Newcastle United have made an encouraging start to the new season, but Kevin Keegan knows they have only taken one tiny step on a long and arduous journey.
THERE are some former managers of Newcastle United who must have felt like the ancient king of Greek mythology, Sisyphus – cursed by the Gods to spend his life rolling a heavy boulder to the top of a steep hill and then watch helplessly as it rolled to the bottom again.
Plenty of illustrious names have sat on the St James’s Park throne since Kevin Keegan abdicated 11 years ago and all, with the notable exception of Sir Bobby Robson, have struggled to replicate his success.
Some have left the club feeling bitter and twisted by their experience, others have smiled grimly and consoled themselves on the fact a lucrative pay-off will at least ease their sense of failure. Keegan knows how they feel – even club messiahs are not immune to the pressure which comes with one of the most demanding jobs in club football. But, if Keegan is still struggling to get his boulder back to the top of the hill following his return as manager, it remains a labour of love for a man with a special affinity for the club.
Things appear to be moving in the right direction. The 1-1 draw at Manchester United last weekend was evidence Keegan’s motivational powers can still work wonders, even in a squad which, by his own admission, remains worryingly short on numbers.
The challenge for him though – as it is for owner Mike Ashley – is not just to gradually roll the boulder up the hill, but to make sure it stays at the top.
Having taken a surprising share of the points at the home of the reigning Premier League champions, the last thing Keegan needs as he tries to build up some vital momentum is an early setback at home to Bolton Wanderers. “I’ve talked about getting a snowball rolling down the hill, but we’re still rolling it up at the moment,” said Keegan, when asked about how important momentum was at a club with such an intense following as Newcastle’s. “You know, when you get one started, you start pushing it. We’re still very much collecting in that respect. We are not where we want to be yet.
“One game is not consistency. All we have done is lay down a benchmark for the rest of the season. That is what I told my players beforehand. If we are going to get turned over by Man U, then let us please end up as a team that stands up and be counted, and afterwards talk about how unlucky we have been and how lucky they have been. Let’s not talk about how this went wrong or we never did anything here.
“I thought we went there with a spot-on attitude. We could have won the game, we could have also lost the game, but I would still be saying the same thing today. It was a good performance.”
Given the continuing concern regarding the lack of new faces at St James’s Park with just over a week left until the transfer window closes, Keegan is also smart enough to realise a draw against Manchester United is the perfect tonic for a squad which looked short on confidence in pre-season.
The impact of the three high-profile summer signings – Jonas Gutierrez, Fabricio Coloccini and Danny Guthrie – has also helped, but more are needed with Newcastle’s manager adamant he needs at least another two players.
“We need one more defender, one midfielder and possibly a forward,” he said, attempting to sidestep questions regarding his reported interest in Arsenal’s Swiss centre-back Philippe Senderos. “We will keep looking right until the window closes on Monday night. We must get two or three more in, we know that and we will do it.”
The truth is the Newcastle hierarchy need to do it, not just to appease Keegan, but to justify the staunch support fans have shown Ashley – despite the constant reports claiming he is only looking to cut costs at St James’s Park before selling the club for a vast profit. Those close to Ashley have denied that is the case, but the man himself – and the same is true of new managing director Derek Llambias – does not feel the need to publicly discuss his plans with anyone and that enables the fire of suspicion to smoulder. It could be a hectic few days for the club, with a meeting between manager and board next Wednesday promising to be a tense one if no new signings have been made. But for now, Keegan is just happy to see the players already at his disposal add weight to his argument that it is only numbers, not quality, which is a problem.
He said: “That is what our fans needed from us at Old Trafford after a close season where not all the stuff that has been written or has happened to this club has been positive,” he said.
“I use the supporters as my barometer and their reaction told me they were very proud of the team. That is one game. If they can be very proud of us after the other 37, then we will be going somewhere as a club.
“We have given ourselves a platform, but that is all we have done. We need to maintain that standard for the rest of the season. We have a platform and I am interested to see if we can build on that platform against Bolton, then Coventry and then at the Emirates when we play Arsenal.”