Kevin again

THE presenter looks into the camera, and says: “Well, the big news in the football world this week was the return to St James’ Park of Kevin Keegan.”

And who was saying this? Ian St John, on Saint and Greavsie, on February 8, 1992.

Keegan doesn’t do mundane; didn’t do it when he arrived at Newcastle as a player in 1982, didn’t do it when he first arrived as a manager in 1992, didn’t do it when he suddenly walked out in 1997, hasn’t done it this week.

Doing a straw poll among fans and journalists last night at the City of Manchester Stadium, scene of Keegan’s last – and we thought final – job in management, it was hard to find anyone who could understand why Newcastle owner Mike Ashley had offered him the manager’s job this week, or why he had accepted it.

Nor could I find anyone who believed that the third part of the Kevin Keegan at Newcastle saga could possibly end in anything other than tears. Even now, I’m expecting the club to announce any minute that it’s some kind of elaborate early April Fool joke.

And that’s even after seeing television pictures of Keegan in the St James’ Park stands for last night’s FA Cup victory over Stoke.

Is Keegan’s appointment as Newcastle boss in 2008 more surprising than it was in 1992? The Saturday after Keegan arrived for his first spell as the club’s manager, Saint and Greavsie did a live interview with Newcastle’s then-chairman, Sir John Hall.

Watching the interview back now, it’s clear that Keegan wasn’t Hall’s choice. Sir John, looking uncomfortably into the camera, standing on the pitch wearing a herringbone jacket, trying to maintain his authority while stumbling over his words, admitted to St John and Jimmy Greaves within seconds of the interview starting that he had wanted to stick with Ossie Ardiles, Keegan’s predecessor.

But Newcastle then were struggling near the bottom of the old Second Division, threatened with relegation to the third tier for the first time in their history, and the club’s investors were getting restless.

Newcastle were £6.5m in debt, trifling for a club of their size by today’s standards, but this was months before the Premier League came into being.

The sums of money involved at Newcastle have changed. The questions around Keegan haven’t.

Ian St John: Kevin was a charismatic character when he was there before. You’re obviously hoping what he did as a player will happen again as a manager.

Sir John Hall: That’s right. We hope so and I think it will. Today you should see the buzz around the place. He’s made a tremendous difference already.

Ian St John: What are Kevin’s credentials, apart from his rapport with the fans and the enthusiasm he will generate in the town? Really, he’s an untried boy as far as management is concerned, so are you not sticking your head in the noose a little bit there?

Sir John Hall: We have tremendous confidence in him. Everyone has a high regard for him, as we had for Ossie. That hasn’t gone because Ossie has left. But we have tremendous regard for Kevin, and we think he will do the trick and keep us in the Second Division. Then we will tell the football world next season: ‘Make way, we’re coming up to the right place where we should be.’

Ian St John: But he doesn’t know the Second Division.

Sir John Hall: In a sense, that’s probably so. We are in a very difficult situation and it’s a gamble. But I think we will pull it off.

On the interview went, with two stand-out moments that make you realise just how long ago this all was, and how hindsight can make fools of us.

First, Hall talked about the need for major investment so that Keegan could sign players, then cited a transfer budget of £2m. 

Then Hall insisted that Terry McDermott had only come to Newcastle on a temporary basis while Keegan sought a permanent assistant. McDermott is, of course, still on the coaching staff at Newcastle today.

Back in 1992, Keegan had doubters. That is clear from the barely-disguised incredulity of St John and Greaves throughout the interview. But the audacious plan paid off; Keegan kept Newcastle in the Second Division that year, got them up to the Premier League 1993, and before you knew it, he was seeing 12-point title leads slip away and shouting ‘I’d just love it’ into a Sky microphone.

But I still can’t see it working this time. Howard Kendall tried to recapture former glories at Everton and failed; he’s the best example of many who have suffered a similar fate. ‘Never go back’ is a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a good reason.

So good luck, Kevin Keegan. I think you’re going to need it. And you’ll need more than £2m this time, too.

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