Keegan's pride amid the pain

Glenn Moore on the leading runners in the last laps of the football season
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The Independent Online
Judging by Easter Monday's results it is time for Alex Ferguson to find some more mantlepiece space and invest in a new fridge.

Managing the league champions invariably brings the accolade of Manager of the Year and with it a trophy, pounds 7,500 and, since the sponsors are Carling, more lager than Ferguson is ever likely to drink (though he can choose champagne instead).

There is another, more recent managerial award, one which is voted for by their peers. This one takes account of resources as well as results and has so far eluded the boss of the title winners. Instead it has rewarded managers who have prospered on more modest means - Dave Bassett, Joe Kinnear and Frank Clark.

On that basis Harry Redknapp must stand a good chance this season but so, for a change, should the two men whose teams are duelling for the championship, Ferguson and Kevin Keegan.

No one could suggest Keegan has been operating on modest resources, but he has built the most exciting team to watch in many years. Sadly for Newcastle supporters, it increasingly looks as if Keegan's citation will not, however, be for the manner in which his team won the title, but for the way he handled their losing of it.

There are not many managers who, faced with a second crushing last-minute defeat in five days, would have presented such a gracious face to the public. Many would not have presented any kind of face, especially not while the steam was still rising from his players' backs.

Keegan was candid and stoical after the Blackburn defeat. There are some who would prefer him to be cursing and snarling, but it was crystal clear that defeat hurt, that he was only just keeping his emotions in check.

Keegan virtually admitted on Monday night that the title was lost when he began talking about coming second. That may indeed spell the end for Newcastle for, if the great motivator does not believe it is still possible, how can he convince his players?

Yet, as Keegan recognised, Newcastle, despite their loss of form, would still be top if it were not for Manchester United's remarkable recent run.

That they have done so well in what is supposed to be a transitional season is a tribute to Ferguson's judgement and man-management. He has proved he was right to sell Mark Hughes and Paul Ince, and that he could overcome the departure of Andrei Kanchelskis. He has coaxed a young side to within reach of a significant triumph, for they are only likely to get better.

He has also helped Eric Cantona reform himself. The Frenchman is making one of those late runs for an award himself, the Footballer of the Year. His goals have made the difference in each of Manchester United's last six League games, five of which have been won, one drawn. They have included stunning volleys, like the one against Arsenal, and tap-ins, as against Coventry.

Yet, while he has stayed out of trouble since his return, he appears dismissive of the wider responsibilities of his stardom when set against Ruud Gullit's example. The Dutchman has given press and public new insights into the game and, while he will not win a medal this year, think what he could have achieved with Manchester United.

This vote will, however, go to a player who has both made a significant contribution to Manchester United's success and is not scripted by Nike: Peter Schmeichel. If he played for Newcastle, they would still be top.