Keegan has a new gold card

Fulham wave the underdog's life goodbye as a man of pedigree is summoned by the head of Harrods
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The Independent Online
Deep down, you wonder if any self-respecting Fulham fan of long standing and suffering really does welcome Kevin Keegan's arrival. Unlike the Tyne, on the Thames they are more used to worshipping Craven images than a Messiah.

More used to mediocrity, too. The club has a long and proud history of outstanding under-achievement, punctuated by touching, reassuring incompetence. That is now seriously in jeopardy. Will success - which Keegan seems sure to bring - spoil dear old Fulham, always with us but no longer poor?

When I came to London in 1973, Fulham seemed an attractive sort of club for those of the underdog mentality to follow. Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham were just too big. They hardly needed you. The ground was beautifully situated, too; that walk from Putney Bridge through Bishop's Park was the most picturesque in the English game.

Once on the Hammersmith End, there was a charming innocence to the experience, away from the menacing intensity around the big clubs. The nickname of the Cottagers was coined in the days when cruising was of the Carry On rather than the EastEnders variety. Nowhere did you get so many men standing alone watching a team, but not for that reason. It was simply that one knew Fulham-watching was an activity that should not be inflicted on anyone close.

On the field, the tradition was of Tosh; Chamberlain, that is, who once snapped a corner flag with a swinging boot but left the ball undisturbed. Johnny Haynes was an oasis of quality while Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery tore up the script by taking the team to the FA Cup final of 1975, but you didn't really go there for excellence. The telex address of the club used to be "Fulhamish" and everything they did was.

It was a curious feeling 20 years on to be standing on the same patch of terracing talking to Keegan, who was, in those days, bedding in at Hamburg having just helped Liverpool to win the European Cup. Down the years he too has been naturally attracted to lame ducks but in his case they have tended swiftly to take up their down and walk.

The bags under Keegan's eyes had gone and the frustrated look that haunted him last January before he quit Newcastle had given way once more to the open-countenanced enthusiasm that had been evident when he assumed control at St James' Park five years previously.

There, his first action was to have the dressing rooms at the training- ground fumigated. No such drastic move was needed last week at Motspur Park, Fulham's leafy Surrey base and indeed in many ways, Keegan is better off than before. Fulham may be a narcoleptic pygmy compared to Newcastle's sleeping giant but the backing of Mohamed Al Fayed means instant riches rather than promises, which prompted Keegan to threaten resignation after a month at St James'.

"It's a different situation here," Keegan said. "At Newcastle Sir John Hall was not the chairman then, he only had 40 per cent of the club. He made me promises but the chairman and vice-chairman were not there. You can see what this is. Also, at Newcastle, we only had 16 games to keep them in the old Second Division. There is not the same timebomb here. We can have a good look for a month before we decide what to do."

He and Ray Wilkins, the coach he tried to hire several years ago at Newcastle, will take stock of the current staff, he insists, but the buying can be expected to start very soon. It is clearly what Al Fayed wants; the title of Chief Operating Officer suggests that Keegan will be expected to perform surgery.

All sympathise with the sacked Micky Adams, even allowing for a pay-off estimated at pounds 300,000, but it is the name of Keegan, a man unafraid to deal in large sums, which will attract the better players. It is Don Mackay and Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn all over again.

Adams was buying prudently as he sought to move the club patiently through the divisions, but Al Fayed - pounds 30m to buy club and ground and as much again, perhaps, earmarked to reach the Premiership - seeks dramatic deals, it seems. The Harrods' charge card could take a hammering.

One of the contributory factors to Keegan's resignation at Newcastle, as his autobiography may confirm, was the restriction that a plc can place upon a manager. One of the attractions at Fulham, apart from a salary reported to be pounds 500,000 a year, is the autonomy and ability to do deals swiftly.

"When I was at Newcastle, we could move quicker than Manchester United but they can't any more," Keegan said. "It depends on the price. Once you go over a certain amount, as a quoted company, you have to consult by law. At Newcastle we got a lot of players because we were able to move quickly. And we will be able to do that here.

"We'll do what it takes to get players to come here but it won't be done stupidly. It wasn't at Newcastle. If you analyse it there, it's easy to say `oh, he spent pounds 60m.' But we got pounds 20m back, you know, and if you divide by five, it's pounds 8m a year. That's the cost of getting them from the bottom of the old Second Division to the top of the Premiership. That pounds 8m a year invested turned the value of the club from minus pounds 8.5m to what it floated at, pounds 180m."

Shrewdly, Al Fayed has given Keegan a five per cent stake in the club but it is unlikely to restrain him should he decide that money does need throwing. It is fantasy football stuff of the "who-would-you-buy-then?" sort that keeps the game turning.

In the short-term, Fulham are likely to invest in proven Premiership players probably coming to the end of their shelf life but capable of standing out in the Second Division. Wilkins will cover the South, Keegan's faithful retainer Arthur Cox the North as chief scout while Keegan himself will take the global view.

Might that see something exceptional happen, not so outrageous perhaps given the events of the last week? Al Fayed's favourite player is Eric Cantona, who as a boy used to play on the streets of Marseille pretending that he and his brother Joel were Johan Cruyff and Keegan. Such a lucrative challenge might just flatter Cantona's ego. And Fulham have been known, with George Best, to give a No. 7 shirt to an old Manchester United player.

No matter whom Keegan recruits, these will be exciting times in South- west London. Fears that Al Fayed may be some sort of Maxwellian asset- stripper now seem unfounded, even if he is undoubtedly aware of the development potential, in finance and prestige, of both Fulham's riverside location and a Premiership football club.

The main factor will be the relationship between two such strong-minded men. Keegan, a "My Way" sort of character, will hope he is not left singing "What Kind of Fulham I?" He will also have to come to terms with the fact that while attendances may rise with the curious turning up, there are neither the numbers nor the passion of Geordieland in this fashionable part of the capital.

"Keegan hired to bring glory days back to Fulham," one radio station announced last week. You wondered which they were. That Division Three (South) championship of 1932? The League Cup fifth-round place in 1971? In fact, with such a man and such money, glory days will probably, for the first time, be hard to avoid. It is really a question of whether Fulham fans will stand for it.

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