“I’m not going home until I have signed them all” – Kevin Keegan signing off after a talk at the Curzon Theatre in the heart of London on Thursday night. It summed him up, a class act. If ever there was a man who symbolised what it means to support Newcastle United, then Joseph Kevin Keegan is that man.
My day had started off early, as a free morning allowed me to be first in the queue, along with one other hardy soul, for the Kevin Keegan book signing at Leadenhall Market. It wasn’t supposed to start until 12.30, yet here we were, out in the cold at 8.30am, just to be on the safe side. The amount of Geordies you meet in London is staggering at times, all with different stories of where they have came from and how they ended up here. Four hours might seem like a long time to stand there, but when you’ve got Newcastle United to talk about, and in our case, naming mutual acquaintances from Heaton that we have in common, the time flies.
KK arrived at 12:33. This was predicted two hours earlier by my friend in the queue who commented that his favourite number was 33, and he was guaranteed to show up bang on 12:33. Surely it was just a coincidence? But with Kevin Keegan, you just never know do you?
Within no time we were being ushered in from the cold and away we go! Being first in the queue brought us the bonus of a quick chat with Kevin, before we got our pictures taken and book signed. He told the two of us “don’t worry, stick with it, be patient, i’ll be back one day.”
All over within 3 or 4 minutes, after queuing for 4 hours. Was it worth it? No doubt about it. I’d do it again tomorrow.
I couldn’t wait for later that day to hear him again, KK appearing with Matt Dickinson at an event organised by The Times.
It started off with a bit of chat about growing up in Doncaster, playing around the world, Australia, South Africa, including for Malaysia u21s (yes really) to retiring abroad, playing golf and the Costa Del Sol. I think Matt Dickinson tried his best to make sure the talk wasn’t 100% NUFC dominated but it was always going to happen.
The first man putting his hand up saw to that. Just what did possess him to go to Newcastle?
I think what some don’t realise, especially non-Nufc fans, is that the North East was home for Kevin Keegan long before he signed for Newcastle United.
The Keegan family’s affiliation with the region dating back to (and beyond) the 1909 Stanley Pit Disaster, in which KK’s Grandfather was a local hero, having being credited with saving many lives. Keegan’s own Dad grew up in Hetton Le Hole in County Durham and didn’t lose his Geordie accent. Keegan just ‘gets it’, he always got it, and he still does. He commented himself that “It is drummed into you, and so is Newcastle United, Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Milburn.” Just like I grew up with my Dad drumming into me the likes of Keegan, Supermac, and Terry Hibbitt.
“I needed to play for Newcastle” was the short response from Kevin Keegan. He would then go on to reference the phone call with Sir John Hall which brought him back to Newcastle as manager eight years later. KK quoted Hall as saying “you’ve got the passion, and I’ve got the money.” I think passion was a good term of phrase which actually meant – you know football, and you know this club. It is a crying shame that there is nobody who knows anything about football, or shares a love for Newcastle United right now. The club officials on the fans forum are a fair indictment of that, as well as the likes of Barnes, Bishop and Ashley.
KK even admitted himself that “you can’t buy NUFC and run it like a sports shop” and “it makes no sense to surround yourself with people who don’t know what they’re doing.” As a Newcastle fan, it is somewhat of a culture shock to actually sit down and listen to somebody talk about the club in a sensible manner. The fact that they managed to drive this man away from the club is the greatest crime in the Mike Ashley era.
During the talk, it was striking just how similar a situation Keegan found himself in when he took over as manager for the first time, compared to the predicament that Rafa is in now. He reminisced a story of himself and Terry Mac sat in the old bathtubs of SJP, and commenting on how “the training ground needed knocking down, the facilities were terrible.” The difference being that over the years, there was a board in place who were willing to let the one man in the club who was an expert on football, actual decision-making power. Right now, in 2018, Newcastle United doesn’t even have a board.
Another similarity with today’s squad was that KK commented “We didn’t have a good side.” This comes back to the main problem that Benitez has right now. We all know he doesn’t have a side that is good enough, and of course that is not his fault, but as a manager it is imperative that you get the most out of your players. This is something Benitez has done to good effect so far. KK did this, with Micky Quinn being a fine example, he describes Quinn as “a good player, but I wanted a different type of player”…does that sound familiar? Perhaps a certain Serbian fits into that bracket right now under Benitez. The similarities are striking, but the backing that each manager received are world’s apart.
When Keegan wanted a player, he invariably got him. The first player he asked for was Brian Kilcline, someone who KK described as “irrespective of his footballing ability, it was important to have a true leader out there”, he would later go on to describe the signing of Kilcline “as more important than Shearer in the history of Newcastle United.” Can you imagine now if Rafa wanted to sign a Kilcline type player? 30 years old, with seemingly his best days behind him, to go straight in and become captain, the powers that be I imagine would be having none of it. It goes to show you what happens when you just listen to the guys who know what they are talking about.
“You buy players for what they do on the football pitch” – it sounds so simple, and yet at Newcastle United under Mike Ashley it sounds like a revolutionary idea that you buy football players based on how good they are at football. In reference to signing David Ginola, KK admitted that “clubs would never pay that money now for him” but you “buy players for what they do on the pitch.”
A sad truth that KK admitted now for fans though is that, even if you do have the money, then “Newcastle is never going to be the first port of call… schools, flights, geographic… are all something unfortunately today Newcastle fans have to understand, are taken into consideration compared to Manchester and London.” Not only does this stress the need for even greater investments to be made in the academy, with KK citing contributions from local lads Fenton (Blackburn) and Stone (Forest) as even more of a killer than the home defeat to Man U, but the need to have a Keegan like figure at the club in order to sell out to potential signings.
Of course, signing for Newcastle has so many positives but it is having the right football people working in the club, who know the city, know the history, know the area, in order to sell it to players. When you sit and listen to Rafa in press conferences, it feels like from the words he says that he doesn’t have a clue what is going on half the time, and to me, that means he has very very little knowledge in terms of transfers. If Rafa doesn’t have the time to get involved in signing players, and his job is simply handing a list to Lee Charley, then there must be a football guy to represent the club at any transfer negotiations.
Another question from the audience followed in which a Geordie lad stood up and thanked KK, “Kevin, thank you for making my childhood f…ing amazing.”
Keegan would then go on to talk about the 95/96 near title winning team, with funny stories of Philippe Albert “who couldn’t play in any position”, and Darren Peacock who once knocked on KK’s office door to say “gaffer, any chance you could sign another defender to help me out?”
There were only positives to talk about in regards to Keegan’s first two spells at Newcastle, he summed up all of his stories with “the one and only thing I wanted was that all of my players were comfortable with the football, I just wanted players who could handle it.”
For me there is a golden rule when managing Newcastle, two simple things for any manager, regardless of their ability, that are key to being a success. Keegan did them both with ease, and while Rafa has managed one of them, his hands are certainly tied in regards to the other.
The first is easy; get the fans onside. This doesn’t necessarily require you to win loads of games, or be a big name/local hero. It is simply a prerequisite of honesty, respect and understanding of the club you are managing.
The second is to sign players who, and to an extent regardless of their ability, don’t shrink in the Newcastle United shirt. The type of character who thrives under the pressure, who thrives on playing in front of 52,000 every week, who wants to be a hero somewhere, who wants to be adored, who wants to do it for the club and the fans, just as much as they do it for themselves. Sometimes those two things can overlap, with the deal to bring Keegan to the club in 1982 being sponsored by the brewery. It is the most simple reminder to Mike Ashley (although we are past it now) that if you had simply got the fans, the city, the local business, the politicians on your side, then that would have been half the job done for you.
Instead, his ‘mistakes’ were best summarised again by KK, who although barely touching on his latest spell at the club, mentioned that his biggest regret about returning to SJP was simply “going there in the first place… nobody in their right mind would have put up with what I did…lies and deceit.”
Of course life, and especially football, is all about opinions, but Keegan suggested that you are either on the right side or the wrong side when it comes to that fateful last spell at the club. “Constructive dismissal is one of the hardest things to prove in a court of law, even when the evidence is on your side. Yet mine was over and done with in 30 seconds.”
It all comes back to one man doesn’t it? Mike Ashley.
Keegan wasn’t willing to comment on him, as he said “I don’t even know Mike Ashley, he never answered my calls, he called me King Kev but I never really spoke to him, but what I do know is that it will be the best day when someone takes it over.”
Keegan’s views on the man are plain to see though, with him signing my book on the third page with “Ashley Out” followed by his signature.
Being a London crowd there were one or two other non-NUFC stories in there, but KK was on top form and it was all quality, in particular, he describes the great Norman Hunter “He would spend 90 minutes kicking your balls off, but fair play, at the end of the game he’d come and help you look for them.”
However, one way or another, it always came back to Newcastle United, with the King finishing with a simple statement.
“Football is life in Newcastle, you have to understand exactly what the club is. It is a cathedral, its everything.”
You can follow the author on Twitter @JonathanComyn