Kevin Keegan: Mighty Mouse, The Player – Part One

This is the start of a new four part series documenting the playing career of Kevin Keegan. Each part will concentrate on his performances with each of his main clubs, Liverpool, Hamburg, Southampton and Newcastle United. First up, Liverpool.

Kevin Keegan was my first footballing hero. At the time I first got into football (1975-76) he was THE player in England. The hero of the terraces, darling of the media and at the beginning of 1976, captain of his country. If you were a young lad in the late 80’s then Paul Gascoigne might well be your hero, or in the mid-90’s it might be David Beckham, Michael Owen in 1998 or Wayne Rooney in the early 2000s. That was the effect Keegan had on English football in the mid-1970s. In fact you could argue he became the next football superstar after George Best. Either way, you get the idea.

Keegan became one of the best players in England, if not the best, and became integral to the national team’s success, but it was with Liverpool he made his name. Not particularly naturally talented, what Keegan had was a drive and desire to be a success and not accept second best , so he made the best of his talent, worked incredibly hard.

One major influence on his life was his father, a miner born in Hetton-Le-Hole, the same place as Bob Paisley. Joseph Kevin Keegan was born in Armthorpe, Doncaster on 14th February 1951.

He went for a trial at Belle Vue, then Doncaster Rovers ground but due to the fact his Dad had arranged it with a bloke in the pub, Rovers thought the five foot tall kid was better suited to being a jockey than a footballer. He had a trial with Coventry City, then managed by Jimmy Hill but didn’t win a contract. His first club was Scunthorpe United who were in the Fourth Division at the time. He was a regular in the team during the 1969-70 season when just eighteen and soon caught the eye of many scouts. Geoff Twentyman, Liverpool’s respected scout, was one who was particularly impressed by Keegan and he recommended him to Bill Shankly. Liverpool paid £35,000 for Keegan just at the end of the 1970-71 season.

LIVERPOOL

When he arrived at Liverpool many still thought he was too small, but Keegan worked very hard on his jumping so his height was of little consequence. Pretty soon after arriving he impressed Anfield boss and when asked where he wanted to play in the reserves on Saturday and Keegan replied;

“I haven’t come here to play in the reserves”.

This impressed Shankly as he clearly saw something in his young recruit which was a determination to make it to the top in the game. Keegan played in a pre-season game and caused such havoc Shankly picked him for the first League game of the season when Nottingham Forest were the visitors to Anfield in August 1971. Within twelve minutes Keegan endeared himself to the home fans when he scored, what he would claim was, “a lucky goal”. He wore the number 7 shirt in his first match and rarely wore another number for the rest of his career. Keegan had played in midfield at Scunthorpe, and initially Shankly had seen him as a replacement for Ian Callaghan, but that pre-season game had seen Keegan work well with John Toshack and so began one of the most famous partnerships in football. Keegan was in awe of Shankly, mainly because most people had dismissed him for being too small, yet Shankly was more interested in the size of your heart. Early in his Liverpool career Shankly said to Keegan:

“You’ll play for England within a year”, and he was right. Picked for the U23 side at the end of 1971 and then made his full England debut against Wales at Ninian Park in November 1972. His first three games for his country were against Wales and he got his first international goal in a 2-1 win, again in Cardiff, in May 1974.

During his first season at Liverpool he scored three goals in his first five games, including a goal on his first appearance at Newcastle. He soon struck up an almost telepathic partnership with John Toshack and they scored twenty-four goals between them that season. They were down in ninth towards the end of January when they put together a great run, winning fourteen of fifteen matches only to lose to eventual Champions, Derby County. They finished third and had set the foundation for the side which would lift the League title a year later.

Keegan’s strengths were his speed and ability to play all over the place making him difficult to mark.  Through his amazing work-rate he had the ability to jump, in fact almost as high as Toshack despite the height difference.

1972-73

The 1972-73 season began well with four wins in the opening five games but it wasn’t until the eighth match Keegan opened his account for the season with a goal against Wolves. Toshack and Keegan scored thirty-nine between them that season, with Keegan netting twenty-two. They lead the table from mid-September until back-to-back defeats against Wolves and Arsenal saw them drop to second in mid-February. Keegan scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win at home to Ipswich which took them back to the top at the end of February, to where they stayed. When Keegan scored five minutes from time to complete a 2-0 win against Leeds United at Anfield on Easter Monday towards the end of April, Liverpool were virtually Champions. On the same day Arsenal had drawn at Southampton and could only overhaul them on goal average (the method used to separate teams back then). The following Saturday a 0-0 draw at Anfield against Leicester City was enough to confirm the title was back at Liverpool for the first time for seven years.

Two weeks later Liverpool played the first leg of the UEFA Cup Final at home to Borussia Monchengladbach. Keegan scored twice in a 3-0 win. A 0-2 defeat in the return leg two weeks later was enough to secure a wonderful, and at the time, unique ‘double’.

1973-74

The following season, 1973-74, saw Keegan play a part in every one of Liverpool’s sixty-one matches, scoring nineteen times. His first goal of the season came in a 2-0 win against Derby County when Phil Thompson scored his first goal for the club, hitting a screamer from thirty yards. Their League form got them into the top two for the first time at the beginning of December and that’s where they stayed for the remainder of the season as they were beaten by a Leeds United team which set a record for going twenty-nine games unbeaten from the start of the season. Liverpool’s European Cup campaign was disappointing going out in the Second Round to Red Star Belgrade. Keegan didn’t score in either round, but he was more successful in the FA Cup campaign.

Doncaster, Keegan’s home town, visited Anfield in the Third Round. They were a Fourth Division side at the time and it was Keegan who gave Liverpool an early lead, but the visitors struck back to lead 2-1 at the break. Keegan’s second goal saved the League Champions’ blushes and brought about a replay where Liverpool prevailed, 2-0. Keegan scored in the Fifth Round win against Ipswich and then in the Semi-Final win against Leicester. This set up a Wembley Final against Newcastle United. Before the game Newcastle’s striker, Malcolm MacDonald had been bragging about what they’d do to Liverpool that day and this seemed merely to galvanise the Reds as they put together a brilliant performance and won at a canter, 3-0. Keegan scored twice, with his second coming after some exhibition passing from the team.

Two weeks after the FA Cup Final success, Keegan scored his first goal for England. It came in his third game, ironically all of them against Wales. England had dispensed with Alf Ramsey as boss and Joe Mercer was brought in as a caretaker until The FA decided on a replacement. England had the Home Internationals to play and then an Eastern European tour which had been hastily arranged once it was clear they would have the summer off. Keegan had been on the bench the previous October when Poland came to Wembley and frustrated the home side to grab a draw, denying England an opportunity to compete in the 1974 World Cup, and unfortunately he seemed destined not to play in a World Cup finals.

YUGOSLAVIA

Mercer seemed to take to Keegan, playing him against Wales, Northern Ireland and then a friendly at Wembley against Argentina. They then embarked on their tour where Keegan played in every game, East Germany, Bulgaria and then Yugoslavia. Keegan scored his second international goal to earn a 2-2 draw in Belgrade against Yugoslavia, a fact more remarkable when you consider he hadn’t had the ideal build-up to the game. When England landed in Belgrade off their flight from Sofia, they were early as officials had not allowed for the time difference. During the flight a stewardess had complained she’d been assaulted by someone on the flight. A few of the players were larking about near the luggage conveyor belt, when all of a sudden Keegan was grabbed by security men and dragged into a back room. They forced him to kneel “like a prisoner of war” as they punched, kicked and clubbed him. He was then charged with sexually assaulting a stewardess, assaulting a security guard, disturbing the peace and causing an obstruction. The sexual assault charge was a joke as Keegan had been asleep all flight. Eventually FA officials stepped in and managed to explain to the guards who Keegan was and the charges were dropped. Almost as if to prove a point, Keegan scored to deny the home side a win.

1974-75

The start of the 1974-75 season saw Keegan hit, possibly, the lowest point of his career. Playing Leeds United at Wembley in the Charity Shield he became a victim of the legendary ‘bully-boy’ tactics of that Leeds side when Billy Bremner kicked him once too often. Keegan finally lost it and lashed out at the Leeds skipper. Both players received red cards and lengthy bans. It had capped a pretty turbulent period in Keegan’s career, after the ‘Belgrade incident’ then he was sent off in a pre-season game against Kaiserslautern, and then sent off in the showpiece game at Wembley. The incident overshadowed the fact Brian Clough lead Leeds out for the first time, during his short spell as manager, and it was Bill Shankly’s final game as manager of Liverpool. Shankly had shocked the club by handing in his resignation a week before the Charity Shield and this affected all the players, particularly Keegan, who saw the enigmatic Scot as a real father figure.

Years later Keegan would recall  – “there was nothing wrong with Bob Paisley, but he just didn’t motivate me like Shankly could”.

Shankly was from mining stock, as Keegan’s father was and so there was a real affinity between the two. Keegan clearly had an effect on him as Shankly devoted a whole chapter in his autobiography entitled “A Boy Called Keegan”.

One famous tale about the relationship between the two came when West Ham visited Anfield in late 1971. Keegan would be up against England’s World Cup winning captain, Bobby Moore. Shankly had this habit of ‘welcoming’ visiting teams as they arrived at the ground. He came back into the dressing room and spoke to Keegan.

“Now listen, son”, said Shankly, “I’ve just seen that Bobby Moore get off the bus. What a wreck.  He’s limping and he’s got bags under his eyes. He must’ve been in one of those London clubs all night, son. If he moves, it’ll be half-time”.

Liverpool won with Keegan putting in a terrific performance. When he came back into the dressing room, Shankly pulled him to one side and then told him;

“Listen, son. You’ve just been up against one of the finest defenders God ever put breath in. He’s been brilliant today and you’ll never play against anyone better”.

It would be episodes like this which would stick with Keegan for the rest of his life and become an important part of his managerial philosophy in later years.

Bob Paisley was Assistant to Shankly since the Scot arrived at the club in 1959 and was reluctant to take over from him, but eventually accepted the role. Paisley’s methods were very different to Shankly as he preferred players to take more responsibility for themselves. His first season as manager saw them finish second as Derby County won their second title in four years. Keegan’s ban didn’t see him appear until October, after having played the opening League game at Luton. He wasted no time in finding the net although his overall tally of twelve was his lowest since his debut season. His partnership with Toshack produced a good end to the season as the two scored in twelve of the club’s last fourteen matches.

Their FA Cup defence only lasted until the Fourth Round when they suffered defeat at Ipswich. They only lasted two rounds in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup as well. But this was the season where he was starting to become a regular in the England team.

1975-76

1975-76 season was much better for player and club as Bob Paisley was really having an effect on the team. Things didn’t start well when they were beaten at QPR on the opening day of the season. That QPR side would push them all the way to the end as they had their best ever season in the League. After losing at home to Middlesbrough at the beginning of March, Liverpool would not be beaten again, winning eight of their last nine games to win the League by a point. During this League run they were also competing in the UEFA Cup, a competition they won last time they were in it.

Keegan scored the winning goal against Dynamo Dresden to set up a Semi-Final clash with Barcelona. A John Toshack goal saw them win in the Nou Camp against a side which included Cruyff, Neeskens and Rexach. A 1-1 draw in the second leg was enough to see them reach the Final again where they would be up against Bruges. The fixtures were piling up and the second leg match was the first of three games within five days as they beat Stoke 5-3 and Man City, 3-0. They lead QPR by one point with a game to go. QPR played their last game of the season first and beat Leeds, 2-0. This meant Liverpool went to Wolves for their final match needing only a point, but Wolves themselves needed to win to stay up.  Before then Liverpool had the visit of Bruges for the UEFA Cup Final first leg at Anfield, and had a shock when they were 0-2 down inside fifteen minutes. But a great comeback in the second half saw them score three times in five minutes with Keegan getting the third goal from the spot.

Liverpool then travelled to Molineux where they were again trailing at half-time, but it was Keegan who levelled things with fifteen minutes to go and they went onto win 3-1 to secure the first League title under Bob Paisley. Two weeks later they travelled to Belgium and again it was Keegan who scored the vital away goal in a 1-1 draw. Another League/Europe double for Keegan and Liverpool. If that wasn’t enough he then scored twice for England in a crucial World Cup Qualifier in Finland.

CELEBRITY

Keegan was what they now call ‘box-office’. Approachable, affable, good for a quote and keen to accept plenty of offers off the pitch from various celebrity endorsement deals. He endeared himself further to the British public when he appeared on the popular BBCtv programme ‘Superstars’. The cycling event saw him clip the wheels of his opponent and crash to the cinder track where he earned a nasty looking grazed arm. What isn’t often mentioned about that episode is he won the re-match. Keegan would also appear in adverts, particularly for men’s aftershave, Brut, alongside Boxing hero Henry Cooper. George Best was really the first footballer to take advantage, or be taken advantage of (depending on your viewpoint) endorsements and now Keegan was the new kid on the block. Today we expect to see footballers on adverts, but back then it was still a fairly new occurrence as footballers were still not lauded as they are now.

In March 1976 in yet another match against Wales, Keegan was given the honour of captaining his country in a 2-1 win. He was one of five Liverpool players in the England team that day with Joey Jones also playing in the Welsh side. The captaincy was only a temporary thing as Gerry Francis was back in charge for the next England game, but Keegan had certainly staked his claim. He was to benefit from Don Revie’s weird methods of discarding experienced players at will. Emlyn Hughes had been the manager’s first skipper but he was dispensed with before World Cup winner, Alan Ball took over. After a brilliant 5-1 demolition of Scotland at Wembley, Ball would never appear again in an England shirt and QPR captain Gerry Francis was handed the armband, for what was only his fifth cap for his country. Francis was injured for the Wales game, hence Keegan stepped up. He would only have to wait another six months before he took over the captaincy permanently from the start of the new season.

1976-77

At the beginning of 1976-77 season Keegan dropped a bombshell. He announced this was to be his final season at Anfield. He told the club he wanted to move abroad, arguing six years at Anfield was probably enough and he wanted to test himself elsewhere. After the boom in the early 1960’s there had been a dearth of English players of players moving abroad, so Keegan could again be considered to have started a fashion.

His final season was a difficult one for Keegan, as many Liverpool fans resented him for leaving, despite the fact he was playing out twelve months notice. There can no argument he didn’t give his all either. By December Liverpool had opened up a gap at the top of the table. Keegan had scored five so far in the League and also scored in each round of the European Cup. December was a poor month with just four points from six matches, yet they were still top. 1977 turned into a memorable year for the club and player.

The title was wrapped up when West Ham visited Anfield in early May, with still one match to play. They lost just three times after New Year, although one when the title had been decided. For a brief period in April, Ipswich removed them from top spot but only as they’d played more games and weren’t involved so much in the cups. Keegan had scored in each round of the FA Cup up to March when focus turned again to the European Cup. They lost 0-1 in France against St. Etienne and also lost at Tottenham in the League by the same score.

Mid-March and the French Champions, St. Etienne visited Anfield for, what became, an iconic match.  In front of over 55,000 in the ground, Keegan took a short corner on the left from Steve Heighway and then curled a shot just over the keeper’s hand into the top corner. Two minutes into the game and the tie had been levelled already. But just into the second period the French scored a crucial goal and now the home side needed to score twice. Ray Kennedy soon levelled the tie on aggregate but the French still held the away goal advantage. Enter super-sub, David Fairclough and his goal, just six minutes from time, became the stuff of legend.

Keegan then scored in an FA Cup Sixth Round win against Middlesbrough and now Liverpool were top of the League and in two cup Semi-Finals. They won the first leg of the European Cup Semi in Zurich and then Keegan scored in a vital win against Manchester City, who trailed them by just a point. He also scored in the return leg against Zurich as they went through 6-1 on aggregate to reach their first ever European Cup Final. But before they could get carried away they had to take on Everton in the FA Cup Semi-Final. A 2-2 draw in the first match then saw Liverpool win comfortably, 3-0, four days later. Keegan’s record of scoring in each round had gone but yet another cup final beckoned. Barely had the dust settled from the FA Cup then they were back in League action against Ipswich, who themselves were only one point behind. Ray Kennedy put Liverpool in front as the game moved into the final twenty minutes and then Keegan produced his now trademark, prodigious leap, to head a second. Liverpool won 2-1 and were clear of the chasing pack with games in hand. These were heady days.

United then visited Anfield and Keegan scored the only goal of that game to record their third successive win and extend their unbeaten run to eight matches. Two draws didn’t harm their chances either as they were now two points ahead of City who had just one match to play. Then came the West Ham game and they’d retained their League title. The next ten days would see them mount a challenge for a unique treble in English football.

They were up against Manchester United in the FA Cup Final, and despite having the better chances they lost 1-2 with all the goals coming in a four minute period early in the second half. The treble was gone but there was no time to wallow as they travelled to Rome for the European Cup Final. West German champions, Borussia Monchengladbach, were their opponents and the same club who Liverpool had beaten in the UEFA Cup in 1973 to give them their first European trophy. The Germans were also chasing their own League and European Cup double, having retained the Bundesliga for a third successive year. It would be Keegan’s final game in a Liverpool shirt and he was determined to make his mark. Talking of marks, he was shadowed all game by Bertie Vogts who kicked, pulled and nipped at Keegan all game, often being ignored by the referee. Terry McDermott had given Liverpool a first half lead, exploiting space created by Keegan in the middle. The Germans began the second half the brighter of the two and were soon level, before Tommy Smith headed in a corner.

The game moved into its final ten minutes when Keegan picked up the ball in the inside right position and immediately ran at Vogts and the German defence. As he reached the area he drew the challenge from Vogts and the ref pointed to the spot. Phil Neal made no mistake and Liverpool were the first English side to lift the European Cup since 1968. Two trophies to add to his tally was a great way to bow out and Keegan had scored exactly 100 goals from the 323 games he played for Liverpool. He’d scored twenty times that season, his second best in terms of goals.

Keegan was now off to West Germany to play for Hamburg SV, who had just won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, but had not won the Bundesliga for seventeen years.

How did I feel about Keegan leaving Liverpool?  I was gutted. I’d only had two years of watching my hero and now he was off. Things weren’t like they are today as we never saw anything of German football, so I’d only get to see him in an England shirt. Some Liverpool fans couldn’t forgive him, and still haven’t, yet he did give the club twelve months notice to find a replacement. Compare this with another legend, Ray Clemence, who only decided to go after winning his third European Cup in 1981 and within weeks he had gone to Tottenham, yet he received a standing ovation on his return to Anfield with his new employer. Of course, his replacement was a man who arguably became Liverpool’s greatest ever player, Kenny Dalglish. Those who resented Keegan’s departure were soon comforted by Dalglish bringing League and European honours.

Keegan didn’t have to wait long before his return to Anfield when his new club, Hamburg, arrived for the second leg of the Super Cup in early December 1977. The tie was poised at 1-1 from the first leg but Liverpool were rampant as a Terry McDermott hat-trick inspired a 6-0 thrashing, against a Hamburg side which contained eight players from their Cup-Winners’ Cup win over Anderlecht six months previously. Keegan was well received by the home fans, but then he hadn’t scored and Hamburg hadn’t won.

In Part Two we will document his German experience with Hamburg.

About the Author

Pete Spencer
Just turned 50. Been Supporting Liverpool since 1976 (Paisley's first title). Write a lot about football from days gone by. There's so much available online about football today and over the past twenty years but incidents from the past often get forgotten