The first warning signs and the last interview

THE KEEGAN AFFAIR Newcastle says farewell to an inspirational leader who harboured strong reservations about flotation plans; Ian Ridley fears for the future as national game plays hostage to finance

LAST SEASON Kevin Keegan was overtaken by United; this time around it begins to look as if he has been undermined by the City. It has been one of those weeks when you fear for football.

Many reasons have been advanced for Keegan's sudden, if not totally surprising, departure from St James' Park last week after four years and 11 months as manager and messiah who took Newcastle out of the mess. There were private matters, family considerations and the health of his wife; the board's refusal to sanction more signings, a strained relationship with his chairman Sir John Hall; even that his hair, once black and white as if to show commitment to the club, was now just white due to the pressure of it all. Actually, while all probably contain some truth, it is undoubtedly down more to a grey area.

Money and the need to accumulate more of it, as might be expected in modern matters Premiership, is at the root. Newcastle have seen what Manchester United have achieved by public flotation; it was the way to compete, physically and fiscally, they surmised. Keegan had his doubts, as he told me in probably his last one-to-one interviews a month ago.

"I think we will look back on these last five years as the most exhilarating in the club's history," he said. "With going public, a signing like Alan Shearer's may never happen again. It may be the way we match and maybe beat Manchester United but we might lose something else. You have shareholders to answer to, permission to get. At the moment we have an edge in things like that. We can take a decision and get on with achieving it."

That was proving increasingly difficult, however, with flotation imminent. In the spend, spend, spend days, Keegan could sit down with Sir John at Wynyard Hall over a drink and convince him of his need for a new player. After an episode in his first month when he was refused and threatened to resign, Keegan received the carte blanche to do things his way.

With Sir John now more occupied with other areas of his Sporting Club empire, his son Douglas becoming increasingly influential, it probably began to seem to Keegan that it was more end of empire, that the exciting, pioneering days were coming to a close. My way? More likely the chairman of the plc's way.

Getting to speak to Keegan that week said much about the changed face of Newcastle. Faxes and phone calls to press officers and secretaries yielded only obstructions. Finally, frustrated by official channels, I tried the mobile phone number Keegan had given me in the days before the perm turned, when he felt less wearied by the demands of the job. On contact, he was as honest as his naturally open character had always made him, as if forgetting for a moment that he was not supposed to be so accommodating these days. On reflection, though, there was wistfulness rather than enthusiasm in his voice.

Now, this correspondent's mind inevitably wanders back to Keegan's first match in charge, against Bristol City at St James' Park on 8 February 1992, when the Cheviot Hills were alive with the sound of music to the ears of Geordies at the return of the man once called football's Julie Andrews.

Newcastle has always been a hotbed of the game, though then it was a hotbed of nails. A rousing 3-0 win promised relegation to the old Third Division would be avoided, even if that promise was only just kept on the last day of the season. After it, all freshness and vitality, Keegan leapt into the press conference with a single bound. "This is the first letter of the first word of the title of the book," he said.

There were heady nights in the subsequent narrative. One recalls a 5- 0 win in Antwerp when all his attacking ambitions were joyously realised. "Any chance of an interview for Sunday, Kevin?" we asked. "St James', Thursday, all right?" he replied.

Such days and nights disappeared in the desperate disappointment of what followed, when Newcastle were relentlessly, almost cruelly, reeled in by Manchester United in last season's title race. The outburst in reaction to canny Alex Ferguson's psychology, the refusal this season sometimes to speak to the press were out of character. Perhaps Keegan himself realised it and was uncomfortable with the tetchiness gnawing into him.

"You watch. As soon as he gets any criticism, he'll be off," a former Liverpool playing colleague of Keegan's told me two years ago before expectation had overtaken the vibrancy. In many ways, the surprise is that he stayed so long. Criticism clearly did sting, but its spirit may have been overlooked.

You wanted him, as a neutral, to shore up that defence, to rein in only a tad when appropriate, so that last-minute goals at Liverpool would not be conceded and the breathtaking fluency be rewarded with silverware. Sadly, that will not be the legacy, though the rebuilt stadium was built with money his inspirational leadership persuaded fans to part with. Beyond that, we will not forget the charisma and panache - intangibles that do not show up on balance sheets.

For Sir John and his board, though, that is the bottom line. Though it is tempting to impart some blame on them - their reserved statements of appreciation hardly impress, either - Keegan had a deficit of pounds 40m on transfers, roughly the club's debt, which makes the imminent flotation that precipitated Keegan's resignation the only real option. Not to have declared that the manager might go at the end of the season, as he wanted to last May, would apparently have been to break Stock Exchange rules about information relevant to prospective investors.

It all illustrates how the game is more than ever hostage to finance. Amid the wealth of coverage that accompanied Keegan's departure, as evidence of the phenomenon that football has become and the phenomenon he created at a club whose impact on the culture and well-being of a region is gargantuan, it was put to a financial analyst that his sort would now be the leading players in the game. "We're already in the boxes," he said. Some of us prefer the more truly knowledgeable company in the cheap seats.

What now, who now? A worry here is that in the future a new manager will have to be acceptable to the City. It may not necessarily be the right man for the job in footballing terms, but instead a character, a personality, who can lift share prices as priority over performances.

The gallery of potential replacements lined up in the aftermath was almost comical in places, with unqualified hats being thrown into the ring. To expose Peter Beardsley to the job would be unfair to him until he has better absorbed the trade of coaching and management.

Had Keegan been better grounded, he too might have endured the position longer, even if he was then the right man at the right time. The English have for far too long valued the big-name, ex-player Mr Motivator, preferably chatty and flamboyantly dressed, above a man of more understated, but enlightened, tactical and technical virtues. More power to Arsene Wenger.

In this correspondent's opinion, the right man is a short hop across the North Sea, in Amsterdam. At the end of this season, Louis Van Gaal will leave Ajax and is awaiting offers. He has already turned down Milan, preferring a fresh canvas to working again with so many of his former players. "Newcastle is something that could interest him," a close friend of his told me. Van Gaal returns from an Alpine skiing holiday today.

The Dutchman is a man who would want total control of the club - but only on playing matters. Newcastle, like all Premiership clubs, clearly need such a figure, who can oversee the development of youth policy and proposed football academy and who also knows his erudite way around the European game. After the messiah, the call should be for a prophet.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power