Portrait of an iconic team: Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle

Daniel Storey

In 1992, Newcastle United were not just in a rut, they were stuck at the bottom of a well. Jim Smith’s team had been relegated from Division One in 1989, but that was merely the latest chapter of a malaise that showed little sign of being addressed. Newcastle had finished in the top six of the top tier only once (1976/77) since 1951. If Newcastle even constituted a giant, they were hibernating rather than sleeping.

Even the season that had vaguely hinted at promise had ended in disaster. In 1989/90, Newcastle finished third in Division Two under Smith, aiming to return to the top flight at the first time of asking. They were top of the table with just weeks of the season remaining, but eventually allowed Leeds United and Sheffield United to pass them, both securing automatic promotion. Newcastle’s play-off campaign ended after a miserable home defeat to bitter rivals Sunderland.

Smith would eventually be replaced by Ossie Ardiles, the sexy choice who produced ugly results. When Ardiles was sacked and replaced by Kevin Keegan, Newcastle were 23rd in Division Two. Relegation to the third tier for the first time in their history looked likely; Keegan secured survival on the final day of the season.

It is tempting to paint Keegan as the poster boy of Newcastle’s improvement, and he is certainly the main protagonist of this tale, but it would be foolish to underplay Sir John Hall’s role. Hall had virtually taken control of Newcastle by the time of Keegan’s appointment after a bitter power struggle, and it was his financial might that allowed the lavish spending which played such a crucial part in Newcastle’s rise. Hall had a vision for Newcastle United not just as a football club, but a cultural icon. If that dream wasn’t fully realised, Hall came closer than most.

Keegan was permitted to spend almost £5m in his first season, signing John Beresford, Barry Venison and Rob Lee, amongst others. Yet it was the arrival of Andy Cole that made the difference as a No.9 to follow in the footsteps of Hughie Gallacher, Jackie Milburn, Len White and Malcolm Macdonald. Cole scored 12 goals in 11 games after joining, ably supporting top scorer David Kelly as Newcastle roared to the Second Division title. That was the first trophy of any kind (and even then we’re talking the Texaco Cup) the club had won since 1976.

Promotion sparked the arrival of the second vital component of Newcastle’s attacking unit, Peter Beardsley returning to his hometown club from Everton and David Kelly was sold to Wolves. Newcastle added Premier League sparkle to a league that still retained the look of the old First Division, Beardsley and Cole scoring 55 league goals between them and 65 in all competitions. Cole scored 41 and was named PFA Young Player of the Year.

Yet most instructive to this story was the rate at which Newcastle scored goals as a team – 82 in the league. With Keegan’s Newcastle also conceding 41 times, only Sheffield Wednesday, Norwich City and the woeful Swindon Town were involved in more goals per game. Newcastle won league games 4-2 (twice) 4-0 (three times), 7-1 and 5-1, yet finished 15 points behind Manchester United. The Entertainers were born.


The iconic manager – Kevin Keegan
It is not uncommon for great teams to become defined by their managers. Alex Ferguson, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly, Arsene Wenger, Johan Cruyff, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola; all created wonderful club sides that became indelible versions of their managers’ personalities.

Much less common is a manager becoming famous as much for his side’s flaws as their strengths. It can happen of course, and Wenger is a fine example, but generally only when managers have been in place for 20 years or more. Keegan was in charge for five.

Yet between 1995 and 1997, Newcastle United were Keegan personified, for better and worse. It could never be any other way, not through the strength of Keegan’s personality but because he was so transparent, so simple. This was a man who said what he thought and did what he thought right, and a manager who sought to recreate the sheer joy of his playing days.

The true tragedy of Keegan’s Newcastle tenure is that, to the general public at least, it became defined by his failures. The high points, be it David Ginola’s volleys, Philippe Albert’s chip, Cole’s majestic season, Alan Shearer’s return or Les Ferdinand hanging in the air, are all associated with the players. The darkest moments, the manager slumped over the barrier and the “I will love it” rant, are all Keegan. He became a man predisposed to tragicomedy, a risible character in the soap opera of the Premier League.

Firstly then, the positives. Keegan inspired a Newcastle United team as it had never been inspired before. John Hall’s wealth was the facilitator, but plenty of money had been wasted before and has been since. Keegan took Newcastle to the Second Division title and third place in the Premier League within 27 months of taking over. On only three occasions have English managers finished in the top two of the Premier League – Keegan accounts for two of them.

He also improved players, and created a team far beyond the sum of its parts. Look at that Manchester United XI in 1995/96, managed by arguably the greatest manager in British football history: Schmeichel, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Neville, Keane, Butt, Beckham, Giggs, Cole, Cantona. For all Newcastle’s late-season collapse, the headline is that Keegan’s side were ever there at all. As John Beresford said: “We would have jumped off the Tyne Bridge for him.”

Finally, Keegan just got it. It may sound like romanticised nonsense to those outside the city, but Newcastle’s relationship with its football team really is unique, at least in this country. In no other town in England can you determine the form of the football team just by walking around the city centre on the morning of the game. To pinch a line from the Alan Shearer portrait, in the heart of north-east England, where London feels so far away it might as well be a foreign land, a large proportion of the population lives for Saturday 3pm.

Keegan bought into his chairman’s vision of Newcastle United as social institution, and he harnessed it. Plenty of other managers would have been suffocated far earlier than Keegan by that pressure. Put simply, Keegan made Newcastle the first neutrals’ favourites of the Premier League era.

And yet we will always associate Keegan with calamity, and never more so than his televised rant at Ferguson. It was damning evidence not just of his own innocence, but Fergie’s prowess at mind games. Keegan was a man of principle; Ferguson was a man of pragmatism.

In hindsight we can criticise Keegan for his perma-optimism and the attacking football that would eventually become his downfall. Yet at the time, the truth was obvious: Keegan couldn’t manage any other way. He was the anti-pragmatist of English football, for whom the means was more important than the end. Nobody remembers the losers? Guess again.


The iconic player – David Ginola
The homecoming of the sheet metal worker’s son was easily the fondest moment of Keegan’s Newcastle era, but Shearer was too proficient and too rounded a player to be the iconic member of that team. Instead, we need someone mercurial. We need Ginola.

If Newcastle were down on their luck in 1992, Ginola was in just as sticky a situation in 1995. He was the scapegoat for France’s failure to qualify for World Cup ‘94, the decision to cross rather than hold the ball in the corner against Bulgaria lambasted by manager Gerard Houllier. With the French public backing the coach, Ginola needed a move abroad. Despite interest from Barcelona and Juventus, he joined Newcastle United.

Like his manager, Ginola had little interest in defending. He had been sent to England to entertain, and entertain he did. Beresford would eventually complain to Keegan that he was having to mark two players because Ginola would refuse to track back, but the result was that Beresford was dropped while Ginola continued to play. It was that sort of team.

Ginola’s reputation in Newcastle and beyond would be nothing without his skill and swagger, but it was his image that truly defined his legacy. His “Because I’m worth it” L’Oreal advert catchphrase encapsulated our stereotypical early 90s view of what a foreign footballer should be, with flair and swagger almost to the point of parody. As the Guardian’s Amy Lawrence wrote so majestically about Paolo Maldini, it was difficult to know whether women or men loved him more. The same applied to Da-veed.


The iconic game – Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle
The misnomer about Keegan’s Newcastle is that they were a team who scored and conceded copious amounts of goals, blessed and cursed with a ‘we’ll score one more than you’ mentality. In 1995/96, that era-defining campaign, Newcastle scored just 66 goals, fewer than Manchester United and Liverpool directly above and below them and only two more than Everton in sixth. Newcastle conceded two more league goals than champions United.

That inaccurate reputation sticks to that Newcastle team for two distinct reasons. The first, as Michael Cox explains in his excellent book The Mixer, is that Keegan didn’t just care little for defensive training but actually often abandoned it altogether. Furthermore, Keegan formed his defence out of previously attacking players. Darren Peacock had been a centre-forward, Steve Howey an attacking midfielder, Philippe Albert a central midfielder, Steve Watson and Robbie Elliott forwards. Lee Clark was the defensive midfielder, and he had previously played for Newcastle as a No. 10.

The other reason for Newcastle’s reputation as The Entertainers was Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle, a match that came to represent not just Keegan’s Newcastle but the excitement and unpredictability of the Premier League as a whole. More than 21 years after the fixture, Liverpool’s games against Newcastle are perennially broadcast live on television in the hope that lightning will strike for a third time.

The wheels had already started to loosen on Newcastle’s runaway train before their trip to Anfield. Having held their infamous 12-point lead over Manchester United, Keegan’s team had won one and lost three of their five league games between February 10 and the end of March. Yet all was not lost. Newcastle travelled across to Liverpool three points behind Manchester United, but with two games in hand.

That means that defeat on that bonkers April night was not terminal to Newcastle’s title hopes. Had they won their other game in hand by a two-goal margin, Keegan’s team would be top of the table again. Yet so wounding was the manner of the loss, and so iconic the image of their manager slumped over the advertising hoardings like a pair of discarded pyjamas hanging over the side of a bed, that the title race was over. Keegan had been beaten, by Ferguson and by himself. Would he ever truly recover?

If that sounds like a slightly melodramatic question, it is one that Keegan’s assistant manager answers. “I knew we still had a chance,” Terry McDermott told Martin Hardy for his book on Keegan’s Newcastle, Touching Distance. “If it had been the defining game it would have been a lot worse but it wasn’t. We still had seven games. But it scarred Kevin. I’m convinced of that. It scarred him.”


What happened next?
Oh, not much. Keegan resigned in January 1997, announcing that he no longer wished to continue in football management “at this stage of his life”, before being named Fulham’s chief operating officer eight months later and subsequently taking over as manager. He was then named England manager, this time resigning from a toilet cubicle deep within Wembley Stadium with FA chief David Davies waiting outside. Keegan would at least return to Newcastle United in January 2008 only to resign once again after eight months, citing the signing of players that had only ever been watched on Youtube. Keegan eventually won his case for unfair dismissal and has never managed again.

Life at Newcastle United was equally quiet. They peaked under Bobby Robson in the early 2000s, but were eventually relegated after a series of calamitous signings and managerial appointments, demoted from the Premier League under the brief stewardship of club legend Shearer, who had only taken the job through sheer desperation to halt the slide. The club, by now under the ownership of Mike Ashley, flourished briefly under Alan Pardew but ultimately fell away due to years of neglect from the top down. The storm clouds continue to build.

For reasons of brevity, you must understand that I’ve left out German player Dietmar Hamann being given a copy of Mein Kampf by his teammates, Shearer knocking out Keith Gillespie, Joe Kinnear ringing up TalkSport to announce that he was the new Director of Football and calling the club’s best player “Yohan Kebab”, Kinnear calling journalists “c*nts”, Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer being sent off for fighting each other, a fan punching a horse, Joe Kinnear scouting Birmingham’s Shane Ferguson, who was on loan there from Newcastle, Pardew headbutting an opposition player, Pardew calling Manuel Pellegrini “a f*cking old c*nt”, Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall calling women of the city “dogs”, the appointment of John Carver and virtually everything Andy Carroll did including being sold to Liverpool for £35m. As I say, quiet.

Daniel Storey – Enjoyed this? Buy Portrait of an Icon: The book. All proceeds go to the wonderful Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.