Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Back to the future

Caught your breath yet? How's about a slightly more considered response to the news that Kevin Keegan's back on Tyneside?

Yesterday we welcomed Torygraph readers to the site by saying: "If you were after one long howled duet of anguish punctuated by stabs of bitter humour and the occasional obscure music reference ... then you've come to the right place". Well, that howl of anguish has been replaced by whoops of delight, both on Tyneside for tonight's FA Cup 3rd Round replay romp against Stoke and here at Black & White & Read All Over Towers.

So, why are we so excited about the return of a man who never actually won a major trophy?

As a player Keegan inspired us to promotion to the old First Division in 1984 before retiring, but then really began working miracles when he came back to the club as manager. February 1992, and we were in serious danger of a humiliating relegation to the third tier, but Keegan (and David Kelly's goal against Portsmouth) saved us by the skin of our teeth.

Then came the transformation - an eleven game winning gallop at the start of the following season which saw us canter comfortably to the title and promotion; a third place finish in our first season in the Premiership during which our football saw us crowned as The Entertainers, everyone's favourite second team; then, after a year of consolidation, the year we motored to a seemingly unassailable lead at the top with some exhilarating football, only to be pipped by Man Utd. We might have failed, but you knew - you could see - that Keegan was as hurt as the fans. Even when he resigned unexpectedly, halfway through the following season, we'd seen Fergie's mob thrashed 5-0 at St James's, and 7-1 and 3-0 wins over Spurs and Leeds were still fresh in the memory.

As fans who've had to endure months of appalling and literally pointless mediocrity under Fat Sam and who crave both exciting football AND victories (not just the former, as the media might have you believe), is it any wonder we're so delighted by the appointment? Mike Ashley might well grin, knowing he's managed to secure the services of the popular choice.

And it's not just us welcoming him back, either. A little over two months ago Scott Murray used an On Second Thoughts piece on the Guardian Sport blog to appraise Keegan as "if not one of the most successful, then certainly one of the GREATEST managers this country has ever seen. And should be celebrated as such". The consensus seems to be that his return is good news for the Premiership, and good news for football in general. Even on a neutral site highly critical of Ashley and Mort's handling of Allardyce's sacking, Cheer Up Alan Shearer, they've brought out the bunting for his replacement.

In many ways, the club Keegan comes back to is unrecognisable from the one he left. We're no longer the force we were, either on the pitch or in the transfer market - but then we weren't so much sleeping giants as comatose or even flatlining when he took charge the first time, so that's not to say he can't jumpstart a revival in our fortunes and profile.

He will be greeted by a couple of familiar faces, though. Terry McDermott, his old assistant, has been back at the club for a couple of years, while Peter Beardsley - whom he played with in the '80s and then as a manager brought back to Tyneside - is on the Academy staff. Speculation is already rife as to who he might want to make up the rest of his backroom team. More old faces from the '90s in the form of Derek Fazackerley and Arthur Cox? It's been claimed he's very much his own man and wouldn't want to work with Alan Shearer, but Shearer himself seems to be angling for a position, having hailed Keegan as "a special person with great charisma" and emphasised his eagerness to talk to the man who signed him for his hometown club with a view to helping in any way he can.

Of course, amidst all the delirium there are pessimists (or are they realists? Either way, they're party poopers) who argue you should never go back and that Keegan - and Shearer, if he joins him - can only tarnish or damage the halos the fans have conferred on them.

There are the voices sniping about his less-than-successful managerial career since leaving Newcastle and the fact that he's effectively been out of the game for over two years.

There are people who continue to point to his tactical naivety, and laugh that a side with a calamitous backline should have given the task of making it watertight to someone for whom defending was anathema in his first spell in charge.

And there are those who label him a quitter who's out of his depth at the highest level.

To them, I say bollocks, let's just see what happens. We tried tactical nous with Allardyce, and look where that got us: the team six points above the relegation zone and the fans desperate and demoralised. It may not last, but Keegan's restored the feelgood factor. And I see his being a quitter as a good thing - if things don't work out, then rather than arrogantly clinging onto power like Gullit, Souness and Allardyce, he'll call it a day, being a man who knows his limits and when it's time to go. Isn't there something honourable and dignified about that?

But let's leave any pessimism out in the cold, for tonight at least. For only one man the job was not a poisoned chalice but a throne, and it's a great feeling knowing that King Kev's got his royal posterior perched on it again.


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