How dare he leave without our derision

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to one Newcastle United fan, losing Kevin Keegan "was worse than if the Queen died". It must be an indictment of the times in which we live that so few eyebrows quivered at the comparison. No doubt, if that distressing event does occur in the lifetime of the present national mood we can expect that within minutes the names of Kenny Dalglish and Ron Atkinson will be among those mentioned in connection with the vacancy.

If one was seeking a more appropriate measurement of the reaction to Keegan's bolt for the blue yonder than the demise of our unfortunate monarch there would be greater meaning in a coupling with the name of Hermann Goering, the bloated Nazi who cheated the hangman after the Nuremberg war-crime trials by biting on a cyanide capsule in his cell.

My older friends tell me that the feeling of outrage at Goering's avoidance of his just deserts was painfully strong. In some ways, the more recent self-destruction of Fred West caused similar emotions among those who were eagerly anticipating his squirming in the dock on those multi-murder charges. The fact that they met awful fates was unimportant. They were not the fates we had in store for them.

What Keegan has done to deserve mention in the same breath as these monsters is that he, too, has contrived a destiny that does not fit our idea of the order of things. Cherubically charismatic he undoubtedly is, and innocent of all but the normal human blemishes he might well be, but there is a firmly established way of leaving a top job in sporting management - either feet first or head first, preferably the latter.

It defies the comprehension of sporting devotees that a manager at the comparatively tender age of 45 should abruptly depart from a top job worth pounds 750,000 and much potential glory for no other destination than peaceful oblivion and for no other reason than because he feels like it. Whereas the initial reaction from most Newcastle fans was of the tearfully bewildered variety, the rest of Britain, as mirrored by the media, bristled with puzzled indignation.

The umbrage almost immediately took the form of vigorous questioning of Keegan's motives. His parting words, to the effect that he had taken the club as far as he could and that his departure was in the best interests of all concerned, were swept aside in the frenzied search for a more acceptable and, inevitably, more sinister explanation. This curiosity was a fertile breeding ground for the swiftly spreading rumours that his resignation was the prelude to some scandalous revelations.

It says little for our sporting demeanour that so many would leap at such ludicrous reasoning. We have no way of coping with the fact that a man dare take his leave of our centre-stage without at least two votes of confidence from his chairman and a baying crowd at his heels.

Similar disbelief greeted Kenny Dalglish's walk-out on Liverpool in 1991; a sudden and unexpected resignation for no other reason than that he had had enough, that he was no longer prepared to subject himself to the intensity of his and our expectations of him. He eventually re-invigorated himself famously at Blackburn Rovers but elected to quit that helm also. There seems little chance that Keegan will be drawn back as Dalglish was once and, perhaps, will be again.

Recent interviews have revealed that Keegan has serious reservations about the demands that are inescapable for any manager who sets out to achieve success in an adventurous manner. He had achieved much in his five years at the club but the elusiveness of major honours had diminished his optimism so much that he felt that the only honourable way was out and the signs are that he has forsaken the charms of management for ever.

If he was deliberating over his future last weekend he would not have been encouraged by the sight of two fellow sporting leaders on the rack. England's rugby coach Jack Rowell and cricket captain Michael Atherton earn a fraction of Keegan's salary but are subjected to far more pressures. Rowell was receiving his flak long before his team steps into the Five Nations arena while Atherton was one of two Englishmen trying to shelter from a battering in the southern hemisphere last week.

Atherton's rescue from the wrecked hull of his England team might be a taller order than that of Tony Bullimore but I trust I am part of a growing band who are hoping that the England captain will yet confound his critics. There can be no denying that he and his team under-achieved in Zimbabwe to an alarming degree. They went there in the full expectation of nonchalantly improving their averages and were clobbered by a team of appealing talent and character.

Having taken their lumps, Atherton and his men are now entitled to a break from the snidery while they try to make amends in New Zealand. Some of the stuff written about them has been appallingly over-reactive. Sabotage, treason and a lack of moral fibre were among the more mild impeachments. I haven't heard about it but the annual sports-writing awards must contain the new category of Denouncement of the Year.

While we continue to berate those who fail to make us feel more proud of ourselves, I would like to recommend that Keegan and those of a like disposition take note of last week's appointment of Howard Wilkinson as the Football Association's first technical director. At a reported salary of pounds 200,000 a year, Wilkinson has the task of improving the standard of English football from schoolboy level upwards. That's the sort of nebulous job to go for. No points, goal difference, groin strains, chairmen or supporters to worry about; just a vague impression of a standard that'll take years to gauge.

This is not a criticism of Wilkinson or his new job. He has laboured as a manager and coach for almost 25 years. It is good for him to use his experience in this way. But I feel that if we are ever to change the way we approach the game, the move will have to be led by the clubs and we who support them. This is the source of the game's force and only from there can reformation stem.

It will happen only if we can lift our heads from the rat-race and liberate managers of Keegan's calibre from the urge to flee the unequal struggle of trying to satisfy the discordant appetites of this land of ours.

CONGRATULATIONS to the BBC for bringing Tim Henman's victory over Goran Ivanisevic to our screens on Friday afternoon. I was beginning to think that the channel that considers itself the home of tennis had neglected to notice that Henman had been for some weeks showing all the signs of being the Messiah we awaited for so many years.

I thought they were waiting until he came within closer range of White City but lo, they caught up with him in Sydney last week. About time, too. Had the Three Wise Men been as slow off the mark we wouldn't be celebrating Christmas until February.

JOCKEYS are soon to be fitted with miniature television cameras in their helmets so that we can be treated to a view of horse races in grand prix style. I look forward to this being followed up with an anal version so that I can keep an eye on the ones I've bet on.