of history but well-organised with a five-man midfield. Gary Megson has two bids in, one for a striker to replace Nicolas Anelka. Keegan's rebuilding task, you suspect, will be rather more extensive.Reuse content