Kevin Keegan was a unique ball of concrete, beef and emotion

Matt Stead

They don’t make them like Kevin Keegan anymore. What a player for Liverpool and Hamburg. And such an iconic Newcastle manager.


Who’s this then?
Joseph Kevin Keegan is now 69 years old. In his time the 5′ 8″ striker played for Scunthorpe, Liverpool, Hamburg, Southampton, Newcastle and, finally, twice for Aussie team Blackford City. To a younger demographic he is best known for being the manager of Newcastle, Fulham, England and Manchester City, before that last spell at St James’ Park seemed to put him off coaching for good. That was quite remarkably 12 years ago now.

Having been born near Doncaster, first signing professional papers at fourth division Scunthorpe and making his debut at just 17, he soon became a regular, famous even then for his work ethic. He had to work summers in the steelworks until he was scouted by Liverpool, moving to Anfield for £33,000 (about £470,000 in today’s money) earning a mighty £50 per week (about £712 in today’s money).

He had been bought as a right-sided midfielder, but Bill Shankly soon moved him up front to play with John Toshack and thus one of the finest big and little partnerships was born. In the following six seasons there followed three league titles, an FA Cup, a European Cup and two UEFA Cups, as Liverpool’s dominance of domestic and continental football took incredible hold. He was the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year in 1976 and then, after 100 goals and 323 games, in typical KK-style, he surprised everyone by moving for a British transfer record of £500,000 (about £3.1m in today’s money) to Hamburg.

After a difficult start, he was soon named Mighty Mouse by Hamburg fans. He won the Ballon d’Or in 1978 and again in 1979. They won the Bundesliga for the first time in 19 years and got to the European Cup final, after a classic 5-1 thrashing of Real Madrid, despite being 2-0 down from the first leg. They lost 1-0 in the 1979 final to Nottingham Forest. He played 111 games for the German side, scoring 40 times.

Kevin, never one to follow any path other than his own, then left for the unlikely destination of Southampton, who were hardly a top-flight powerhouse at the time. Even so, Kev liked boss Lawrie McMenemy and signed for £420,000 (about £1.8m in today’s money) and turned Saints into a top-six club immediately, the team scoring a tremendous 76 goals in the process that season. They were a side of real entertainers and as much fun as a half-hour bottle of wine. The next year was even better and they were top with six or seven weeks to go, only to suffer a late slump and end up seventh. Keggy had netted 30 times and was PFA Player of the Year. He also scooped an OBE for services to perming lotion and smelling nice. He’d played 81 games for the south-coast club and scored 42 goals.

All of which led to a move to Newcastle for £100,000. To say this was received rapturously on Tyneside would be to massively understate matters. They were in the second tier at the time. When he left after two seasons, they had earned promotion. He’d scored 49 goals in 85 games. Almost incredibly, Kevin left St James’ Park via a helicopter which had landed on the pitch. He retired. He was done. He had played a remarkable 832 games in just 16 years (an average of 52 per season!), scoring 296 club goals.

On top of that, he’d been capped 63 times and scored 21 goals for England, captaining the side at one point. But this coincided with the country’s slump on the international scene. And while they exited the 1982 World Cup without losing, it was often a frustrating international career for KK summed up by that final tournament, for which he was never properly fit.

And that was it for eight years. He all but withdrew from the game, bar a couple of pundit gigs, and went to live in Spain.

But Newcastle came calling again in 1992, once more languishing in the second division. The previous manager was – you may be surprised to learn – Ossie Ardiles. He was – you may not be surprised to learn – absolutely rubbish but very entertaining and I recall the Toon being bottom of the league for a while.

Keegan kept them up, left briefly in a typical Kevin way, then came back and won what was now confusingly called Division One despite being the second division, with a brilliant attacking side which scored 92 league goals and notched 96 points.

There then began a legendary period in Newcastle history which saw them almost win the top flight twice and play some of the most extraordinary, almost reckless attacking football we’d pretty much ever seen in the post-war game.

In their first year in the Premier League they finished third (imagine if Leeds or West Brom did that this year). They then came sixth before two seasons as runner-up. “He’s got to go to Middlesbrough to get something,” and all of that.

He quit Newcastle in January 1997 but by September was at Fulham in a director of football role. They were in the Second Division (third in the pyramid) at the time. The next year, Ray Wilkins was sacked as boss, KK was installed and after a cash splurge, got them promoted.

Meanwhile, Glenn Hoddle was making a bollocks of managing England, at least off the pitch, and was sacked. Kevin was the obvious candidate. It is worth bearing in mind how popular he was at this time. Everyone loved a bit of Kev. He was so enthusiastic and emotionally generous. In contrast, Hoddle had been thin-lipped and hard to warm to.

Of course, it ended in tears with him quitting in the tunnel after losing the last game at the old Wembley to Germany in appropriately pouring rain.

But more fun and games were to come as manager of City. He repeated his old trick of getting the club out of the second tier by scoring 108 goals. But they had less success in the top flight and Kev retired after the 2004/05 season, after Robbie Fowler missed a last game, last-minute penalty to hand a European space to Middlesbrough, who would go on to get to the UEFA Cup final in an epic run. Thanks, Robbie.

Three years later he was back at Newcastle for nine months. Now owned by the sulphurous Mike Ashley, it all crashed and burned and ended in the courts with a legal battle KK naturally won. You don’t f*ckin’ mess with Kev, right?

And that was it. A man like no other in football, he seems to have fallen out of love with the idea of working in the industry. He did some TV work but has backed away from that in recent years, too.


Why the love?
Every team Kevin played for loved him. He was not just wholehearted and totally committed to the cause, he was blessed with a tremendous physique which he’d worked hard on developing. He was just so strong. He looked shorter than he was but was built like a ball of concrete and beef.

For Liverpool he was the burning furnace at the heart of the side in attack. At his peak, everything flowed through him. If you watch old footage, he regularly collects the ball in front of the centre circle in the opponent’s half, turns and burns forward, lays it off, usually to the right, and then scoots at pace into the box in the region of the back stick, looking for space to operate in. From there he could volley a cross, head it, be first to a second ball or just cause trouble with his energetic aggression. He had a running style that was the very definition of ‘bustling’: all powerful rotating legs and elbows.

He repeated this in West Germany, where he added some real power shooting to his artillery. Those big thighs could properly leather a ball. Back at Southampton, in conjunction with the likes of Mick Channon, they were a free-flowing attacking, goal-scoring side that Keegan would echo in style with his Newcastle team of the mid-90s.

There are plenty of criticisms that Kevin has been subjected to over the years, but one that cannot ever be directed at him is that of not caring. If anything, every job he did he was almost too passionate about. His heart ruled his head at crucial times. When he felt wronged, he would be fearless in battering someone. His fight with Billy Bremner in the 1974 Charity Shield – much decried at the time by Barry Davies but secretly loved by everyone – was not untypical. He felt wronged, largely because he had been: Johnny Giles had punched him in the face (you only got a yellow for that in the ’70s), and when he feels wronged, that is when his maximum outrage and indignation is unleashed.

Incidentally, if you look at this photo of his punch at Bremner, you can see how muscular and strong he was. His right arm tensed like the rope on an anchor. Look at his powerful thighs and the fact that Bremner, no shrinking violet when it came to fighting, has quite literally had the snot knocked out of him. For all Kev was a lovely soul, in his prime, you f*cked with him at your peril.

I mean, this is a fella who got an eight-game ban in West Germany for KO-ing, with one punch, a player who was giving him a hard time.

We saw his emotional overload as the boss of Newcastle, with his rant defining those early Premier League years before the massive money arrived.

We saw it as the boss of England. Only Kevin would say, “I’ve not been quite good enough”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any manager at any level say they’ve quit because they’re not good enough. Only someone who operates totally openly and without a defensive shield would do that. He told it as he saw it.

He clearly got caught up in the emotions of the game. At Liverpool he once said, “When they start singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ my eyes start to water. There have been times when I’ve actually been crying while I’ve been playing”. And clearly, his emotions have always been near the surface.

It is such emotional honesty that we all love. We always knew where we were with Kevin. There was no spin or PR to get through. No obfuscation. He seemed so profoundly decent, so very human that, especially latterly when he left City and then Newcastle, it felt as though modern football was too horrible, nasty, greedy and backstabbing a place for a man of such downright niceness as Kevin. A too ugly world for a beautiful soul.

On Tyneside, perhaps because his grandfather, father and uncle were all from the region’s mining industry, even though he had grown up in Yorkshire, Keegan just ‘got’ the Toon. ‘Got’ – that short word that describes an existential and hard to define concept, but which nonetheless was self-evident.

There is a special quality to the northeast of England that you can embrace or resist. Kevin very much embraced it and was vaunted across the whole area from 1982 when he joined, and even today.

Of course, the romantic heart often comes up against cold reality and doesn’t match up. But would you rather be loved or be successful? There is no contest.

Kevin was never the best footballer that ever kicked a ball, but he worked harder than most to make up for what he lacked in skill with physical effort and total commitment. That’s why he was loved. We could see that. God loves a trier and so do football fans. Indeed, he was living proof of just how far you could go by marrying talent to sweat. In that he was such an inspiration to kids and it was why for his peak years he was a football superstar.

He was also a very astute businessman. With his distinctive perm, he was one of the first footballers to properly market himself, endorsing many toys and products and of course doing the Brut 33 ad with Henry Cooper.

His 7″ single Head Over Heels In Love made #31 in the UK and was a top 10 in West Germany. Huge trouser alert!

This was an irrepressible athlete who would not quit, even when appearing on legendary TV show Superstars, after falling off his bike and totally shredding his back in the process. In typical style, he shrugs it off like it was a mere graze, even though his back was red raw. And by the way, he was a tremendous physical specimen at the time, in his mid-20s.

Obviously he came back, raced again and won the competition.

He was also a master of a Colemanballs utterance, my favourite three being these:

“I would like to be a mole on their dressing room wall.”

“His strength is his strength, his strength is.”

“They’re the second-best team in the world, and there’s no higher praise than that.”

They all served to endear him to us even more. This was no ordinary man in any way shape or form.


What the people love
Obviously, there’s a demographic issue with KK in that only people of a certain age will remember him playing and if you’re 18 you won’t even remember him as a manager. But even so, his good vibes and decency have lived on in many hearts.

‘He opened a soccer skill school at Braehead in Glasgow and I was there with my mum. We finished the course and he was coaching a team on the indoor astro pitch. I was very excited but gutted that he was busy. He looked over and could see that I was watching the team and his coaching. He stopped the session, asked his other coach to lead it, came over to me and spent 10 mins asking me about football, who I played for etc and gave me his autograph. A day I’ll never forget!’

‘Kevin not only wins my heart for being just a lovely down to earth bloke, but he wins Most Bizarre Transfer Ever when as a two time Ballon d’Or winner he signed for Southampton, a side back then considered quite small, he was outstanding for them and then Newcastle by the way.’

‘So popular he has an affectionately created parody account @GalacticKeegan – loved by the man himself!’

‘Met him in the retail outlet in Glasgow, where a business interest he had set up was going south. Obviously not a great time for him, but was totally gracious in indulging my middle-aged fanboy questions for possibly the 1000th time. A bit of a gent.’

‘Accusations of him being romantic or naive are somehow painted as an insult, whereas to me they are his best qualities. Why are we so cynical that being open, honest and emotional is negative? That’s why he was adored at Newcastle.’

‘Mid-80s he came to coach us at Don Revie’s summer football school in Leeds. On the last day there was a certificate presentation in a hall. My mum’s in a wheelchair so couldn’t get up to step into the hall. Don took one end of her chair, Kevin the other and lifted her in.’

‘It surely has to feature the scrap with Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner at Wembley? Just remember him screaming at the ref after his red card, “I’ve not done f**k all, except be hit twice!”‘

‘Probably too nice to win a Premier League. And a little bit naive. Unlucky to come up against prime Fergie and Cantona.’

‘My Aunty Joyce and Uncle Rob lived in the road where he grew up.’

‘I remember him as a pundit in a World Cup game. Team A had a man sent off, so Team B made some attacking substitutions. KK: “Now that’s my kinda football. I’d have took the goalie off!”‘

‘Newcastle United owe everything to him. We are what we are today because of him. He was flawed, passionate, but above all inspiring. Saw what #nufc could and can be. Had no bar; the Sky was the limit. Oh, and thank you for the football too.’

‘A generation only knew him as the manager who brought sexy football to the league, and a nearly man. As a Liverpool fan, heard a lot about his greatness but would love to read about it.’


Three great moments
His goals for Newcastle, at the end of his career, in the second tier, sum him up. He scored all sorts of goals, from 25-yard lash-ins to low-diving headers and tap-ins. But most of all, if you watch how he played, he was supreme at finding and exploiting space. Also, although 5′ 8″ he looks shorter and so solidly built that he couldn’t be pushed off the ball with a steamroller.

A bit of typically righteous Kevin, getting stuck into Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias: “You’ve got two people running the football club who know nothing.”

And has anyone ever resigned from a high-profile management job with more good grace? In 2020, when lying and blame-pushing is common currency, such honesty is genuinely shocking.


What now?
Hopefully, those who were too young to know much about him will read up on Kev and look into his career because I really believe he’s an inspirational figure. Oh, there was the posing with Margaret Thatcher and the keepy-uppies with Tony Blair, but while he was sometimes treated as a figure of fun, he had something that most people don’t have. He played the game and managed clubs almost wholly on guts, spirit, charisma and determination. His art was not a methodical, planned one, it was performative instinct that he drew on; something innate and god-given.

We live in terrible times when leadership, moral grit and upright decency is in short supply from those who seek to boss us. KK is the antidote to all that shite and a timely reminder that not everyone is a venal, amoral prick.

And who knows, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he returned to football in some unexpected capacity even now. He’s never done anything on anyone else’s terms to less than 100% of his ability. So, raise a bottle of Brut 33 to Mighty Mouse: a man like none before him and like none ever will be again.

John Nicholson