When Kevin Keegan decide to leave Hamburg in 1980 he was the holder of the Ballon d’Or and had just led the German side to the European Cup final, where they lost to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Coincidentally, Clough had tried earlier in the season to ensure his club would be Keegan’s next destination, while there was also interest from Barcelona, Liverpool and Manchester United.
So it was a bit of a shock when he signed on the (presumably) dotted line for Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton ahead of the 1980-81 season. Keegan loved to surprise and enjoyed what people now would describe as a “project”, but he took things up a notch in 1982 when he elected to join Second Division Newcastle United, then managed by Arthur Cox.
Back then, Newcastle were, according to David Morton of The Chronicle, “in profound decline.” They languished in the second tier, with former Magpies defender John Anderson telling the Daily Mail in 2010: “at the time the club was going nowhere.” This made Keegan’s arrival one of the most remarkable transfers of the era – even at 31, he was still a star and an important England international; there were no shortage of suitors.
Add your own punchline to this Lawrie McMenemy / Kevin Keegan double act, Southampton 1981 pic.twitter.com/jquaYpDYi8
— Beyond The Last Man (@BeyondTLM) February 11, 2016
But Newcastle were willing to put their money where their mouth was and enlist Keegan to turn around the club’s fortunes. “Backed by the finances of Newcastle Breweries, it was a hugely ambitious move by Newcastle United’s board,” writes Morton.
Keegan’s salary made headline news in the area, but appears to have been linked to gate receipts. “I refuse to reveal the details of a private contract,” said the man himself shortly after the deal was announced. “But I will offer a clue — I’ll be tons better off if the turnstiles click away merrily at St James’ Park this season. To the tune of success of course. My contract is geared that way.”
The motivation, however, was hardly financial.
He could have earned more money elsewhere. As had been the case throughout Keegan’s career, it was about more than just cash.
“Why did I chose Newcastle when there were almost 30 invitations from clubs in Britain, France, Germany, America and — would you believe — Japan? I wanted a new challenge, I have followed basic instincts all my life and the buzzer had been sounding for weeks…
“I can achieve something at Newcastle which would be totally different to anything else I’ve known. If I can contribute to a revival, I will feel a special type of fulfilment. It’s like sitting on a time bomb at this club — it’s just a question of whether it will explode. That’s why I see my future here. I want to be part of that explosion.
Kevin Keegan greeted before his Newcastle United debut on this day in 1982. pic.twitter.com/sBJfPUlRDA
— Mark Leech (@Len_Scap) August 28, 2017
With sentiments like that, it’s no wonder Keegan became a hero on Tyneside almost instantly. Supporters flooded into St James’ Park for his first game, drawing 35,000 to a stadium that had seen an average attendance of 17,000 the season before.
There was an impact on the pitch as well. The year prior to Keegan descending on Newcastle, the Magpies had finished 9th, 26 points behind champions Luton (two points for a win, remember). In 1982-83, they jumped to 5th, 18 points adrift of QPR in 1st.
The next season, however, Keegan and Newcastle really kicked into gear. Keggy bagged 27 goals in the league and saw his side promoted in 3rd place along with Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday. It was an accomplished outfit featuring the likes of Chris Waddle, Terry McDermott and Peter Beardsley but there was little doubt Keegan was the catalyst for their rise.
Almost immediately after promotion, Keegan retired from football, his cult status enshrined on Tyneside. He departed the grand old ground in a helicopter that took off from the centre-circle during his testimonial against Liverpool, a suitably dramatic denouement to a wonderful two years.