Brilliant madness. If two words can attempt to convey the sheer avalanche of conflicting emotions that swept Tyneside yesterday, then these will have to suffice. At 4.12pm, those supporters who subscribe to the Newcastle United text alert service were sent a message from the club that read: "Kevin Keegan is returning to Newcastle United as manager, more to follow." Five minutes later anyone trying to use their mobile phone to pass that on found "network busy". Keegan is back. They were agog on the Tyne.
"More to follow" has to be one of the biggest understatements in football. Elsewhere, up and down the land and particularly at Fulham, Manchester City and in Soho Square, heads will have been scratched and scepticism immediately stated; but here, where the queues for the FA Cup tie against Stoke City started lengthening around five o'clock, it makes illogical sense. By 6.30 the demand was so great that the kick-off was put back 15 minutes.
St James' Park had been expected to hold around 27,000 last night and by kick-off it was nearing its 52,000 capacity. Those are some 25,000 reasons why Keegan returning to Newcastle for a third time is justifiable. If football is about emotion, passion and human relationships, then Keegan – who left his Soccer Circus coaching school in Glasgow to return to Tyneside – and Newcastle are made for each other. If football is about tactics, then Sam Allardyce, Keegan's predecessor, was at the wrong club.
Keegan's captain during the gloriously entertaining mid-Nineties, Robert Lee, encapsulated that special relationship last night when he said: "You do have to know the area, the people and Kevin knew that. He belongs."
One week on from Allardyce's surprise dismissal, this was a shock. Keegan had featured prominently in the betting and came top of a poll in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, with 42 per cent. Yet because of the hush that had descended on St James', because of the Harry Redknapp dalliance and the noise that was emanating from Blackburn about Mark Hughes, and from France about Didier Deschamps and Gérard Houllier, there was little sense of momentum about Keegan. Suddenly people were guessing about a backroom staff that is likely to include Terry McDermott and possibly Peter Beardsley. But there was nothing official early last night.
The club had repeatedly stated that they were searching for "experience" but if there was to be a sentimental element to Newcastle's decision-making, then Alan Shearer seemed a more plausible candidate simply because he so obviously wanted the post.
But the "lift-off" that Newcastle's new owner, Mike Ashley, wants was being planned without Shearer, whom Keegan bought for £15m in 1996. That was a world-record transfer fee then and was striking evidence of just how far Keegan had taken the club in just over four years. Newcastle were second from bottom of what is now the Championship when Keegan took over from Ossie Ardiles in February 1992. Keegan was 41 then, he is 56 now and has been out of management since leaving Manchester City in 2005. He had already had one stint as a player.
This is his third coming.
All three are gasp-out-loud moments. "It's brilliant, I'm just so excited, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when I heard. Unbelievable, brilliant." Those were the words from Shay Given after he was woken from his pre-match nap yesterday afternoon. "I'm sure the fans think the same. Knowing what he has done in the past here, it's a real coup for the club.
"It will lift the gloom that's been around the place, just what we needed, players and fans.
"Kevin Keegan knows what it means to be here, he loves the club and I don't think an other manager could have lifted the place the same way. And he's Mike Ashley's appointment, he's Mike Ashley's man."
That is crucial. Allardyce was not Ashley's appointment, and his methodology was not in Newcastle's tradition.
Keegan's variety is of the sort Ashley spoke of at the weekend when he said he wanted to build a team who are capable of taking on Manchester United and "walloping" Chelsea. For that the billionaire will have to provide funds.
Keegan is good at spending and his record in the market is better than many say.
"His signings at Newcastle were fantastic," Lee said. "He very rarely wasted money. It will still take him a little while to make this his team, but he will get there. And he will motivate the players already there. No matter whether he is talking to the Queen or a two-year-old boy, Kevin Keegan has it. He has charisma, an aura."
That will be required in one specific area and it is called Michael Owen. Owen did not enjoy his time under Keegan when he was manager of England and was frequently substituted. But Owen is the only man Newcastle have paid more for than Shearer. He is an asset, even if injury has dramatically curtailed his impact.
"He seemed the complete package," Owen wrote of Keegan in his autobiography. "But if it was for some players, it wasn't for me... I assume the manager had conveyed to his staff what he thought of me and plainly it wasn't complimentary. I felt I was being singled out...
"Looking back on the Keegan era, one main feature stands out for me. It made me question my footballing ability for the first time in my life. And, yes, it scarred me. I used to go into games believing that the opposition was scared of me and that nothing could get in my way. That feeling, that belief, evaporated at times when I played under Keegan. Certainly, it was a dark phase in my career. It made me more sensitive and self-protective."
That is a big hurdle for two men who love horses to overcome. It will be Keegan's first test back at St James'.
Once the hullabaloo dies down. If the hullabaloo dies down.
'I just see football for what it is... all about money'
In an interview with Brian Viner in The Independent last March, Kevin Keegan talked about his feelings about modern football and about managing again:
[Would he manage again?] "I don't think so. I never saw myself managing in the first place. I never applied for a job..."
"I just see football for what it is, which is all about money. I find it incredible that a doctor can train for eight years to earn in a year what a footballer earns in a week. And the more they earn, they more remote they get..."
"Only two Premiership teams, Manchester United and Chelsea, can win the title next year, let alone this year. I took Newcastle up and we played our way to third, second, second. That will never happen again in your lifetime..."