Keegan in danger of cracking under the strain

Glenn Moore on the winners and losers in the Premiership's psychologica l war

Alex Ferguson was not saying much yesterday, but the Manchester United manager did not need to. The title race may still be running but, judging by Kevin Keegan's televised outburst on Monday night, the psychological battle has already been won.

The victor is Ferguson, a master of the art after five years of championship run-ins. Keegan, fresh to the pressures and wearing his desire on his sleeve, appears close to cracking under the strain.

It was not just what he said on Monday night after Newcastle's 1-0 win at Leeds, it was the way he said it. His eyes were bright with emotion, his finger jabbed at the camera and his passion was raw and unchecked.

The Newcastle manager appeared to accuse Ferguson of provoking Leeds' bold performance on Monday by comments he made after Leeds lost at Manchester United the previous week. He then appeared to link Ferguson with rumours that Nottingham Forest were prepared to let Newcastle win their vital Premiership clash tomorrow in return for being the opposition for Stuart Pearce's testimonial next week. The rumours were vehemently dismissed by Frank Clark, the Nottingham Forest manager.

Ferguson did accuse Leeds players of "cheating" their manager after their efforts at Old Trafford. His remarks were widely interpreted as an attempt to ensure Leeds were as committed against Newcastle as they were against Manchester United.

But he has not made any public comment about Newcastle's match with Nottingham Forest, or made representations behind the scenes. That accusation has, privately, angered Ferguson, but his overall mood on hearing Keegan must have been one of quiet satisfaction.

While Ferguson is equally passionate about the game, and prone to outbursts, there is often a calculated air about them - which is not to say his sentiments are not genuine, just that he knows how, and when, to express them.

Keegan is still learning this game. A few weeks ago he won widespread admiration for the magnanimous way he took the last-minute defeat at Liverpool, and the equanimity he showed in similar circumstances at Blackburn. But, in recent weeks, the great communicator has gone to ground, talking at length only to a tabloid newspaper, which pays him handsomely. His anxiety and his distress at the prospect of losing a championship Newcastle had in their hands at Christmas, cannot help but communicate itself to the players.

After Manchester City, a club facing pressures of a different kind, won at Aston Villa on Saturday, Alan Ball stressed how important it was for the manager to seem in control. "The top man has to be strong," he said. "You have to handle these situations. The players are looking to you. If you have an Achilles heel, if there is the slightest hint of desperation, they will pick up on it."

There is more than the slightest hint of it about Keegan. His reliance on motivation rather than tactics, coupled with his present mood - his parting shot on Monday was, "I tell yer, I'll love it if we beat them, love it" - brings fear that his next pre-match talk will be more Ally MacLeod than Bill Shankly.

Before then, he has a decision to make which will require a cool head. David Ginola is available tomorrow. Keegan has said he will play, but does he drop Faustino Asprilla, his expensive misfit, or Keith Gillespie, Monday's matchwinner?

A similar choice faced another manager on Sunday. He dropped the big signing and reaped the harvest. But, somehow, you suspect Keegan will not be calling Old Trafford for advice.

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