Keegan's game of treble chance

FA Cup third round: Newcastle's manager stresses importance of knockout opportunities as cover for the championship
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THE memory of last season's anti-climactic conclusion has clearly not faded for Kevin Keegan. There was still a Uefa Cup place to play for, but as a former Liverpool player accustomed to the gleam of silverware in his eye, Keegan knew the real moment had gone. "It was just so gloomy coming into training," he recalled last week. "You tried to pretend that it meant something but it didn't."

Miserable memories can be motivation anew, and so far this season they have been for Keegan and Newcastle. There was the renewed vigour of the summer transfer dealings, all pounds 15m worth, to be followed by a doubly determined championship campaign - until that defeat at Manchester United 11 days ago brought back some of the doubts.

What would be the response? The answer was the remarkably assured performance against Arsenal in midweek as Newcastle showed disdain for the most respected defence in the Premiership, the two-goal margin of victory half what it might have been. Those fallow days at their Durham training ground must remain a powerful incentive.

They will need to maintain that incentive over the next four days for two matches which should be the ties of the round in their respective competitions. They play Chelsea in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge today and Arsenal at Highbury in the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday, matches which represent insurance for a club that now needs a trophy as proof of its expensive revival.

Clearly the championship remains the priority, and recent evidence suggests that it will find a place on Tyneside after an absence of 69 years. Prima facie, there is Keegan's service record. Though it took Alex Ferguson seven years to assemble a title-winning team for Manchester United, George Graham, Howard Wilkinson and Kenny Dalglish brought titles to Arsenal, Leeds and Blackburn respectively after three full seasons of team-building. This is Keegan's third full season.

Then there are the three years when the top division last featured 38 games, in 1988-89, 1989-90 and 1990-91. Arsenal won the first - after their memorable last-night 2-0 win at Anfield - on goal difference over Liverpool with 76 points. The following season it was Liverpool with 79, nine clear; then Arsenal, who lost only one match, with 83, seven clear. It suggests that 78 should be enough and Newcastle have 48 from 21 matches, leaving 17 games to accumulate 30.

"So it's you I have to blame if we don't win the title with 78 points," Keegan said when the scenario was put to him. Briefly he enjoyed the frisson in the prospect but soon dismissed it from his mind. "The danger is that two teams will go on a run. And with three teams going down from a smaller league, suddenly more of the teams lower down the table are going to be coming at you full tilt."

Liverpool may indeed sustain their current run but who else is close enough? Manchester United, it seemed, had re-asserted themselves with that 2-0 win over Newcastle, but their thin squad and their understandably inconsistent youth were quickly exposed at Tottenham on Monday. Had they won, the gap would have been one point. Twenty-four hours later it was seven again.

More than any statistics, it was Newcastle's attitude and approach against Arsenal that convinced. "Old Trafford was just a real bad day at the office," Keegan said. "Had we played well and got beaten I might have been more more worried. People had a pop at us and we deserved it, but for me it was just one to forget. It probably did us good me not having a go, not dwelling on it, not punishing them." An example of Keegan's man-management skills.

There was also an example of Keegan's developing reputation for having the Midas touch, which may yet see him as England's manager. In response to John Beresford's suspension and Keith Gillespie's injury, Keegan brought the surprisingly fit Philippe Albert back to the left side of a three- man defence, thus augmenting a back line that had looked vulnerable when Newcastle's midfield ceded its customary control.

In addition, Warren Barton was pushed forward on the right, Peter Beardsley withdrawn into midfield and Paul Kitson restored. Naturally it all worked, with Kitson linking well even if he finished feebly.

"It got everyone sparked off," Keegan said. "They thought 'Hey, I've got a different job to do tonight. I'll have to think about this'. You have to be adaptable to be a Newcastle player. These days, all the teams watch each other live on TV; we seem to eat, drink and live with each other. There are odd times when you have to deal a hand they are not expecting to see, providing you are not too clever and the players know what they are doing."

For that reason the neutral should feel no embarrassment at seeing Newcastle represent England in the Champions' League next season. They may not yet quite have the panache of Manchester United's Eric Cantona-inspired Double team of 1993-94 (which struggled without Cantona in Europe) but it arrives apace. In the same way that if Cantona didn't get you then Giggs, Kanchelskis or Hughes would, so it is with Ginola and Ferdinand, Beardsley or Lee.

Keegan still has money to bring in more, upwards of pounds 5m. "I don't have a massive squad but I've got a quality squad," he said. "I really would like to strengthen it but it is getting increasingly difficult to find better players available than I have got. It's been an easy job up to now but not any longer. It's probably a sign that we are near where I want us to be."

But first things first, and cup runs will help fuel and finance the ambitions, not least the reported pounds 150,000 per player as bonus for winning the Premiership. Have the lessons been learned from the recent 1-0 league defeat at Chelsea when a sweeper and wing-back system stifled Ferdinand and clipped Newcastle's wings?

"The chief lesson was that if you drop your standards you don't win," Keegan said. "We have got to play better in front of their defence, where we can set problems for them and dominate them. I'm looking for us to be a lot more inventive, to create more pressure and chances. I'm looking for normal service to be resumed." And when the circus comes to town again on Wednesday, he expects the lions and tigers to look more dangerous outside their own den.

"These two matches are certainly not distractions," Keegan said. "They are games we want to win and are capable of winning. We have three trophies to contest this season and by the end of the week I want it to still be that way."

Subconsciously, might the players feel that there is always the league to "concentrate on" if they do lose? "I don't think so," Keegan replied. "Because the competition for places is so strong now, they know that if they don't play well they will be out." As with all at the top of their professions, there is an iron fist within a velvet glove.

It is one of many reasons why the manager is so loved on Tyneside, even by those who berated him for selling Andy Cole but now see his sense; certainly by the revellers keeping us city centre hotel occupants awake in the early hours of Wednesday morning lamenting that there's only one Kevin Keegan.

But in football love does not always conquer all. One detects from Keegan's views on the cup matches, from his memories of last May, and from the signs of his upbringing in Yorkshire where you get nowt for coming second, that football without trophies would not be the same to him. However, the senses, reinforced by some strong evidence, suggest that this is an affair about to be fulfilled. ( Graphic omitted )