After a thirteen year spell in the First Division, Newcastle had dropped down one in 1978 but had only finished mid-table in the five seasons they’d been in the Second Division. They were managed by Arthur Cox who’d taken over in 1980 and Newcastle was definitely a sleeping giant, still able to command good crowds but underachieving on the pitch.
On 19th August Cox pulled another rabbit from the hat when he revealed his latest acquisition. In 1980 Lawrie McMenemy had shocked the football world when he signed Kevin Keegan just months after the player competed in the European Cup Final with Hamburg. Now Cox had managed to persuade Keegan to drop down a division. The season before, Keegan had been the First Division top scorer and won the PFA Player of the Year Award, he was England captain for the 1982 World Cup and now he was moving to Second Division Newcastle United. A modern day equivalent would probably be Wayne Rooney moving to Nottingham Forest.
Newcastle represented a similar project as Hamburg and Southampton in that they were ambitious for success, but those teams had already achieved some sort of status whereas Newcastle were simply ‘potential’ and for the England captain this was a massive gamble. For the player he was sold on the romance of returning ‘home’. His Dad had regaled him with stories of Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Milburn, and as far as Keegan was concerned he was returning to his roots. The locals clearly felt the same way as news had spread round the city and the Gosforth Hotel was packed for the unveiling. Keegan had negotiated a £100,000 transfer fee and a contract which included a bonus if the attendances increased.
He joined David McCreery (Man Utd), Mick Martin (Man Utd & West Brom) and record signing, John Trewick (West Brom) who’d all brought with them experience from the First Division, yet they also had some exciting, but raw, youngsters who were just ripe for someone to mould them into better players.
The first match of the season was at St. James’ Park where over 35,000 saw the home side win 1-0. Who scored the goal? Who else, but Kevin Keegan? To get some idea of the Keegan effect on the club and the area, the attendance for the corresponding fixture just three months earlier was barely above 10,000. Back then QPR had arrived in the North East and won 4-0 with goals from John Gregory, Clive Allen, Mike Flanagan and Simon Stainrod. Alongside Keegan up front that day was a 21-year old Chris Waddle as well as Imre Varadi who’d burst onto the scene at Everton a couple of years before. Keegan got the biggest cheer of the afternoon but the second biggest went to a streaker who ran on just as the sides were lining up to kick-off, and handed the only piece of clothing he possessed, a scarf, to Keegan to much amusement.
The goal came fifteen minutes into the second half, when John Craggs, who’d just joined from Middlesbrough, played a ball forward from right-back and Keegan nodded it onto his strike partner, Varadi. Keegan turned and made a run to accept Varadi’s header and he was away into the area. One-on-one with Peter Hucker, Keegan slid the ball past him and everyone in the ground had the moment they’d dreamed of. It was a fairytale start and typical Keegan. He would later describe this as one of his best goals.
Four days later they went to Ewood Park and met Blackburn. In the home side that day was Derek Fazakerly, who would play an important part in Keegan’s managerial career. Keegan scored again in a 2-1 win and things were just getting better all the time for the Toon. At the weekend the winning run came to an end when Bolton, including Peter Reid and John McGovern won 3-1 at Burnden Park, although Keegan was again on the scoresheet, converting a penalty.
By this time Newcastle had made over £100,000 from season tickets alone so Keegan had paid back his fee, and both club and player were benefiting from increased attendances. The Bolton defeat started a run of five games without a win. In the previous season the largest attendance had been just over 26,000 when Chelsea came to St. James’ Park, but when they arrived in September just under 30,000 were there. For the Tyne-Tees derby Cox shocked the locals further when he signed Mick Channon. Channon and Keegan were together again and Channon matched Keegan when he scored on his debut. Unfortunately the romantic idea of the two replicating at Newcastle what they had at Southampton never materialised and after just four appearances, Channon was off.
Cox then delved back into the transfer market and again plumped for experience when he signed Terry McDermott from Liverpool for £100,000. Three times a European Cup winner and six times a League Champion, McDermott was part of the re-structuring at Anfield where Bob Paisley was dismantling one of the most successful teams in English football and building another one. Cox saw McDermott adding some much needed experience and the ability to create chances for the strikers as well as pitch in with some goals himself. During this fallow period Keegan didn’t score but when the cameras arrived for their visit to Rotherham, he soon changed all that.
Newcastle had just lost to Shrewsbury and Barnsley and the shine had gone a bit, so the Rotherham game was seen as a way to get back on track. Rotherham were lead by Keegan’s old Liverpool captain, Emlyn Hughes, who was player-manager. It took less than fifteen minutes for the Geordies to see the combination of McDermott & Keegan in action as McDermott played a lovely through ball for Keegan to round the keeper and put the ball away for the opening goal. Twenty five minutes into the game and Newcastle had a penalty when McDermott was brought down in the area and Keegan stepped up to send the keeper the wrong way. Early in the second half, McDermott was again in the thick of the action when he was adjudged to have handled in the area and Rotherham had a penalty. Hughes took the responsibility himself but Kevin Carr in the Newcastle goal guessed the right way and saved it. To add insult to injury Keegan then completed his hat-trick as Newcastle countered and Varadi again played him in and the new Geordie hero kept his cool to beat Mountford once again.
As the game reached the final quarter of an hour, Mick Martin played a great ball into the area and Keegan was able to knock it past Mountford for his, and Newcastle’s, fourth goal. Just a few minutes later Kevin Todd made it 5-0. Joe McBride, who’d made his name at Everton, got a consolation goal back but the game was a wonderful exhibition of the beginning of something being created at Newcastle and the club was on a real high.
During the game the Geordie fans had been singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as well as “Are you Watching Bobby Robson?”. The second chant was a reference to the new England manager’s decision not to pick Keegan for his first match, a European Championship Qualifier in Denmark. Keegan had been incensed with the decision mainly because he only heard it through the press. Robson had called time on an eight-year international career of 63 caps and 21 goals. Having captained his country on 31 occasions Keegan felt entitled to a phone-call from the new manager, and was particularly perplexed given Robson had assured him he was in his plans. Robson would claim at the time that he believed Keegan to be ‘too influential in the dressing room’.
Two weeks later Newcastle were brought back down to earth when Fulham visited and won 4-1, with Ray Houghton getting one of the goals and Keegan scoring from the spot. In November, Keegan scored a brace against Leicester when a young Gary Lineker scored. At the end of the year they were lying in twelfth. Keegan had scored eleven goals as they’d won seven, drawn seven and lost seven. Whether they had enough for a promotion push was debatable but the good mood was back at St. James’ Park and they were enjoying their football.
1983 began well as they suffered just one defeat in their first nine matches and that was to leaders, QPR. They drew 2-2 at promotion chasing Fulham, thrashed Shrewsbury, 4-0 and beat Leeds United, 2-1. Both Keegan and Lineker scored when Leicester visited at the end of March and then they beat another side in with hopes of promotion, Grimsby 4-0. Despite their form against sides above them, rather surprisingly they also lost to the bottom two clubs, Derby and Burnley. In April, after the Derby loss, they went on a run of four straight wins which moved them up into fifth in the table and now only six points off a promotion spot. Keegan was again on target against Rotherham where they put another four past them. Their run was ended at Cambridge but a 5-0 win over Barnsley restored things, as Keegan scored his twenty-first of the season.
Newcastle finished the season in fifth and their tally of 75 goals was bettered only by QPR (77). They were only three points off a promotion place as the season ended in controversy with Fulham squandering a chance of going up themselves. Keegan was joined on twenty-one goals with Imre Varadi as the two had struck up a good partnership, and Varadi ended the season with eleven goals in the final ten games. Towards the end of the season Cox had asked Keegan to take Varadi under his wing, and this would suggest his influence paid dividends.
Keegan’s creativity in negotiating his own contract brought him unexpected rewards immediately as the average gate for the season was 25,710, over 7,000 more than the previous year. The player was happy and so was the club.
Unusually he had a summer off as his international career was now over, but things hadn’t ended well. Although an admirer of Ron Greenwood, he firmly believed the manager had got it wrong when he didn’t select him for the last two matches of Spain ’82, particularly the ‘must-win’ game against Spain when Keegan and Brooking were both kept on the bench for all but the last third of the game. Despite going through the tournament unbeaten Greenwood stepped down as England manager, and The FA selected Bobby Robson. Robson, a Geordie, had built a successful and attractive team at Ipswich which came close to lifting the League in 1981 when they won the UEFA Cup. They had also beaten overwhelming favourites, Arsenal, in the 1978 FA Cup Final. During his tenure they were one of the best sides in the country and Robson seemed to be the outstanding candidate for the job as The FA continued to ignore Brian Clough’s achievements.
Initially, Robson gave Keegan confidence he would remain as captain as the player was desperate to play in another tournament, the European Championships in France. Robson even visited St. James’ Park to talk to Keegan, a month before he announced his first squad for a crucial qualifier at the end of September. The first the player knew about his exclusion from the squad was through an announcement in the press. To this day it hurts Keegan, even though he and Robson both managed Newcastle in later years and had a mutual respect for each other. But Robson’s view was Keegan held too much influence within the dressing room and he believed it was bad for team spirit. As it was Robson’s first team contained just three changes from the side which started the game against Spain two months previously. He preferred to go for players such as Ricky Hill at Luton and Tony Morley at Aston Villa than Keegan.
Keegan’s pride had been hurt but more than that he believed he had achieved a sufficient status within the game to deserve a phone call from the manager explaining the reasons behind his omission. Keegan’s argument is down the years England had requested he play in certain friendly matches simply to add numbers to the gate, and so was valuable to his country then but was discarded as if he was simply a favourite of the previous manager. He has a point as he was England captain and had been lead to believe he was in the new manager’s plans. Robson had voiced concern over Keegan’s new choice of club given they were a Second Division side at the time. But by the time of the Denmark game, Keegan had scored more goals in the new season than Mariner & Francis combined yet they were given further opportunities despite both failing to fire England into the World Cup Semi-Finals barely a few months before. As it was England failed to qualify for the European Championships but Keegan refused to claim the last laugh.
For Newcastle they were able to benefit from a fit Keegan for the whole season. He embarked on a second which would provide the locals with everything they’d dreamed of. The season was a successful one as Arthur Cox and the club made some important signings which would immediately improve the overall strength of the squad. Goalkeeper Martin Thomas was bought from Bristol Rovers and David Mills, who was once the most expensive player in England when West Brom signed him for £500,000 in 1979, was bought from Sheffield Wednesday. Mills had played a part in Wednesday’s rise to the FA Cup Semi-Finals the previous season but Newcastle acquired him as part of the deal which saw Varadi move the other way. It was quite a gamble on the club’s behalf as they were giving their joint top scorer to a side which were expected to be challenging for promotion. As the season progressed they would also buy Glen Roeder, the experienced central defender from QPR and then a young Peter Beardsley.
Mills scored his first goal of the season in a 3-0 win over Oldham at the beginning of September and then Keegan opened his account three days later in a 2-3 defeat at Middlesbrough. The first seven matches of the season had been patchy with just three wins and eleven points, but that Middlesbrough defeat was the start of a run of nine games unbeaten which included six straight victories, coinciding with Beardsley’s appearance in the starting line-up. At the end of October, Beardsley scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 thrashing of Manchester City. A week later they beat Fulham 3-2 where Keegan scored his ninth of the season and Newcastle were flying high in second place behind Wednesday.
Their run ended with a bang when they suffered back-to-back defeats at Chelsea (0-4) and Wednesday (2-4) and then a third defeat in four games when they lost 2-3 at Derby, saw them slip to fourth. At the turn of the year they were still fourth, just three points behind leaders, Chelsea. Mills had struggled to make an impression but this was a blessing in disguise as Cox adopted a front three of Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle. The trio had contributed 33 goals between them, Keegan (15), Waddle (12) and Beardsley (6). Roeder joined just before Christmas and tightened things up at the back as he developed a good partnership with another young Geordie, Steve Carney. Thirty-two goals were conceded in the twenty-two games to New Year’s Day, but they only conceded a further nineteen goals in the remaining twenty matches.
1984 began with another trip to Anfield for Keegan and yet again he was on the losing side as Liverpool dumped Newcastle out of the FA Cup in the Third Round. Then a league defeat at Crystal Palace was soon turned around when Keegan and Beardsley both scored twice in a 4-1 win at Portsmouth. They then suffered only their second home defeat when Kevin Drinkell’s goal gave Grimsby a 1-0 win at St. James’ Park to put them fourth at Newcastle’s expense. But once again they were able to put together an unbeaten run which would prove crucial.
Just after the Grimsby defeat, Keegan announced he would retire from football at the end of the season. He’d signed for a further year with Newcastle and was desperate to see them get back to the top table of English football but his experience at Anfield had convinced him that maybe he might struggle at that level this time. He was the general to the young privates, Beardsley and Waddle but at thirty-three he believed his race had been run. His family struggled to settle on Tyneside and so it was the best thing for all that he would step down and let the young players have their stage. Now the decision had been made he set about ensuring promotion was theirs.
They went nine games unbeaten which saw them in third level on points with the two above them, Chelsea and Wednesday. Again it was Wednesday who ended the run and when they were then held at Blackburn, they were beginning to lose touch with the leaders but still had a cushion on Manchester City in fourth. Another brace each for Keegan and Beardsley saw off Carlisle (5-1), when City lost at home to Huddersfield and now Newcastle’s advantage was seven points with just four to play. They then suffered a shock defeat at Cambridge when a Kevin Smith penalty gave the bottom club their first win since 1st October, a run of thirty-one matches without a win, still a record today.
With just three games to go their lead over fourth was six points with Grimsby emerging as challengers. 5th May and just under 36,000 turned up at St. James’ Park to witness the visit of Derby County. It was the biggest crowd anywhere in the country that day. Another double from Beardsley and goals from Keegan and Waddle gave the home side a 4-0 win and promotion was all but secured. They could only be denied by goal difference, yet they had an advantage of fifteen goals over Grimsby. Mills returned for his first appearance since Boxing Day to score in a 2-2 draw at Huddersfield on the same night Grimsby lost at Oldham and now Newcastle had gained promotion to the First Division after an absence of six years.
These were heady days on Tyneside and the final game of the season was at St. James’ Park where 36,715 watched them take on Brighton. This was more than Brighton played in front of when they visited Old Trafford the year before. The game was a roaring success as Keegan, ever the one for the occasion, scored in a 3-1 win. Beardsley and Waddle also scored which seemed to symbolise the past and the future for Newcastle. Just as he had at Southampton, Keegan ended up as top scorer with 27 goals. Beardsley hit twenty in thirty-five games and Waddle scored eighteen.
To wave farewell, Newcastle then arranged a friendly to be held at St. James’ Park where Liverpool were the visitors. The game was arranged purely for the club’s benefit although Keegan would’ve again profited from the biggest crowd of the season packed into the ground on a Thursday afternoon. Liverpool, fresh from picking up another League title, took an early lead through Michael Robinson but then Craig Johnston tipped a Keegan header over the bar and the home side had a penalty. There was only going to be one player to take it and Keegan duly obliged by sending Grobbelaar the wrong way. Souness then restored Liverpool’s lead at the break and at half-time the crowd was entertained by a marching band and a mini-bus which would bring disadvantaged kids to St. James’ Park for the following season, a gift to the fans from Keegan.
In the second half, Keegan had chances to score again but it was another ex-Liverpool player, Terry McDermott, who volleyed the equaliser and then game ended 2-2. There were fireworks to accompany a lap of honour and then Keegan left in a helicopter. It was possibly the most dramatic, and certainly the most audacious, exit from a playing career ever, although again Keegan hadn’t arranged it and was possibly the victim, or maybe the benefactor of others using his celebrity.
As I stated in my first part, Keegan was my first footballing hero. Although Dalglish achieved more with Liverpool and you could argue there have been better players than Keegan who have played for all his clubs and his country, there is no doubt the effect he had on making others and motivating others to play better. You could also argue each club he played for achieved things after he left they didn’t achieve with him, and he even won his first of two European Footballer of the Year awards when he had, for him, an average season. He only played twenty-five minutes of World Cup football and was unable to influence an England side in 1980. But to simply look at statistics ignores the ‘Keegan effect’.
He was the first footballer to truly take advantage of the growing celebrity in football. George Best was the first but as Keegan said “he didn’t always turn up for events, so it was left to me to do that and I benefited”. He was one of the most famous footballers of his generation when the game was crying out for replacements for Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Charlton. He wasn’t the most naturally gifted players of his generation but there lies the true mark of the man. He worked incredibly hard at his game and this work ethic rubbed off on his teammates, many of whom invariably worked harder themselves. His first European Footballer of the Year Award was more for his overall contribution to Hamburg and the effect he had on the area, given few Englishmen played abroad and he turned people round purely through force of personality.
He was a major influence in Liverpool’s first European Cup success and paved the way for further trophies at Anfield. He was the driving force in Hamburg’s first Bundesliga for nineteen years and inspired them to their first ever European Cup Final appearance. They won the trophy three years later and during that time were a force in West German football. When he arrived at Southampton, a move no one predicted, he inspired them to the top of the table for the first time in their history, in January 1982. The club went onto have their best ever finish two years after he left, with many of the youngsters he’d inspired, playing a major part. When he ‘returned to his roots’ at Newcastle he was able to galvanise the club, the fans and the area and promotion was achieved in his second, and final, season there.
He played 63 times for his country, winning 34 and losing just 12 at a time when England’s form was inconsistent. He captained England on 31 occasions, winning 17 times, losing 8, only seven men in history have captained the country more.
He scored plenty of goals wherever he was, many of them good goals, a few of them ‘great’ but that underlines his qualities in making himself into a great player. Things happened whenever Keegan was around, he just had that magnetism about him, and his return to football as manager of Newcastle and England illustrated the ripples he was able to create.
He was a pioneer, not only as many players copied his trademark perm hairstyle, but his foray into Europe opened the door with players such as Tony Woodcock and Dave Watson making their way to West Germany after him and then the huge crusade of players to Italy in the mid-80’s saw many of them mention Keegan’s exploits as an influence in their decision to move.
One feature which seems consistent throughout his career is the role, and influence of his father. The managers he got on best with were father figures, Shankly, McMenemy, Cox, Revie and Zebec. He never really clicked with Paisley, who was often seen by many as more of an uncle than a father and this was possibly how his relationship with Greenwood went, despite his immense respect for both men. In the end his career went full circle in him adopting a fatherly figure at Newcastle to then leave Waddle, Beardsley et al, to take the club on once he’d shown them the ropes.
One aspect I was particularly attracted to was that he was flawed. Things didn’t always go his way, yet he had the ability to make things happen just by being there. He wasn’t as perfect as a Dalglish or a Cruyff or even a Rummenigge, yet it is noticeable how popular he became in Germany as he was their type of man – a grafter. Often he would skim the walls and put on the undercoat, leaving others to come in and decorate and furnish the place. For me, that’s the difference between Keegan and Dalglish. You could argue he courted celebrity more than most footballers, but often had to accept being taken advantage of. Yet he never seemed to ignore the effect his presence would have on others, and was always painfully aware of how lucky he was to get to where he did.
What you can guarantee is that life was never boring when Keegan was around.