Today, after a week at the top of the Premiership with five wins in five games, Keegan's Newcastle are the focal point of perhaps the most enthralling start to an English season in living memory. Bathed in the afterglow of a delirious re-entry into Europe on Tuesday night, averaging four goals a game in all competitions and quite unable to satisfy the demand for seats in their imposing pounds 20m stadium, they look like the symbol of what English football ought to be: an entertaining and economically viable blend of tradition and innovation, giving pleasure and pride back to the people of their city.
Fifty of those people had turned up that morning at Durham University's sports ground in Maiden Castle, where, drenched by squally showers, they watched Keegan's team going through their usual training session. At most Premiership clubs, such events are held in private. Keegan throws open the gates so that any fan may park the family Escort next to Barry Venison's Porsche Carrera or Ruel Fox's BMW Cabriolet and watch as the players go through their routines.
'A lot of clubs wouldn't do it,' Keegan said later. 'But I think in the North-east, and Newcastle in particular, when they can't get into the matches, how else can they see their heroes? It's a pain in the backside some days, but the players have accepted it. If you're Andy Cole, these are the people who buy your Reebok boots. And for the young lads coming in, it's become the norm. That's the way it is. I can do things here that other clubs might think would be crazy.'
The promotion of this freewheeling if-it-feels-good mood is one of several ways in which the mid-life Keegan is turning out to be a bit of a surprise packet. We may have thought we had him pegged as a footballing cross between Noel Edmonds and Cliff Richard, unburdened by substance and free from the effects of age. But now, at 43, the blandness is beginning to weather. Just as the perm-and-flares image is slowly mutating into something more urbane, so his achievements at Newcastle are adding an undercurrent of meaning to that familiar puppyish eagerness.
In two and a half years, he says, 'we've overtaken a lot of clubs that were superior to us - playing-wise, business-wise, revenue-wise. We've just got to keep it going. OK, you're going to have little stumbles along the way. But we've got to make a lot of mistakes to lose the momentum we've built up.'
If there is a single key to that momentum, it is probably the relationship between Keegan and his chairman, Sir John Hall, the property developer who built the MetroCentre, in Gateshead, and then, in retirement, fought a bitter and protracted war to take control of St James' Park. What the chairman and his manager have in common is more than a love of football. Sir John, 61, may be a millionaire who spends his spare time lovingly restoring Wynyard Hall, the former home of the Marquess of Londonderry, while Keegan still speaks with the broad accent of his birthplace, a village outside Doncaster. But a generation back, their fathers were both Newcastle miners.
'Keegan's grandfather was born in Stanley,' Sir John said last week, remembering that Stanley was the original name of Newcastle United, 113 years ago. The manager's roots in the area go deeper than the two years he spent as a Newcastle player in the early Eighties, before helicoptering away from St James' Park to Marbella, where he spent eight years playing golf while the football club sank back into chaos.
When he returned as manager on 5 February 1992, Newcastle were next to bottom of the old Second Division and it was the only kind of challenge that interested him. 'I wanted to take a sick club and make it better,' Keegan said. 'It's always easier to raise something from the ashes. To take on what Graeme Souness or Roy Evans have faced at Liverpool is probably more difficult. Here, things couldn't have got any worse. I wanted to be a football doctor. And that's what I was for three months - I was asked to come and cure a very sick patient.'
Although Newcastle were pounds 6m in debt, Sir John had offered him a three-year contract. 'I said, 'What's the point of that? Because if we go down . . .' So I took it as a consultancy, on a basic wage for the three months to the end of the season, doubled if we stayed up. We battled our way out. Then I said that this club should never put the supporters and the good name of Newcastle United in that position again.'
Now Keegan is 18 months into a 10-year contract, during which Sir John plans to lift the club to a place among the new European elite. 'Other chairmen will disagree,' Sir John said, 'but when you've got managers on two-year and three- year contracts, they can only afford to concentrate on the first team. Getting Keegan on a 10- year contract enables us to plan the long-term strategy.'
Success under the new manager has lifted Newcastle's turnover from pounds 5m a year to pounds 20m. The debt is still there, but now the assets - the playing staff, the stadium - are worth something. Keegan has bought and sold well, turning Andrew Cole, Robert Lee, Ruel Fox, Barry Venison, Philippe Albert and Marc Hottiger into familiar names, while restoring Peter Beardsley to his rightful creative eminence. Sir John and his chief executive, Freddie Fletcher, have looked after the bricks and mortar. Next month they will announce the building of a new training centre and soccer academy, complete with a department of sports medicine and science - the next stage in Sir John's dream of turning Newcastle United into an institution fit to rival Barcelona and Milan in the forthcoming European super-league.
Keegan, though, is his most important investment. 'He never ceases to amaze me,' Sir John said. 'He's a thinker, he's a great motivator, he's a good PR man, and above all he wants to win. He gets the best out of people - and in industry, if you find someone like that you go along with them. It's a quality not a lot of people have got. I haven't got it. And when you've got people's respect, they'll do anything for you. He gets qualities out of people they didn't even know they had. Andy Cole, for instance, is developing into quite a different player.'
For all Keegan's white-on- white image and Sir John's sentimental attachment to the history of a ground he first visited as an eight-year-old, what they share is a businessman's toughness. The proceeds of Keegan's playing career and his own ventures into property gave him independence. So both of them know that they can walk away, which allows them to call each other's bluff. 'Life's a compromise,' Sir John observed. 'I compromised on Beardsley. I thought he was too old, and that the money Keegan wanted for him was going down the drain. I'm learning all the time, he's learning all the time. We're both relative newcomers to the business of football.'
Keegan's soft exterior can now be seen to hide a hard streak of ambition, pursued with great shrewdness. 'I always tell the players, you've led this success, you've built this stadium - not Sir John Hall, not me,' Keegan said. 'Because by your performance on the pitch you've given people the confidence to come and buy executive boxes, to buy bonds, to buy Platinum Club memberships, to buy turf from the pitch . . . you've given them it. People don't remember the president, they don't remember the manager. But they remember the players. And I've said to them, if you want to be remembered as a really good side, you've got to win something.
'I want it to be a big club. It still could be bigger. Marc and Philippe coming here is good because a Swiss journalist comes over and tells me that nobody knows Newcastle in Switzerland. I told him, 'Well, you will.' So I said to the lads in Antwerp the other night, 'Journalists are coming over and asking who Newcastle United are. Let's go and show them.' Now, five-nil, suddenly a few more people will see that. Then they look at the English league and they see that Manchester United are below you, and Liverpool, and Arsenal . . .'
Antwerp made Newcastle United the flavour of the week, but the five goals may have deluded casual admirers into a belief that Keegan just sends his players out to attack in a mood of careless rapture. 'I was wary of Europe, for some reason,' he reflected. 'People were saying, 'Europe's different.' All sorts of things go through your mind. We don't throw tactics out of the window, but at the end of the day I always come back to the same thing. I think, hold on, I didn't sign Peter Beardsley to tell him to track back. I didn't sign Ruel Fox to ask him to play any different from the way he did at Norwich. Or Robert Lee - I bought him because he's a talent. Or Barry Venison. I'm not going to ask them to change. Five-nil proved to me that Europe's no different to any other game of football. You go out and play and you take people on and you challenge them to play football, and if you're better than them and you have a bit of luck, you get your reward.'
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