Sunday, September 07, 2008

Long live the King

Three days have now passed since King Kev abdicated from the Newcastle throne for the second time, and so it's about time we straightened ourselves out and collected our thoughts on his eight month reign.

A week after the very welcome departure of Fat Sam came the even more welcome announcement that Keegan was back. The media and opposition fans generally reacted with a mixture of relish and derision, heralding the return of a real character and the prospect of kamikaze football while at the same time claiming the appointment was a mistake which would end messily. We, on the other hand, were delighted, for the first time in years both excited and proud to be Newcastle fans. Being swept up in the sudden tidal wave of optimism and positivity that engulfed Tyneside that Wednesday night in January, as the team thrashed Stoke in an FA Cup Third Round replay, was absolute bliss.

The next two months were sobering, though, as it took rather longer for the returning hero to turn our fortunes round than we'd hoped and expected. With Fat Sam behind the wheel we had been going nowhere fast, but trundling steadily in the direction of the relegation abyss. In his first game in charge, against Bolton, Keegan managed to stop the rot and prevent a fifth straight Premiership defeat, but it wasn't until 22nd March, when Fulham were the visitors to St James's Park, that Keegan notched the first league win of his second spell in charge. In the intervening period, the quality of the football had improved marginally, but in adopting a more open and offensive typically Keegan-esque style we had exposed our vulnerable underbelly, which resulted in heavy and dispiriting defeats to Aston Villa, Man Utd and Liverpool.

The Fulham win was the springboard we desperately needed, as we went on to thrash Spurs on their own turf and record a seven match unbeaten run that included a win over the Great Unwashed and comfortably (and in some style) saved us from relegation, only coming to an end with defeat to Chelsea in the final home game of the season. And that, if nothing else, is something to stuff down the pipe of any clueless arsehole intent on declaiming that Keegan's second reign was a failure.

The real turning point was arguably the previous game, the 1-1 draw at Birmingham which saw us fight back from a goal down to dominate, because that's when Keegan hit upon the magic formula that kept us up. His hand may have been partly forced by circumstance and by the players available to pick from, but the decision to give Michael Owen a free role behind Obafemi Martins and Mark Viduka was inspired. It was no secret that Owen had been critical of Keegan in the past, and the manager knew he had to work hard to win his star striker over - and he did, building bridges, getting him fit and deploying a formation in which he was able to thrive. Keegan the master tactician - who'd have thought it?

Man management is Keegan's real forte - his own passion for the game can't help but rub off on those in his charge, and he's one of the best there is at instilling belief in players short on confidence. They knew they would always have someone prepared to fight their corner. I may not have agreed with his stout defence of and support for Alan Smith and ASBO in particular, but his dedication to his squad is admirable.

That squad had been improved by the time we started the new campaign with the additions of Jonas Gutierrez and Fabricio Coloccini, and an unexpected but gratefully received point at Old Trafford had us dreaming of a bright future. We then notched up a pair of useful victories against Bolton and Coventry, the only blot being a comprehensive defeat to an on-fire Arsenal side. Sadly, that was to prove the last game of Keegan's tenure, his departure only marginally less surprising than it was back in January 1997.

There had been signs of friction in the wake of that Chelsea game, when Keegan made the entirely reasonable observation that we're far from being able to mount a significant challenge for a top four finish, an observation which apparently aroused Mike Ashley's displeasure and resulted in the manager being summoned to a meeting in London. At the time we dismissed it all as overblown nonsense, though - surely the only possible reason for Ashley to react like that would be because it was so unlike King Kev to be so brutally frank and realistic, and soon-to-be-outgoing chairman Chris Mort gave his public endorsement to the comments.

As it turned out, the crucial issue wasn't excessive expectations but control over transfer affairs. When we suggested the sale of James Milner was a bad piece of business, we were criticised for being negative by some readers - and it's true that, with hindsight, £12m for a wantaway player probably wasn't such a bad move. But the situation should never have been allowed to get that far - the board should have recognised Milner's contribution to the team (much more significant than that of either Smith or ASBO, for instance, both of whom are on much higher salaries) - and Keegan's subsequent claim that the decision to sell was his and his alone just didn't ring true, sounding as though Ashley had a gun to his head.

The straw that broke the camel's back, though, was the deadline day arrival of Uruguayan midfielder Ignacio Gonzalez and Spanish striker Xisco - as Keegan made abundantly clear in his resignation statement: "It's my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want". Those who argue that this is just another instance of Keegan showing he's a serial quitter who can't handle the pressure are totally wide of the mark - he's simply an honest person with principles. Little wonder that, in the world of football, that makes him stand out...

The root of the problem, then, was a fundamental lack of clarity over the roles of individuals, particularly Dennis Wise and Tony Jiminez, whom Ashley brought in shortly after Keegan. As Paul said at the time, the new structure could have worked "provided everyone involved (Keegan included) knows their role and the expectations upon them, and sticks to their remit". Sadly, that was obviously never the case.

The smug told-you-so brigade will insist they always knew it would all end in tears, but it's almost as though Ashley actually WANTED it all to end in tears. How else could you possibly explain the lunacy of appointing an absolute legend and then interfering to the point of forcing him out, plumping for Wise when put in the position of making a choice between the two?! As Mosh has commented, Ashley has done a staggering job of becoming as hated as Fat Fred in a fraction of the time - it's almost as though he hatched this plan with that objective in mind.

Inevitably, the club have reacted to Keegan's comments by seeking to refute any suggestion that there was interference - but not only does no one believe anything the St James's Park PR machine grinds out anymore, it's also appalling to witness the present hierarchy engaged in a public attempt to discredit and denigrate one of the most important figures in our club's recent history. When King Kev returned, we noted dismissively that some commentators were claiming you should never go back and that he could only tarnish his halo - little did we know that the man hailed for bringing him back to Tyneside would be the one doing the tarnishing. Keegan has been treated shabbily, and for that the club should be utterly ashamed.

The general view is that Ashley's position is now untenable, and speculation is rife that he's now looking for a quick sale. Several of today's papers carried the frankly amazing story that one of the interested suitors, Anil Ambani, would be eager to reinstate Keegan. That might seem utterly fanciful and ridiculous were it not for the fact that in the crazy world of Newcastle Utd anything is possible...


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