It’s hard to pin down Kevin Keegan’s career in football. Is he destined to be remembered as the dynamo who, in the late 1970s, inspired Liverpool to the European Cup and won the Ballon d’Or twice in a row while at Hamburg? Or the oft-permed figure of fun who released terrible pop songs, lost his mind as Newcastle boss when put under pressure by Alex Ferguson and resigned from the England job (apparently) in the toilets at Wembley immediately after a defeat to Germany?
Keegan is as mercurial as they come. An affable ‘man of the people’, yet one portrayed as obdurate when maximising his financial gain from the sport. A manager who created one of the English top flight’s best and most memorable sides, yet one who constantly gave the impression he’d struggle to understand, let alone explain, the offside rule.
After ‘that’ England resignation in 2000, Keegan seemed to have become a tragicomic figure, a man visibly aware of his limitations, about which he’d often make light. When he was initially appointed by The FA, he pronounced cheerfully that he wasn’t a man to be relied upon to earn goalless draws for his team.
“Keegan was not so much interested in formations as footballers, more concerned with skill levels as opposed to systems,” wrote the BBC shortly after Keegan walked away from the Three Lions.
And you could tell. During the 1990s, his Newcastle team became iconic for an approach many labelled euphemistically as cavalier, but which is better described as criminally reckless. But the Magpies’ defensive abandon didn’t really matter to the club’s supporters – that side was about more than just results. That they blew a 12-point lead they held in January 1996 to hand Ferguson and Man United another Premier League title only added to the Keegan mythology.
Despite his success as a player, his glorious failures with Newcastle and England came to define him. It was a perception that followed him to Manchester City when, in May 2001, he was given the manager’s job at Maine Road.
At the time, City were far removed from the petroclub they are now, and had just been relegated to the second tier. But they wouldn’t remain there much longer, returning to the top flight at the first attempt. Anyone thinking Keegan might have learned from his past errors was wide of the mark. City were Keeganised in an instant, rattling in 108 goals over the league campaign, the highest total in the division since 1958.
“It was all down to Kevin Keegan’s ‘let’s-just-not-bother-defending-that-much’ approach,” wrote David Mooney in 2016. “What ensured a successful campaign was that City’s attacking players were far and away the best in the league, so what they let in turned out to be largely insignificant.”
The idea was not so much ‘if you score two, we’ll score three’, but rather ‘if you score four, we’ll score six.’ But, in truth, Keegan was working with a squad far too good for that level, with most of them continuing as regulars after promotion. This was the team of Ali Benarbia, Paulo Wanchope and Eyal Berkovic – and the mighty Shaun Goater, who was fed a healthy 28 goals in 2001-02.
The following season, Keegan unsurprisingly elected not to change a winning formula, despite his side moving up the pyramid. He talked enthusiastically about challenging for the European places, and was backed up by his chairmen, David Bernstein and John Wardle, in the transfer market.
The most notable acquisition of the summer was the £13m Nicolas Anelka, presumably signed in order to offset the dozens of goals-per-game Keegan expected to concede. Anelka pitched in with 13 goals, but City were largely unexceptional, a set of limited footballers trying to win by attacking incessantly against opposition who, unlike those in the second tier, were able to deal with the sky-blue onslaught and exploit the openings it created.
Nonetheless, they finished ninth, a respectable effort for a newly promoted side.
Keegan’s strategy for improvement was simple: go out and sign a raft of additional attacking players. Claudio Reyna, Steve McManaman, Antoine Sibierski and Trevor Sinclair stepped in to replace the outgoing Benarbia, Berkovic and Goater.
It was Keeganism at its purest: fighting fire with a flamethrower. But it didn’t work. Keggy had neglected to take any notice of the growing tactical acumen in the league. No longer was it enough to put eleven players on the pitch and motivate them to run about doing skills – you had to do unpleasant things like telling them where to stand.
City dropped to 16th, despite a positive goal difference – draw your own conclusion from that. They’d started excellently, with Keegan eking out eye-catching performances from young talents like Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joey Barton, as well as somehow convincing Anelka to keep bothering to actually run. Sadly, that encouraging beginning was rendered meaningless by a mid-season winless streak of 16 games.
For the club’s board, meanwhile, Keegan’s transfer dealings were a concern. Sam Wallace, writing in 2009, asserted that “the players Keegan brought to City were his downfall.” Millions were spent on the likes of Matias Vuoso, Lucien Mettomo, Christian Negouai and, perhaps most significantly, Robbie Fowler.
The ex-Liverpool forward had arrived in January 2003 for £6m against the wishes of Bernstein, who resigned as a result. Not long after, Fowler was captured by photographers enjoying the home comforts of a cigarette and an alcoholic beverage while travelling with the team. He was just one in a long list of veterans who’d pitched up at City and never really done much – McManaman, for example, failed to find the net for the club in 35 matches.
By the second half of the 2004-05 season, it was clear Keegan was done. He’d already made clear his intention to retire from the game at the end of the following campaign, but in March 2005 he stepped aside after talks with Wardle.
“There was a lack of specific goal-setting,” commented City keeper David James in the aftermath. It was about as polite a way of saying ‘what a mess’ as he could muster.
Yet Keegan’s time at City ought not to be judged too harshly in retrospect. He’d been the club’s longest-serving manager for 26 years, and the promotion run he oversaw stabilised a team who’d been yo-yoing between the divisions for half a decade. His reign may not have been focused on the fine details, but it restored pride on the blue half of Manchester.
His City teams were exciting, attacking and charismatic. Had he been in charge when the club were taken over by the Emiratis, his buccaneering style might have led to success. As it was, Keegan was left to rue once again his own shortcomings.