The Geordie Chronicles
In defence of the Messiah
Ever been accused of stating the obvious? My mate's uncle hasn't - it's the very thing he tries to avoid. And with some success - his pronouncements, particularly when football related, never fail to raise an eyebrow - and occasionally the odd heckle or two. How does this gentleman maintain such an impressive aura of unpredictability? Simple - he's been talking pure bollocks now for the best part of forty years.
Take Waddle for example - he could never play. Beardsley - workshy. Jackie Milburn? Should have stayed down the pit. Nonsense? Of course. And harmless enough, in its own way. After all, it's only my mate's uncle broadcasting his idiosyncratic views across the bar-room. As long as this idiosyncrasy doesn't become accepted wisdom - and that could never happen, right?
Right. Except, no-one likes to be accused of stating the obvious. And in an area like Tyneside, where everyone, even the grannies on the bus, seems to have an opinion on the game, original statements can be hard to come up with. You have to be outrageous to stand out - and how better to outrage a devout community than by taking the name of the Saviour in vain?
Which brings me to Kevin Keegan. He was our saviour, right? Not wishing to state the obvious of course, but didn't the bloke propel us from the doldrums to the big time, disappear from the centre circle in a helicopter for God's sake, then return and save us from extinction and take us to the very top of the League, before being forced out on the verge of ultimate glory by nameless, faceless, City executives? Well of course he did - it's bleedin' obvious!
Not though, obvious enough for some. Among the lads in the pubs and the grannies on the bus, hell, even among the contributors to The Mag, some dissenting voices are beginning to be heard. Their arguments against the Messiah appear to be threefold. Let's look at them one by one.
Firstly, say the courters of controversy, Keegan's teams couldn't defend. Now I really think, and you may be surprised here, that this is the easiest argument to counter. For sure, the Keegan era had its fair share of 3-3, 4-3, even 5-4 scorelines - matches that stick in the memory. But games like the Anfield 4-3 classic, which ended with the manager slumped over the hoardings in apparent emotional exhaustion, were the exception. In fact, during the 95-96 season, when it is commonly held we lost the title through over-exuberance, just 36 goals were conceded in 38 League games -- a ratio bettered only once since the war (69-70, if you're interested). And Pavel kept no less than 10 clean sheets. We may never have sung "1-0 to the Geordie Boys", but we could have done - against Boro, Blackburn, Everton, Coventry, Villa, Southampton, and Leeds. No, the "leaky Newcastle defence" was strictly a media invention.
Secondly, insist the doubters, anyone could have done it with the money Keegan had. This is an argument which, it seems to me, rests on two assumptions. The first, that big money signings always succeed, can be easily countered. Have they succeeded for Wolves, Blackburn, Middlesborough? The second assumption - that Keegan himself specialised in obvious, big-money signings, needs a little more investigation.
Let's start with Wor Kev's first three signings of note: Kilcline, Venison, and Bracewell. Obvious? Well, Kilcline was held to be a lower league hoofer, Bracewell past it, and Venison both past it and a bad-hair Mackem. Big money? They came for £750,000 the lot. Inspired? Absolutely. The unlikely trio, as we know, formed an integral part of the great renaissance. They were soon joined by bigger names, but even these - with the exception of Shearer -- rarely broke the bank. Ginola? A paltry £2.5 million. Beardsley? A million less. Keegan could look after the purse strings all right.
But finally, insist the unbelievers, Keegan was, and is, an over-emotional bottler. This, I'll admit, is the hardest one to argue against. After all, the Keegan rant of '96 - "I'd love it if we beat 'em - just love it!" has passed into the folklore alongside "there's some people on the pitch" uttered 30 years earlier. But hasn't Keegan's quite understandable reaction to Alex Ferguson's indefensible allegation (that the Leeds players might relax and give Newcastle an easy ride in a vital game) been blown quite out of proportion? Wasn't KK - not for the first time - voicing the exact thoughts of the fans and making it clear to the players it was a case of "us against the world, lads"? Finally, wasn't the man's passionate approach a great part of his strength? We should hardly complain if under extreme provocation that passion ran overboard.
So to conclude. Sure, KK never quite brought us the Holy Grail. But hell, he came pretty damn close. Along the way, the man brought us an attacking team that could also defend, made astute imaginative signings, and showed a great passion for the club. Sure, he showed some very human weaknesses too - who wouldn't have done at the helm of that rollercoaster ride? But most importantly, between February 1992 and January 1997 this native of Armthorpe near Doncaster brought us fans more straightforward, uncomplicated, good old-fashioned joy than any other figure associated with the club in living memory. For that alone, the man should be held in eternal reverence. Sorry (to me mate's uncle and everyone else) for stating the obvious - but Kevin Keegan was, and is, our Messiah.
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A few years on, and we've definitely moved on from Keegan. Since leaving Newcastle he's managed Fulham, England and Man City - each new job effectively putting greater distance between himself and his time on Tyneside. But that's not to say his accomplishments in his two spells have been forgotten - far from it. And the moment at the end of Shearer's testimonial that saw the striker embrace Sir Les and Rob Lee brought the memories of the good 'ol days flooding back - when we were the Entertainers, everyone's favourite second team. Just a shame Keegan left when he did - I just hope he is proud to take credit for bringing Shearer to St James'.
(Jonathan's other pieces in the Geordie Chronicles series - "Between the sticks", "The bovver boys" and "Up for the Cup" - can be found here, here and here.)