Friday, January 18, 2008
Kevin: One of Us
Excited about the return of Kevin Keegan to English football? Me too. Here's my tribute to Keegan from the The Guardian's Comment is Free website.
Sometimes you hear news that makes you want to jump for joy. The release from jail of Nelson Mandela. The news that Tony Blair, after the longest farewell tour since Frank Sinatra, had finally vacated Downing Street. England regaining the Ashes.
Yesterday's announcement that Kevin Keegan (above) was returning to English football to manage Newcastle United was another such occasion.
Kevin Keegan is more than just a football manager: he is an example of how life should be lived: fearlessly, and flamboyantly - and always remaining true to one's principles.
Keegan's attack-minded teams are responsible for some of the most memorable matches seen in English football in the last 20 years. Who can ever forget Newcastle's 4-3 defeat to Liverpool in 1995/6 season (hailed by many as the greatest Premiership match ever), or 10-man Manchester City's thrilling comeback from 3-0 down to beat Tottenham 4-3 in the FA Cup four years ago?
In this age of spin and insincerity, Keegan's old-fashioned honesty shines like a beacon. Keegan resigned from the England manager's job in 2000 admitting that he had "come up short" in his tactical thinking. How many other failed England managers have been so frank?
Throughout his career in the game Keegan has always been a gracious loser. I was lucky enough to have been at the wonderfully entertaining Champions League match in 1996 when Keegan's Newcastle lost, rather unluckily, 3-2, to the Hungarian champions Ferencvàros in Budapest. Rather than blame the pitch or weather conditions (as Sir Alex Ferguson did when Manchester United lost 1-0 to another Hungarian outfit, Zalaegerszeg in 2002), Keegan instead paid warm tribute to his opponents - saying what a great night it had been for Hungarian football.
Keegan fully understands that one of the greatest myths about football is that fans want their team to win at all costs. The most important thing is that winning is done with style. Which FA Cup winning team will Chelsea fans remember more fondly in the years to come: Jose Mourinho's ultra-defensive outfit of 2007, who grinded out a 1-0 victory in the most boring final in living memory, or the charismatic side which KO'ed Don Revie's Leeds in 1970? QPR finished runners-up to Liverpool in the 1975/6 season, yet Dave Sexton's wonderfully freewheeling team is still more fondly remembered by neutrals today than the functional Aston Villa side that did win the title five years later. And despite losing the final, the team that football fans the world over remember most from the 1974 World Cup will always be Johann Cruyff's super-sexy Dutch outfit, and not the actual winners - West Germany.
Keegan, more than any other coach working today, subscribes to Danny Blanchflower's maxim "Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom". Which is why, even though he won no trophies for the club in his previous spell, Keegan's return was greeted with scenes of such unmitigated jubilation on Tyneside yesterday.
With his boyish enthusiasm and love of attacking football, Keegan is a throwback to the time when football really was the people's game. We fans relate to him because he quite clearly is one of us. In today's Guardian, Richard Williams recalls a personal memory of observing Keegan being drawn into conversation with a couple of supporters at Heathrow Airport. "Unusually for Keegan he looked drained, like a businessman at the end of a day of awkward meetings. He could have said a brief hello to the fans, signed an autograph or two and politely retreated into the contents of his briefcase. Instead he gave them the full 30 minutes and every sign of his utmost attention."
With his approachability, his total lack of cynicism and his cavalier philosophy, Keegan is gloriously out of step with the spirit of this dour, win at all costs, Gradgrindian age.
Which is why we love him so much.