Wor Jackie's sidekick seeks end to the Fifty Year Hitch

Unwanted anniversary: Keeble recalls the wondrous days of an era which is a millstone for successive managers

It just so happened that Graeme Souness had been on the radio that very lunchtime, speaking of the mounting burden of Newcastle United's now historical failure on the trophy front. Sitting in the dining room of his house in Earls Colne, near Colchester, the highly affable Vic Keeble was highly amused to learn that the future Newcastle manager was three days short of his second birthday when the Magpies last captured a major domestic prize.

It just so happened that Graeme Souness had been on the radio that very lunchtime, speaking of the mounting burden of Newcastle United's now historical failure on the trophy front. Sitting in the dining room of his house in Earls Colne, near Colchester, the highly affable Vic Keeble was highly amused to learn that the future Newcastle manager was three days short of his second birthday when the Magpies last captured a major domestic prize.

Keeble was 24 when he led the Newcastle forward line at Wembley on the day in question: 3 May, 1955. It was the same week that publicity shots were released of Marilyn Monroe standing above a New York air vent. "Yeah, the one where her skirt lifted," Keeble said, recalling the celebrated scene from The Seven Year Itch.

If Newcastle are to sustain any hope of preventing their quest for domestic silverware becoming a Fifty Year Hitch, they will have to overcome Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in the fifth round of the FA Cup at St James' Park this afternoon. It has hardly helped their cause that their less-than-pristine undergarments have been exposed in public of late, although Newcastle were hardly United before they beat Manchester City in the FA Cup final of 1955.

When Duggie Livingstone, the manager, was invited to present his teamsheet at a board meeting, it was swiftly crumpled and consigned to a wastepaper basket in the County Hotel. The name of Jackie Milburn had been conspicuously absent from it. "We were all flabbergasted when the manager read out the team to us," Keeble recalled. "I think the board had a lot to say about it in the end."

Indeed, they did. The directors picked their own team, with Keeble still at centre-forward but with Milburn included at inside-right. Livingstone was banished from the manager's office at St James' Park and, after the final, was sent to work with the junior team.

The rest is history - or has become so on Tyneside. Directly from the kick-off at Wembley, Newcastle won a corner on the right. The Manchester City defenders rushed to the far post to mark the towering Keeble. Milburn, unmarked at the near post, headed Newcastle into the lead with 45 seconds on the clock. George Hannah and Bobby Mitchell scored the other goals in a 3-1 victory - Newcastle's third FA Cup final win in five seasons. In the 49 seasons since, their only first-class success has come in European competition, in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969.

Keeble scored five goals in the earlier rounds. Now 74, he still cuts a striking, athletic figure. Widowed a year ago, he is deeply devoted to his six children - among them Chris, who played in the Ipswich youth team with Kieron Dyer before injury cut short his playing career at Colchester. Sadly, he has also come to mourn the loss of an increasing number of his Cup final team-mates. Only one of them, Tommy Casey, is still alive.

"It's difficult to believe that there's only the two of us left now," Keeble lamented. "I saw Ronnie Simpson in London a couple of years ago and he looked really well. I was shocked last year when I heard he'd died. He was a lovely lad. There were some really nice guys in that side."

There were some really notable football folk in it too: Simpson, who went on to keep goal in Celtic's European Cup-winning side of 1967; Bob Stokoe, who played at half-back that day and returned to Wembley in 1973 to manage Sunderland to their fairytale FA Cup final win; and Milburn, of course - the great "Wor Jackie", whose double-century of goals for Newcastle remains beyond Alan Shearer's reach, whose statue stands on St James' Boulevard, and whose name is borne by the main stand at St James' Park.

Milburn was already established as a local hero in 1952 when Keeble, who had represented the Eastern Counties as a rugby union fly-half, signed for Newcastle from his hometown team, Colchester United. It was a testament to Keeble's effectiveness as a striker that he eventually wrested the No 9 shirt from Milburn, whose pace as a one-time contender in the classic Powderhall Sprint became increasingly utilised on the right wing.

Contemporary descriptions of the pair invariably refer to "the dashing Milburn" and "the rugged Keeble". "That's true," Keeble acknowledged. "I could score goals - I did for Colchester, Newcastle and West Ham - but I was a bit more of a where-angels-fear-to-tread man, in the thick of the penalty area. Jack could hit 'em from anywhere. He was a lovely guy and a wonderful player. He could turn a game in a flash.

"He had terrific pace, so he would create a lot of things as well - like Bellamy, with his pace. Bellamy's not the best finisher in the world, but he creates a few things, doesn't he?"

Craig Bellamy certainly does - not least the kind of furore that led to his hasty departure to Celtic three weeks ago. "Well, it must be very difficult for the manager these days," Keeble mused, reflecting on Bellamy's refusal to shift on to the right wing of the Magpies as graciously as Milburn. "How can you tell players what to do when they're millionaires? You can drop them, but their attitude could still be, 'So what? I'm still earning my £30,000, or whatever'."

The most Keeble earned in a week in his Newcastle playing days was £14. "We got a £25 bonus for winning the FA Cup," he added. You could attach at least three noughts per man to that figure if the present Newcastle side were to turn this year's final into a 50th anniversary cele-bration - assuming, that is, they can first manage to narrow Mourinho's adopted domestic sights to matching Chelsea's lone title success of 1955 and winning the Carling Cup final.

"Things haven't been going well for Newcastle," Keeble acknowledged, "but I do think the players they have are good enough to beat Chelsea. Perhaps they need a game like this to lift them." And to start lifting the burden of 50 long years, he might well have added.

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