Thursday, 17 January 2008

Hearts Rule Heads As Newcastle United Appoint Keegan Again

Football article for

Beleagured Newcastle United fans are rejoicing today after the club announced the return of Kevin Keegan to Tyneside to take over as manager.

Keegan’s sheer presence seemed to have a revelatory effect on his new charges, as he watched his side trounce Stoke City 4-1 at St. James Park last night. It was exactly the kind of assured display predecessor Sam Allardyce struggled to get out of his players, who are undoubtedly talented enough on paper to take Newcastle close to the European places in the Premiership table. Previous bookies’ favourite for the job, former captain and star striker Alan Shearer, has invited Keegan to talk to him about a management or coaching role at the club. It is not yet clear whether Keegan has any plans to talk to Shearer.

Keegan is well known for having a charismatic personality which players can really take to. Similar to Martin O’Neill in this regard, Keegan’s greatest managerial strength is the ability to form close bonds with his players that motivate them to give their all on the pitch. He first managed Newcastle in 1992, when they were a First Division club. Under his control, Newcastle were promoted into the Premiership, and gradually improved until their peak in the 1995-96 season. In January of 96, Newcastle led the Premiership by 12 points, and were renowned for playing quick attacking football, even earning the nickname ‘the Entertainers’. By the end of the season, that lead had been eroded and Newcastle could only finish second behind Manchester United. In January 1997, despite Newcastle continuing to do well, Keegan resigned. He later took control at Second Division Fulham, and won promotion for them, before taking the England job in February 1999. At England he only lasted 18 months and came under fire for tactical naivety. He resigned after losing the final game at Wembley before it’s demolition, 1-0 to Germany.

In May 2001 Keegan took the reigns at First Division Manchester City, and once again won promotion into the Premiership. He became popular with the fans as he established Manchester City as a dependable side, but by 2004 they seemed to hit a brick wall, and ended up only narrowly avoiding relegation. Keegan resigned in March 2005 and retired from football, preferring the stress-free life of television punditry, and then moving even further out of the spotlight by running a ‘Soccer Circus’ football academy in Glasgow.

However, the memory of that 95/96 season has fuelled Newcastle supporters’ expectations ever since, with the record of every successive manager held up against Keegan’s achievements. In a sense Keegan’s success – and his agonising near-miss – has haunted Newcastle fans, giving them the illusion of being a big club who should be challenging for titles and trophies, when in fact they have not won the top flight for more than 80 years, or the FA Cup for more than 50. What’s more, Keegan’s famously attacking style has persuaded Newcastle fans that this is ‘the Newcastle way’. With hindsight, the appointment of Allardyce - who built a workmanlike Bolton team who were tough to beat but rarely entertained – looks like a decision that was never going to satisfy Newcastle fans, who will only be happy when their team wins in style.

With all that in mind, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has decided that Keegan still has it in him to bring the glory days back. However, many will doubt that this is a good decision. Keegan had a hit-and-miss record since leaving Newcastle, his England days in particular showing that he lacks tactical acumen. Trying to repeat past successes rarely works, because football moves on and things are constantly changing. Perhaps Newcastle were so good under Keegan for multiple indeterminate reasons that can not be replicated: that even Keegan might not fully understand. In the 11 years since he left Newcastle, a lot has changed in the Premiership, most notably the establishment of a ‘Big 4’ clique at the top of the league consisting of clubs with far more money and appeal to big players than anyone else. Nobody will expect Newcastle to challenge for the league anytime soon because their resources are dwarfed by the Big 4, plus those of Manchester City, and probably Tottenham, Aston Villa, and West Ham too. Ashley has already shelled out millions for the club, for the capture and release of Allardyce and his ensemble, and for the players that Allardyce wanted to buy, including jailbird Joey Barton. Keegan will be given some transfer funds, but it will be comparatively small compared to the budgets available to Eriksson, Ramos, O’Neill and Curbishley.

Most Newcastle fans seem delighted by the return of Keegan, and see no reason why he cannot turn back the clock. Keegan himself says he is delighted to be back at the club he loves. But exactly what do the fans expect the man to achieve? To outsiders, the return of Kevin Keegan looks like a decision ruled by the heart rather than the head.

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