Kevin Keegan answers the big question in his new book after detailing his '˜unhappy ending' at Newcastle
There's a layby on the A69 which has a special significance for Kevin Keegan '“ and Newcastle United.
It’s where Terry McDermott talked him out of quitting the club on March 13, 1992, the day before a home game against Swindon Town.
The rest is history.
Keegan, back on Tyneside this week to promote “My Life in Football”, his new autobiography, visited the layby with ghostwriter Daniel Taylor on their drive up from Manchester.
The 67-year-old also stopped at the Gosforth Park Hotel, where he used to hold press conferences, for fish and chips, drove around the Darras Hall estate where he used to live and finally passed St James’s Park on his way to The Sage, Gateshead.
Keegan had wanted to make a day of it. It was good to be back.
“It’s lovely to be home,” said Keegan when he took to the stage at The Sage on Tuesday night.
The sold-out, respectful crowd loved having Keegan home, even if it was only for one night.
Keegan’s book starts and ends in Newcastle, but, sadly, it’s not a happy ending.
In the book, Keegan dwells on his ill-fated second spell as manager in 2008. Keegan resigned and was awarded £2million compensation for constructive dismissal by an independent arbitration panel.
“My eight months at Newcastle, and all the unpleasantness that followed, had left me with a cynical view, hardened by my experiences,” said Keegan.
“I had to get out. I had won my case but, in another sense, I had lost so much. Football had given me everything except a happy ending.”
And that’s the thing, this book is timely. It comes as fan protests against owner Mike Ashley intensify.
When it was written, Taylor, The Guardian’s chief football writer, didn’t know if it would still be relevant by the time it was published given that financier Amanda Staveley was in talks with Ashley over a takeover.
But there was no deal, and Ashley remains the owner. Keegan’s critique of Ashley has amplified the debate on Tyneside.
Keegan recounts what happened behind the scenes that year, but there’s a lot more to the book than that unhappy ending.
It tells the remarkable story of his football life, which took him from Scunthorpe to Liverpool, Hamburg, Southampton and, finally, Newcastle.
Reflecting on his move to Newcastle as a player in 1982, Keegan said: “Strictly speaking, Doncaster was my home, but Newcastle had been part of my life for as long as I could remember.
“I was born into a black and white world. It was a Geordie, my uncle Frank, who gave me my first ball. I had been told from a very early age about the passion of the Newcastle fans. Now it was time to experience it properly.
“I felt a bond with these people straight away. The club was something very special to them, but they hadn’t had a hero since Malcolm Macdonald was sold in the mid-1970s.
“All the years of drift had made them even hungrier for success. I was there to help them start believing in the future rather than always looking back.”
Keegan, first as a player and then as a manager, gave the club belief.
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Taylor sat for three or four hours at a time with Keegan as he told story after story, many of them about Newcastle.
After lunch, Keegan, a double Ballon d’Or winner, would be ready to go again.
“I’m not afraid to say it was an education in terms of learning about Newcastle United,” said Taylor.
“Kevin was brilliant, and so was his wife Jean.
“I was always aware that it was a great club, but to delve into the history with Kevin was fascinating. It’s a unique club and a unique place.”
The book is full of anecdotes from his spells at United.
In one passage, Keegan recalls the first training session of his first spell as manager. He took part in the session, and United midfielder Lee Clark gave him a bruising welcome to the club.
“Five minutes in, the ball came my way and, wallop, I was reminded of that England-Italy game when it was Romeo Benetti on my case,” said Keegan.
“Clarkey had clattered me, knee-high, from behind. I wasn’t even expecting a tackle, let alone being dumped to the floor by a boy of 19 years.
“But I had to admire his nerve. He didn’t even pick me up, turning to get on with the game and shouting something not very friendly about getting him back into the team.
“As I staggered to me feet, all I could hear was a lot of shouting and commotion - and someone with an Eastern European accent sounding particularly angry.
“It was Pavel Srnicek. Pavel was so incensed by what he had seen he had sprinted out of his goal and karate-kicked Clarkey to the side of the head.
“Lee was on his back and his assailant was standing over him, pointing an accusatory finger. ‘You do not do that to the manager!’.
“At least it showed they cared, and when I hobbled back to the dressing rooms, I didn’t think it was necessary to punish Lee. He said sorry, and my bruised leg didn’t bother me too badly when we won 3-0 the next day.”
Keegan kept Newcastle up – the team was heading for the old Third Division when he took over – and he went on to guide the club into the Premier League the following season.
He delves into his memory to bring to life, once more, that unforgettable journey.
Back at The Sage, Keegan retold the story of his career to the audience interspersed with more anecdotes from his time at Newcastle.
There was the time Douglas Hall went to Turin to sign Roberto Baggio from Juventus. Hall came back with a Baggio shirt.
“Douglas Hall wanted me to go to Juventus with to sign Baggio,” said Keegan.
“He said he was going to knock on the door and say he wanted to sign Baggio. I said I think I will give it a miss.
“Terry (McDermott) came back and said ‘we went to the Juventus offices to sign Baggio and they left us sitting there for two hours’. I think they fetched a Baggio shirt back.”
Will Keegan ever be back at Newcastle?
“Life moves on,” said Keegan. “I have far too much in my favour to be engulfed by bitterness, and my affections for Newcastle aren’t diminished just because of the unpleasantness with Mike Ashley, Tony Jimenez, Dennis Wise, Derek Llambias and assorted others.
“Would I be tempted back for a fourth spell at the club if a takeover meant new owners and a club no longer powered by the theory of chaos? No, that ship as sailed, but I do retain an exhilarating vision of what could happen if Newcastle were reignited in the way that happens in the 1990s.”
* My Life in Football is published by Macmillian today