Kevin Keegan did not just save a football club a decade ago – he helped transform a city. Luke Edwards looks at the special relationship between Newcastle United and the so called Geordie Messiah.
NEWCASTLE United have spent the last 10 years desperately trying to recreate the hope and excitement of the Kevin Keegan years without success.
So many illustrious names have tried and failed, so many big personalities have been crushed, so many clever minds have been perplexed.
It was, with the clarity of hindsight, perhaps the easiest decision available to United’s owner Mike Ashley and his chairman Chris Mort. Instead of looking to find someone who could live up to Keegan’s name, the best way to try to recapture the magic of the moment was to find the man himself and simply persuade him to return. Instead of living in the past, why not bring the past back to life?
It is, however, a simple decision which might just prove to be a masterstroke for a new regime which is determined to bring back the old glory days. They could not get the self-titled special one, Jose Mourinho, but they have got the one Newcastle have always regarded as their special one.
So many months have passed, so many false dawns have risen and fallen and so many seasons have been crushed by anti-climax since Keegan flounced away from the club he had done more than most to rebuild.
He claimed, at the time, that he had taken the club as far as he could, but few who had been part of his revolution agreed with him. There were the third and fourth-placed finishes and Champions League football under Sir Bobby Robson, but even English football’s favourite knight, for all of his achievements at St James’s Park, could not bring back ‘The Entertainers’ tag.
That is not to belittle Robson’s success, he was a superb manager for his hometown club, but even he would admit he was merely following up what Keegan had begun – the former player who returned to create a dynasty no one involved with English football will allow themselves to forget.
It was Keegan who began it all. It was Keegan who saved the club from relegation and ruin in 1992 and it was Keegan who, in the following season, breathed life back into English football’s biggest, but sickest, sleeping giant.
It was Keegan who created the brand of attacking football which once made Newcastle the envy of the nation, it was Keegan who threatened to overthrow the established order in the Premier League and it was Keegan who, with the help of the football club he managed, changed perceptions of the city forever.
With Keegan in his pomp and the national critics in his awe, Newcastle was no longer the ailing former industrial centre brought to its knees by Margaret Thatcher’s unpopular economic reform. The coughing and spluttering Newcastle of the Eighties was replaced by a vibrant swaggering city with a clear vision of the future, which also just happened to have the most exciting football team in the country on its doorstep.
For those who lived on Tyneside through those years and for the thousands who have been attracted here since, it is worth pointing out the confident, stylish and progressive city we see on the banks of the River Tyne today may never have existed without Keegan and the Newcastle United he created.
Whether the man they call the Geordie Messiah will have the same impact on his third coming as he did with his first and second remains to be seen. The so-called experts and the cynics will automatically predict failure, but they said the same when Keegan came to Newcastle as a player in the twilight of his career in 1982 and they said the same when he arrived as manager without a day’s dug-out experience to his name a decade later. On both occasions they were proven wrong by one of the game’s most enduring characters.
It has often been argued managers should never go back to a club where they were once successful because they can never hope to repeat what they did. It did not work for Howard Kendall at Everton or Graham Taylor at Aston Villa.
Keegan, though, has never been one to allow the established school of thinking to determine his decisions. He was a managerial maverick in his first spell at the club. Significantly, most Newcastle fans who remember those days will hope the years have not turned him into a more orthodox character or thinker.
Some would suggest the only thing you can predict about Keegan is his unpredictability. It was a description that resonated last night. In November, Keegan appeared to declare his days as a manager were over. “I don’t think it will happen,” he said. “I think my life has gone in a different direction. I made a decision that I would come and do something different with my life.”
His resolve, however, did not last long. A little over three months later and Keegan’s life has taken another dramatic twist which few could have predicted. By his own admission, while he went on to become manager of Fulham and Manchester City, as well as England, to varying degrees of success, his heart never left Newcastle United and Newcastle’s heart certainly never stopped beating wildly for him.
Keegan has obviously re-evaluated his life, and his career and decided that he was willing to take a giant step backwards. For the first time in a generation, however, Newcastle fans are just looking forward again. Get ready for another rollercoaster ride.