Magpies' faltering pursuit of silver

As the fog descends on Keegan's Tyneside football revival, Ian Potts senses the mounting anxiety at St James' Park
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The Independent Online
Tyneside is in turmoil. A glimpse at the letters page of the local papers will tell you as much. From Worried of Wallsend to Cynical of south Gosforth, the fear is that Newcastle have blown it. Not just with a pop and a splutter, either, but with a bloody great 12-point bang.

They blame the shortage of service to Les Ferdinand, the loss of balance since the dropping of Keith Gillespie, the tinkering with a winning team and the lack of "bottle" away from home. Funded by pounds 45m of his chairman's personal fortune, Kevin Keegan has taken the credit for Newcastle United's four-year voyage of discovery. This season, as he well knows, a mere Uefa Cup place would be no consolation.

"Nothing in life comes easy, and I've always said the first trophy will be the hardest to get in," he noted recently, drawing on the experience of his own playing days at Anfield. "But I promise you, once it does come in it will be like a magnet, and the others will come thick and fast."

It is that belief which drives both Keegan and his benefactor, Sir John Hall, and which makes the winning of Newcastle's first major championship since 1927 all the more crucial. Where once there was talk of the treble, now there is not much talk at all.

Usually the most eloquent and obliging of managers, Keegan has taken to slipping silently away from the team's Durham training base or, as he did for the week leading up to Manchester United's recent visit, barring the press all together.

Last weekend's post-match volley after the horror show at Highbury, where he named the guilty men - Ferdinand, Asprilla, Beardsley, Ginola and Lee - was wholly out of character for one renowned for his affability.

Alone among his peers, he is happy to talk up the club's long-term projections, in the belief that it spreads self-confidence. Where others are loath to back their chances of winnings so much as the toss, the 3-0 beating of West Ham was evidence enough for Keegan to claim his side would have a genuine chance of winning next year's Champions' League. The inherent danger with raising expectations to such a height is that there is an awfully long way to fall, and an awful lot of fans to take down with him.

What has deepened Tyneside's anxiety is the re-emergence of Sunderland, who many assumed were condemned to drift forever in the dead-Endsleigh League after their failure to capitalise on the top flight ticket gifted by Swindon's misdemeanours in 1990. For the Magpies to miss out completely, while the dreaded "Mackems" lift the First Division title on a budget roughly equating to Sir John's loose change, would be torture indeed.

One accusation regularly hurled Keegan's way is that he values his purchases way above any of the locals: Tynesiders Steve Watson, whose late goals proved decisive in the season's two previous encounters with Liverpool, Lee Clark and Robbie Elliott were all first-teamers before his return, yet are now peripheral figures.

It is a common trait with managers who feel they must justify their expenditure, and Keegan has spent more than most. So far, in exchange for nothing more than the old First Division championship.

The one Geordie assured of his place is Peter Beardsley, who, the heretics suggest, is finally showing signs of fallibility. Judging by his omission at Wembley last week, Terry Venables has noticed it too. Out of position and out of sorts, "Peter Pan" has increasingly resembled one of the Lost Boys. For Keegan, the fairy-tale is turning distinctly Grimm.