228 days which lasted a lifetime

IT was billed as the Second Coming but in truth the Kevin Keegan that returned to Newcastle United in January bore little resemblance to the man who transformed a struggling club in the mid-1990s.

IT was billed as the Second Coming but in truth the Kevin Keegan that returned to Newcastle United in January bore little resemblance to the man who transformed a struggling club in the mid-1990s.

While the scars of his brief tenure as England manager undoubtedly cut deep and changed him from the wide-eyed dreamer who first took on the mantle of United boss, there were bigger reasons for the change in Keegan.

In 228 days as United manager, he was simply never allowed to be the same man that helped drag the club from the bottom of the second division into Europe powered by sheer force of personality. While the man who took over United in 1992 was allowed free rein to mould the club in his own image, the Keegan of 2008 was neutered by the cumbersome ‘European-style’ hierarchy that Mike Ashley had constructed to oversee the day-to-day affairs of his football club.

At first Keegan retained the zest of a man who had returned to deliver success to his adoring public, but his soaring imagination and vision found no outlet in the role he found himself landed with by Ashley’s appointment of Dennis Wise to the executive director (football) role.

The way Keegan communicated his message changed drastically as his tenure limped towards it’s depressing conclusion, largely because he became wary of his public statements being undermined by the actions of others.

That happened far too many times, and it was difficult not to feel sorry for a proud football man last week as he first called the departure of James Milner “unthinkable” and was then claimed it was his decision to sell.

That kind of scenario led Keegan to adopt an occasionally frosty tone towards the journalists that he had once seen as potential assets.

In his previous incarnation, Keegan had willingly used the media to convey his barnstorming message that United were about to smash the hegemony of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

Soaring rhetoric came easily to Keegan and famously it was his personal intervention that helped to persuade Alan Shearer to ignore the overtures of Manchester United to join his hometown club. When he sold Andy Cole – which was solely his decision – he appeared on the steps of St James’s Park to explain the decision to angry fans.

He remained a man of the people, and his regular attendance at community events during his eight-month tenure helped to repair some of the bridges burned in the decade of failure and public relations catastrophes that followed his second departure. But, while the club were keen to thrust him forward as their public face, they were less happy about granting him the unfettered authority that he had during the 1990s.

To be fair, Ashley could point to the profound changes in the football world since Keegan’s first rein. Maybe a new approach embracing the foreign model is required now that the English game has become a global concern.

The personality-driven model appears to be bearing fruit at Sunderland, however, and it must have been a source of immense frustration to see his club beaten to proven Premier League performers by their biggest rivals. Keegan undoubtedly became more guarded with the media after he was summoned to meet Ashley following comments that United simply could not compete with the top four.

An honest, fair and laudable statement which summed up his shared frustration at how far Newcastle had to travel to make ground on the top four provoked anger from the club’s London-based power brokers.

Over a long and barren summer for the club, the cracks became fault-lines as Keegan disappeared entirely from view after United’s final game of the season at Everton. Requests for a post-season debrief with the manager came to nothing, Keegan choosing to hold his tongue because the real action was taking place in offices in London.

The nadir arrived when journalists were called to Newcastle airport to publicise the naming of a plane after Keegan with the lure of interviews. To the embarrassment of all concerned Keegan opted to stay silent, saying that talking would be “pointless”.

The reason for that comment became clear as soon as he resumed media duties during the pre-season campaign – Keegan was being kept largely out of the loop on all the club’s burning issues.

In one awkward post-match Press conference after the Valencia game Keegan – trying desperately to give honest answers to straightforward questions about player acquisitions and the departure of his trusted mentor Arthur Cox from the club – cut a sorry figure.

Briefly, the fire in his eyes returned ahead of the opening game of the season at Old Trafford. Buoyed by constructive talks and reassurances that significant additions would be made before the transfer deadline, Keegan proclaimed the club to be “more united than ever”.

But it proved to be no more than a mirage. A sad encore was performed in the bowels of the Ricoh Arena last week, when a visibly drained and exhausted Keegan appeared after a 20-minute conversation with Derek Llambias to make his infamous statement regarding the importance of keeping Milner.

It proved a sad epitaph for a King who had no control over his empire.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer