Keegan had originally signed a two year contract with Hamburg and after playing a major part in their first Bundesliga for nineteen years, he stayed for a further year. They reached the European Cup Final but lost 0-1 to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Keegan had decided this would be his last season in West Germany and negotiated a fee with Hamburg, then began thinking about where his next move would be. He thought Spain or Italy would be ideal and plumped for Italy mainly because he fancied the challenge of scoring goals, something which many strikers struggled with over there then. He even agreed terms with Juventus but when it came to it his wife, Jean, told him she didn’t want to go to Italy. She was concerned about some of the news on kidnappings and other criminality and felt England was a better home for them and their daughters. She basically told him he could go to Italy if he wanted, but she would be returning to England.
So Keegan decided England would be the best place to call their next home but where would he play? Liverpool had a clause put in his contract when he left in 1977 that they would have the option of taking him back, but they now had Kenny Dalglish and believed they didn’t need Keegan. At the start of 1980, Keegan received an approach from Lawrie McMenemy on the pretext the Southampton manager was looking for a lamp which was made only in a factory in Hamburg. During their subsequent conversations, McMenemy asked if Keegan had decided where he would be playing next season and suggested he might want to consider Southampton.
For most of their history, Southampton had competed in the second and third tiers of English football. In 1966 they achieved promotion to the First Division for the first time, stayed there for eight seasons before returning to Second Division. Whilst there they pulled off a famous FA Cup Final shock when they beat Manchester United, 1-0, thanks to a late goal from Bobby Stokes. Two years later they came back up in the same season as Tottenham. In their two seasons back, they’d finished fourteenth and eighth and McMenemy, who’d been manager when they lifted the cup, was assembling an experienced squad. He went for players who other clubs considered were past their sell-by date.
Mick Channon, Alan Ball, Phil Boyer, Chris Nicholl, Dave Watson and Charlie George.
He’d encouraged Mick Channon back for his second spell at the club after his time at Manchester City had seen them finish second to Liverpool in 1977. Phil Boyer came from Norwich City, and these two scored thirty-three goals between them in 1979-80. At the back he had the centre-back pairing of Nicholl and Watson, both internationals. England’s Dave Watson, had also been at Manchester City with Channon and was part of the Sunderland side, then a Second Division team, which shocked Leeds United in the FA Cup Final in 1973. George, who’d won the double with Arsenal in 1971 had been at Derby and then a largely unsuccessful spell with Clough at Nottingham Forest. But McMenemy knew if he was going to get the club into Europe they would need, what today would be termed “that little bit of quality”.
This is where Keegan came in. He sold him on the idea Keegan would be the first of some really big names, younger than the likes of Ball, George and Channon, and so Keegan was attracted by the challenge of a club with the potential to become good. McMenemy managed to keep the signing completely secret until he invited the media to a hotel in Romsey and in walked Keegan to a stunned audience. By now he was probably the most famous player in Europe, recognised throughout the world and few could truly believe he’d signed for lowly Southampton, especially many of the club’s supporters. They were in the land of dreams and about to witness some of the finest football of their lives.
Their first game of the season was at home to Manchester City, managed by John Bond who was rebuilding the club after the disastrous ‘second coming’ of Malcolm Allison. 23,320 packed into The Dell, over 2,000 more than for the corresponding fixture back in January and more than for any home fixture during the previous season. Mick Channon’s two first half goals settled the match and The Saints were off and running.
They were unbeaten in their opening five matches, winning four and Keegan scored his first goal for his new club in only his fourth match when they beat Birmingham City, 3-0 at home. Injury kept him out for the next two games but he returned for the visit of Liverpool. Chris Nicholl and Graham Baker had given them a 2-1 half time lead after Souness had put the visitors in front. Phil Neal missed a penalty in the second half before David Fairclough levelled things. Liverpool were the League Champions but in front of the biggest crowd of the season at The Dell, Keegan had managed to have a much better experience against his former employer than the last time.
Unfortunately, this match was part of a run of just one win in eleven matches. Keegan didn’t find the net again until just after Christmas when they thumped Leicester, 4-0. It was their third successive game when they’d scored four and young Steve Moran was scoring most of them. It also came a day after a thrilling 4-4 draw at White Hart Lane. The Dell was becoming a tough place for teams to come to. Arsenal and Leeds had been dispatched and this was their fifth successive home win. This was the beginning of a run of five successive wins, where they only conceded twice, and were unbeaten in twelve matches. Brighton, in the bottom four, ended this run and then Liverpool made it worse at Anfield. Southampton had been up as high as fourth but now slipped to seventh.
Manchester United were next to visit The Dell and Keegan scored the only goal of the game. He then scored twice in a win at Stoke. Three days later he scored the opening goal in a 3-0 win at home to Everton, and when they beat Middlesbrough the following week they’d now won ten of their last twelve matches at The Dell. This put them into third, but they suffered a setback when they were beaten at Villa, who were fighting Ipswich for the title.
Current European Champions, Nottingham Forest, were the next visitors to The Dell and Keegan scored in a 2-0 win, gaining some revenge for the defeat he experienced against them with Hamburg. They were back up to fourth but teams around them had games in hand. Unfortunately they couldn’t push on, failing to win their next three games. Their final game was away at Ipswich, who’d just had to concede the title to Aston Villa. Keegan scored one and Steve Moran got another double to give them a 3-2 win.
Moran had scored nineteen goals in his first full season in professional football. Keegan had scored eleven himself with Channon getting ten as they were the First Division top scorers. Their sixth place finish was the club’s highest ever League finish at that stage. They even had the pleasure of welcoming Alan Ball back after his spell as Blackpool manager hadn’t worked out. The Dell had seen some fine performances where they scored forty seven goals and were only beaten twice.
Keegan had suffered injuries during the season as a hamstring problem continued to cause him bother. He only played in twenty seven matches, making his tally of eleven goals all the more impressive. However this had more of an effect on his international appearances. He only played in three games, two of which were defeats. In March 1981 England played a friendly against World Cup hosts, Spain but lost 1-2 and then played in the two World Cup qualifiers at the end of the season. The first one was in Switzerland where they conceded two goals in as many minutes during the first half and suffered their second defeat of the campaign. England were under extreme pressure, and Keegan as captain, certainly couldn’t avoid any flack. A week later they travelled to group favourites Hungary, knowing defeat could end their chances of reaching Spain ’82. For the first time in the campaign they had both Keegan and Brooking fit and the two combined perfectly to put together the best performance of the season. Brooking put them in front with a miss-hit shot after eighteen minutes. Hungary equalised just before half-time but then in the second half, Keegan laid the ball off for Brooking to fire England back in front. Keegan was then brought down in the area and stepped up to convert the penalty to give them a crucial 3-1 win. It was the sort of performance this England team should’ve been putting in, but somehow they always managed to come up short.
Keegan’s first season back in England had been a success but he was to have possibly his finest season, from a personal point of view, of his career. Ultimately, though, it would end in disappointment and frustration.
The opening game of 1981-82 season saw Keegan score in a 1-2 defeat at Nottingham Forest, but then they won three of their next four matches with Keegan scoring in three of them. The goals were flying in as they suffered back-to-back 2-4 defeats at West Ham and Coventry. Keegan scored both goals against Coventry and had six in seven matches, three of them from the spot. The frenetic nature of the football was then illustrated when Ipswich came to The Dell. Keegan scored another penalty, but two goals from John Wark (including a penalty) and one from Paul Mariner gave the visitors a 3-1 lead at the break. But Southampton thrilled the fans with two goals from new signing, David Armstrong and the winner from Moran, as they came back to win 4-3. How surreal this all was, then became clearly apparent when they went to Birmingham and were thumped, 0-4.
Keegan was back in the goals when another double helped beat Notts County and then in the middle of November he scored his fifth penalty of the season when they beat Leeds United, 4-0 at home. At the end of the month they travelled to Anfield. Reigning European Cup holders, Liverpool, had made a poor start to the season and were down in tenth but they threw everything at Southampton, to no avail. The game looked to be heading for a goalless draw when Steve Moran got free of the defence and beat Grobbelaar to give Southampton their first win at Anfield for 21 years and the only time McMenemy experienced victory there.
A week later League leaders Manchester United visited The Dell. By now Southampton were playing some of the best football around with some wonderful one touch passing, which bamboozled teams. In this game Keegan scored one of the greatest goals never allowed. The move saw them knock the ball about as Steve Williams and Mick Channon combined to allow Alan Ball to float a cross into the area from the right. Gordon McQueen managed to nod the ball away from Armstrong’s head but it fell to Keegan who was unmarked on the left-hand side of the area. The ball was going behind him, so with his back to goal, Keegan twisted and met the ball perfectly on the volley with his left foot and it flew past Bailey for a stunning goal. These days the goal would’ve stood as Armstrong had merely drifted in front of the defence after he failed to get his head to the cross and was clearly not interfering with play, but back then the rules were different and his misdemeanour was enough to rule out what undoubtedly would’ve been goal of the season.
Southampton won the game, 3-2 as Keegan scored a legitimate goal and they were up to third just two points behind United, who were still top. Brighton again proved a bogey side as they won at The Dell, 2-0 to end a five-game unbeaten run. At the end of the year they welcomed Swansea, who themselves had gone to the top of the table in their first season in the First Division. Swansea were managed by Keegan’s old pal at Liverpool, John Toshack. Another double from Keegan helped them win 3-1 and they ended 1981 in second place, a point behind new leaders, Manchester City. Keegan had scored fourteen goals in nineteen appearances and they were once again top scorers in the First Division.
After a draw at Everton, they beat Arsenal at home when David Puckett scored twice, his first goals in professional football. When Keegan scored the only goal of the game, a week later, to win at Middlesbrough, Southampton hit the top of the First Division for the first time in their history. They followed this with a win at home to Man City and then held Champions, Aston Villa, to a 1-1 draw before returning to The Dell to beat Nottingham Forest. Keegan scored in both games and the club was flying high. But just as they may have been forgiven for thinking about honours they were brought crashing down to earth when they were beaten 2-5 at Ipswich where Alan Brazil scored all five.
Home wins over West Ham and Birmingham saw them open up a four-point lead at the top, as Keegan scored their fiftieth goal of the season. But this was as good as it got as they only won three more of their remaining fourteen matches as the season fell away. After four games without a win they almost threw away a 3-0 lead when they beat Stoke, 4-3 and were then beaten at Villa before losing at Swansea. Once again they failed to beat Brighton, but to Keegan’s delight he scored twice in a win at Leeds United. By then they were down to fifth and looked forward to the visit of Liverpool.
They were hoping to do the double over them for the first time in their history, but Liverpool were now a different proposition from when Southampton had met them back in November. Nine successive wins, and sixteen wins from eighteen matches had seen them rise from twelfth on Boxing Day to top of the table. Southampton lost 2-3 but Mick Channon scored one of the best goals of the season when a brilliant team move saw them play through Liverpool with a mixture of chips, volleys and headers, ending in Keegan nodding the ball to Channon who controlled the ball and then fired an unstoppable shot past Grobbelaar. Keegan scored another penalty in the second half but they were beaten for the second successive home game.
After defeat at Old Trafford they were involved in a crazy game at The Dell when Coventry were the visitors. Keegan scored twice, and so did Keith Cassells, his first goals for the club, but a Mark Hateley hat-trick earned a 5-5 draw. Their final game was a disappointing 1-4 defeat at Arsenal and they ended the season seventh, much lower than had seemed possible back in March. But it was enough to see them qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Keegan had scored twenty six goals, seven from the spot, was top scorer in the First Division and enough to earn him Footballer of the Year. It was his best return of goals in a professional season and capped his final season with the club.
But Keegan had begun to become a bit disillusioned with his experience on the South Coast. He was expecting other ‘names’ to be signed after him yet the only player they bought was David Armstrong from Middlesbrough, who certainly made an impression but didn’t quite have the profile Keegan was expecting. In his autobiography, Keegan appreciated the club had spent a lot of money on him and probably weren’t able to finance other deals but he felt two years was enough and was now looking to his next move. His relationship with McMenemy had also gone cold. Perhaps the manager was feeling the pressure as their challenge fell away, but he made the mistake of calling Keegan ‘a cheat’ when he hadn’t played well. In fact, he called the whole team cheats after one defeat, but it was Keegan who was most offended by this. Sometimes things didn’t work out for him & maybe he tried too hard but you could never accuse Keegan of not trying, certainly not deliberately.
The two have since settled their differences and McMenemy must’ve known he was unlikely to keep Keegan for too long.
Internationally, the season was one of mixed emotions for Keegan. It had begun with the infamous defeat to Norway in Oslo, “your boys have taken a helluva beating”. England were all but out of contention for qualification but Romania made a complete hash of their remaining games and he captained them to the win over Hungary to confirm their place in Spain. Keegan had made his international debut in 1972 yet had never played in a World Cup, with his only major tournament appearance being the disappointing Euro ’80. Now he was set to take his place on the world stage. He had followed George Best into making a name for himself outside of the game with celebrity endorsements and advertisements, and Best was regarded as the greatest player never to play in a World Cup. Keegan was desperate not to have that label slapped on him too.
England’s preparation for the tournament had gone well, winning all three of their Home International Championship matches and also beat the Dutch at Wembley. After a successful Scandinavian trip they arrived in Bilbao ready for their opening game against France. Five days before the game Keegan suffered a recurrence of a back injury and was laid up in bed. It was disastrous news for the player and further bad news was to come for England as Brooking suffered a groin injury. Remember, England hadn’t lost a game in qualification when both players were playing, and given the faltering nature of their campaign, it was clear they were going to need them both if they were to succeed in Spain.
Despite missing their two best players, England began well with a 3-1 win over a sluggish French side which included, Platini, Tigana and Giresse. They went onto win all their group matches, the one and only time England has ever managed that. The Second Round was an experimental format for an expanded tournament. The twelve qualifiers went into four groups of three teams. England were drawn into a tough group with West Germany and the hosts, Spain. By this time Keegan had tried a couple of methods to deal with his back complaint. Against his better judgement, he took the England management’s advice in having an epidural but that didn’t make things any better. He was adamant the only possible solution was to go and see a specialist he’d met in West Germany, and having agreed to the suggestion forced on him by England, he now made arrangements to leave the camp and go across Europe to West Germany. Yet, as one of the most recognisable faces in world football how was he supposed to leave a major tournament? The story involved a fair amount of farce as he borrowed the hotel receptionist’s little Seat 500 and drove through the night all the way from Bilbao to Madrid, where he caught a flight to West Germany. Remarkably, no one noticed him and even more remarkably he didn’t do further damage to his back.
The visit to Herr Rehwinkel was a success and Keegan returned immediately to the England camp, where he considered himself fit enough to play the game against West Germany. Unfortunately Ron Greenwood didn’t and so England again took the pitch without him and Brooking. A 0-0 draw meant by the time England met Spain they needed to win by two clear goals to go through. After their bright start to the tournament, England had gradually found it harder and harder to score goals and Greenwood’s adoption of three strikers just wasn’t able to provide the necessary firepower Keegan may have. Francis, Mariner and Woodcock all missed chances and then on sixty-four minutes Greenwood finally played his two aces. Both Keegan and Brooking made an impact with Brooking forcing Arconada into a good save and Keegan heading just wide when he had taken up a good position in the area. England limped out in the end and to this day Keegan is convinced he and Brooking should’ve started that match. His chance had gone and for all he had achieved in his career he just had twenty five minutes of World Cup action to add to his CV. Having said that, he was hopeful of making the next tournament but things soon turned sour on that front, which we’ll come to later.
Southampton used the money they received for Keegan in buying Peter Shilton and the stability he brought to their defence almost had the same influence it had on Nottingham Forest. In 1983-84 they finished second, which still remains their highest ever finish. Steve Moran had clearly learned well from Keegan as he had blossomed into an important goalscorer. He hit twenty-one goals that season with Armstrong chipping in with fifteen and a young Danny Wallace came to prominence.
Keegan was off to start another chapter in his career, and one which provided an even bigger shock than his transfer to Southampton had.
In Part Four we will cover his next move, and in the twilight of his career he becomes a local hero