When I think of footballers talk-ins, I immediately associate them with plastic chairs around bare tables at the social club, with pie and peas and a raffle to win a boxing glove signed by Marvin Hagler. Hall One at the Sage Gateshead is a world apart from this, all splendid pine decor and beautiful mood lighting, with 1,600 people comfortably arranged in an auditorium that oozes class.
It was an appropriate setting for this event, as the man who took the stage was set to remind us all that he embodies the very same virtue. Kevin Keegan has never failed to elicit a response on Tyneside, and the warmth and enthusiasm that greeted his arrival on stage on Tuesday night was as raucous as it was in those halcyon days of the mid-nineties, when Newcastle United all too briefly became what Newcastle United could be.
Keegan was in town of course, to promote his new autobiography and launched into his task with trademark gusto. He knows how to keep an audience captivated and the story of his early struggles to break into the game evolving into major success at Liverpool via Scunthorpe, then Hamburg, with the odd reference to Brut and the Green Cross Code, kept everyone entertained but it was the Newcastle United stories people had flocked to hear.
KK was clearly loving telling anecdotes from his spells as a player and manager (first time) at United, with guest appearances from Terry McDermott and Peter Beardsley adding colour to the nostalgia. There was genuine fondness in Keegan’s voice as he had personal stories about each of his magnificent signings, from Brian Kilcline nipping out to ask his wife if he could sign for Newcastle, through to Asprilla buying 1,000 shirts with his name on that he then couldn’t get through customs.
I’ve been to a few of these events with the stars of the 90 and there’s always a bittersweet element for me. It’s magnificent to think of a time when our team was so cavalier and our club so progressive, but it hurts that they were never vindicated with a trophy success, and it aches to think what the club has now become. Keegan’s team epitomised Newcastle at its raw, unadulterated best, wildly striving to realise its massive potential. The hamstrung, trussed up shadow of its former self that inhabits the former Sports Direct Arena, looks even worse through the prism of its former glories.
In a way, I hated myself for the itch I developed towards the end of the evening. As the selected Q and As were carefully put to Kevin, I wanted to move away from the gentle queries as to who he would like to have signed but never did, or what he would have done differently in 96. I’m sure many in the crowd shared my desire to hear more from Keegan on the current mess of the club, hopefully in a way that would create another headline that further damaged the Ashley regime.
Like I said though, KK has class. He was here to celebrate the good times, not throw shade around like so many lower life forms on the Keith Bishop payroll have been so quick to do. When the questions on the subject did finally come, he was pragmatic and inoffensive in his responses.
When asked about Tony Jimenez’ recent claims that Keegan declined to sign players they had lined up should Harry Redknapp have taken over, he pointed out that Diarra, Crouch and Defoe all swiftly signed for Portsmouth. It was Redknapp who had appealed to these players, not Jimenez and co. KK was even magnanimous about Dennis Wise, saying he didn’t think badly about his role in supporting his mate.
Ultimately though, the big question came. Had anyone ever approached King Kev to become involved in a takeover bid?
He confirmed that at one point (without naming names) that he’d been sounded out about involvement in a German-style fan ownership model – but it never got any further than being the impossible dream in the money saturated Premier League. He was also quick to distance himself from being attached to any consortium, not wanting the actions of an entire group to be associated as representing his own view. I didn’t realise how much I’d wanted him to say he’d just got off the phone with Peter Kenyon and he’d be back by Christmas, but Keegan brings out the dreamer in you.
There was a rallying call towards the end, as the great man again reminded us that one day this must all end, although not without a word of warning as he said:
“Everyone knows you want Mike Ashley out. Your patience has been fantastic and he will go one day. Keep doing what you’re doing but keep supporting your club. If it goes down again it could sink.”
Keegan’s empathy with the hopeless matchgoer (rapping in on Saturday night, going back by Wednesday) will rankle with those that see the regular full houses as part of the problem, but there’s no denying he knows the hearts and minds of the Geordie public. He was unflinching in his continuing support of the fans’ cause, but in no way allowed the toxic cloud that hangs over the club now infringe on a celebration of what had previously been achieved. This was a night to dwell on when things were great, not where they went wrong.
I cannot fathom how anyone who loves Newcastle United sees Kevin Keegan as anything other than utterly magnificent.
Any miserable minority who sees things otherwise was nowhere near tonight as the room rose in appreciation of a man I would say is quite simply the most important person in the United’s modern history, who came here twice when we were at our lowest ebbs to restore the club’s dignity and drag it up to begin to realise its massive potential.
Kevin Keegan said how much he always loved coming to Newcastle, but he was always sad to leave, hopefully tonight he realised that Newcastle feels exactly the same.
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf