Keegan's difficult decision

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The Independent Online
On television the other night, disgruntled supporters of Newcastle United were shown confronting Kevin Keegan over the transfer of Andy Cole to Manchester United.

It was an extraordinary scene, requiring courage on Keegan's part, and, in my experience, without precedent. I have acted in the best interests of this club, is more or less what Keegan was saying.

In their dealings with supporters, it was once a habit of football managers to employ what is commonly known as the polite brush-off. Fully aware of the fate evident in statistics and the susceptibility of employers to public opinion, they developed a nervous neck twist whenever their decisions were called into question.

Mixing with the customers is not recommended, but in an era of commercial expansion it has to be understood that they expect greater consideration.

"A football club is a marriage of the team and its supporters," the great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, was fond of saying. Shankly's stirring philosophy was evident in many other statements, but probably that was the most important.

It remains a fault of some managers to assume that the game, technically, passeth all but professional understanding.

This was the fundamental weakness in Keegan's attempt to placate the Newcastle supporters. The biliousness with which they regarded the situation was not assauged by his explanation.

Possibly, issues of attitude and proficiency were involved in Cole's sensational departure but, in accordance with tradition, Keegan was not prepared to divulge them.

If nothing else, this gives rise to rumours, one being that Keegan and Cole were incompatible. Another is that Cole was disturbed by racist experiences in the locality.

Whatever Keegan has in mind for the future, and we can be sure this week's decision was not taken lightly, inevitably it is a blow to local pride and aspirations.

Something similar occurred more than 50 years ago when my father's brother, Bryn Jones, was transferred from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £14,000, unofficially a world record.

Apparently, it led to a serious disturbance at Molineux, where Bryn was a great favourite. On receiving news of his pending departure, supporters advanced on the ground, threatening to uproot the goalposts.

In persuading Newcastle to part with Cole, thus importantly increasing the complement of English-born players, Manchester United have further emphasised the extent of their economic authority.

Only Blackburn Rovers, due to Jack Walker's patronage, can hope to compete with them. It is no longer a competitive market.

As history shows, relations between supporters and Newcastle have been subject to frequent emotional disturbance. Keegan countered this excitingly with astute signings and a team method that drew widespread commendation. However carefully considered, Cole's departure may have restored the old order of things.

It is anybody's guess how all this will work out for Manchester United. Though Cole has been unsuccessful of late, they have signed a goalscorer of proven ability, but how do they intend to fit him into the wider scheme of things? Will Alex Ferguson demand more than Cole has been in the habit of giving?

Not even a remarkable strike rate can persuade some people in football to go along with the view that Cole is a superior talent. In his role as an England scout, Malcolm Allison has expressed serious doubts about him.

In their disappointment, this will be of no concern to Newcastle's supporters. Thrillingly, last year they saw him surpass Hughie Gallacher's record of 40 goals in a season. They had grown to speak of him in the same breath as Jackie Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald. He stirred their imagination. Recent lapses were easily forgiven.

In the absence of a more detailed explanation, they are left to ponder Keegan's judgement. Possibly, he arrived at the correct conclusion. But he will have a tough time proving it.