Keegan deserved a happier ending

In football, messiahs should never reach middle age. Far better that they suffer martyrdom young or fall under a bus before their 40s.

Otherwise they become mere mortals.
This is what has happened to Kevin Keegan, whose final exit from the game at 54, which his departure from Manchester City surely is, has been his least dramatic, with nary a fiery chariot in sight.

After half a lifetime as player and manager Keegan looked for a sign saying Way Out, took it, and closed the door quietly behind him. Nobody at City stood in his way and nothing became him less than the manner of his leaving. The news made big but hollow headlines on the sports pages. Keegan had already announced his intention of retiring when his contract with City ran out at the end of next season.

Little unsettles footballers more than uncertainty about who will next be picking the team and when. David James, the Manchester City goalkeeper, clearly spoke for the squad when he said the players needed to know what was going to happen in Keegan’s final year.

At least that small matter has been cleared up. Stuart Pearce, Keegan’s assistant, will be in charge of team affairs for the time being, which gives the former England defender a useful opportunity to show the managerial qualities more than a few suspect are lurking behind that wry, quizzical countenance. 

Plainly Keegan has had enough, not so much of Manchester City as football management in general. His tired post-match responses probably did not reflect disenchantment with a game he will always love, but he will doubtless be happier watching it from a distance between rounds of golf and sunny days in Spain.

Keegan did little wrong at Manchester City, but unlike his career as a player his experience as a manager tended to be initially spectacular bursts of achievement followed by flat anticlimax.

Keegan spent more than £50-million not on building a Manchester City squad to win the Premiership but principally to keep them in it with the outside hope of finishing high enough to earn a Uefa Cup place. His signings were not inspired, although surely his worst judgement was getting David Seaman on a free transfer from Arsenal when the goalkeeper was clearly past it.

He leaves Manchester City virtually certain of Premiership football next season but, after early departures from the FA and League cups, with little to enthuse their fans for the remainder of the season.

Keegan’s football career deserved a happier denouement. It might be hard for those who were not around in the 1970s to realise the enormous impact he made at a time when the England team were in the wilderness, hooliganism was rife and the game seemed to be heading for hell in a handcart.

Keegan’s attacking partnership with John Toshack revived Bill Shankly’s fading Liverpool side and laid the foundations for the glories that followed under Bob Paisley. Keegan had moved to Anfield from Scunthorpe United for £35 000, a move later described by Shankly as “robbery without violence”.

When he decided to join Hamburg in 1977 the nation was stunned, for though Keegan was no George Best he was arguably the first British footballer to become fully aware of the importance of promoting himself with good PR and shrewd commercialism. It was much harder then to imagine English football without Keegan than with the more recent loss of David Beckham.

After a sticky start at the Volkspark, Keegan became a hero in Hamburg, twice being voted European player of the year. Then another sudden exit was followed by a totally unexpected re-entrance down at Southampton, whose manager Lawrie McMenemy observed after one foreign trip: “Kevin Keegan is so famous that when we were in the casbah even the blind men were calling out his name.”

At Newcastle, first as player then as manager, he revived apparently hopeless causes. Yet as a manager, with Newcastle, England and Manchester City, though to be fair, not Fulham, his revivalist tendencies did not embrace an ability to keep winning teams winning. He supplied the kiss of life but, unlike the great managers, could not keep a finger on a team’s pulse when things went wrong.

Yet as Newcastle manager he suddenly made football fun again and produced some outstandingly entertaining matches. And for that, recent English football will be forever in Kev’s debt. — Â

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