Jonathan ShallardComment


Jonathan ShallardComment

Kevin Keegan was a remarkable footballer whose dedication, enthusiasm and spirit drove him to achievements way beyond those of perhaps more gifted but less committed stars.

As he was player, so he is as manager. 

Keegan abandoned an eight-year sabbatical away from the game three years ago to take over at moribund, Third Division-bound Newcastle United. A club with a fanatical support but a modern history only of self-destructive infighting. In his first half-season he saved Newcastle from relegation to the effective third division; in his first full season he achieved promotion to the Premiership; last term he guided Newcastle to third place and into the UEFA Cup and now.., the sky appears to be the limit.

The north-east of England has known nothing like it since the Magpies dominated the FA Cup more than 40 years ago. Keegan's was a huge gamble. He admits that he had been out of the game for so long he did not know or recognise the managers of opposing teams. But Keegan knew exactly what he wanted -- to turn Newcastle into a modern Liverpool, the club with whom Keegan knew virtually unbounded success in the 1970s.

Newcastle's chairman, Sir John Hall, has given Keegan an open chequebook to build a team to fill a stadium which is being transformed into one of the most atmospheric and -- for visiting teams -- intimidating of English stadia. The security of a 10-year, £4million contract has been Keegan's reward for the work accomplished and which rules him out of the England reckoning for a long, long time. Newcastle can afford it. A new sponsorship deal with Newcastle Breweries will pump in nearly £3million over the next three years.

Keegan was twice European Footballer of the Year, a dynamic attacker with Liverpool, then Hamburg, Southampton and Newcastle. His success on the pitch was easy to define. The secret of his success in management is not such an open book. But his assistant, best mate and court jester, Terry McDermott, says: "He has tremendous belief in himself and communicates it to the players. He instills that confidence into them. He's so infectious, the players pick it up. People respond to him. He's so bubbly he makes you feel better. He doesn't have a negative thought in his head." Amid the euphoria of winning the First Division championship, fans almost fell over themselves to spend £3,000 a time on a special club membership and telephone lines were jammed for hours on end as callers from all over the world, including Australia, showered Keegan and his team with congratulations.

Sir John Hall says: "Everything was geared first for Premier League membership. Now it's all systems go to make Newcastle one of the top three clubs in Britain and one of Europe's leading ten." The £6.5million debt Sir John inherited on buying a controlling stake in the club has been reduced to £3million through the team's success and thriving marketing. And while Newcastle will continue to try to cut the debt, Sir John confirmed that nothing would prevent Keegan from strengthening his squad for an assault on the big league. Entry to the Premier was worth millions from TV alone, plus the honour of Freedom of the City, which placed the club up alongside the likes of former US President Jimmy Carter and various church and civic dignitaries. Keegan stands at the centre of the whirlwind of success -- more important and more of a star still than any of his players, even England veteran Peter Beardsley or top scorer Andy Cole or imported World Cup finalists Marc Hottiger (Swiss right back) and Philippe Albert (Belgian central defender).

The taste of success thus far has made him even more determined to make what he calls "one more step" -- to take over from Manchester United as champions. Keegan says: "I'm under no illusions.

"The next step, although a small one, is not going to be easy. We've made giant strides. We came up running from the First Division, then we looked very much at home in the Premiership. Most of our players, in fact, looked more at home there, so we've gone from running to a really nice stride. We won't have to keep running to do the next bit. It's that one more step. It has to be our aim to go two batter than we did last season.

"A lot of hard work went into finishing third and I don't think the most ardent fan of any other club would argue we weren't the third-best side. The placings were right. Manchester United were the best, Blackburn the second. We and Arsenal were very close, but I think we were the country's most entertaining side.

"We'll continue to play that way but try to add more steel and discipline needed to win the odd games when we don't hit our normal, flowing, one-touch football -- and when, say, Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley are not causing major problems for defences. If we had a fault last season we didn't hang on and win games we should have won." 

Mention of Cole and Beardsley makes Keegan enthuse as his old Liverpool boss, Bill Shankly, buzzed about Keegan himself. "Andy took the Premiership by storm last season, breaking club records with 41 league and cup goals, but he can improve on what he did. He's an exceptional talent, playing with, in Peter, the perfect foil for him. They are as exciting a partnership as I've ever seen in this country. Peter himself had his highest-scoring top-division season with 24.

"Andy set his standards in our last games in the First Division. He was bought while we were top, so the pressure was on him. But he has lots of character of his own. That's why I bought him. He really wants to play and he scores tremendous goals. Not long-range ones, but his are very varied. And when a shot is parried or charged down, who does the ball go to... Andy Cole."

Former England captain Keegan, who summarised in the World Cup for ITV, believes he would have been watching England if Beardsley had been chosen for the qualifiers. Keegan says: "I would love to have seen him play in America. He would have looked what he is -- a terrific player. Peter got himself back into the England team. Public opinion counts for something. The public knew he should have been playing for England and Terry Venables could see what he was doing. Enthusiasm is the word which comes to mind when I think of Peter. At 33 he remains youthful. We call him Peter Pan, and he'll be just as outstanding when the European Championships are here in 1996.

"He puts so much into training that if I didn't know him, I'd be saying: "Save something for the game.' He just goes out and enjoys it."

But while Keegan's sports patriotism is undiminished the centre of his world remains St James' Park and the dream of bringing the league championship back for the first time in 67 years. He says: "We could profit from Manchester United being in Europe. I know we're in the UEFA Cup, but for them there's the challenge of winning the European Cup so they can be compared with the great sides. The European Cup can be your biggest asset, but it can also nibble away at your squad, nibble away at the league.

"I'd say only five teams can win the title this time: the top three of last season, Arsenal and Leeds. It's not silly to put ourselves under pressure by going for the top. It's absolutely right for this particular club, with its size, players and support."

This article originally appeared in World Soccer Magazine November 1994.  Subscribe at a discounted rate here.