Ten years on: How Kevin Keegan's romantic return to Newcastle ended with but more broken hearts
Onwards and… downwards
Perhaps encouraged to think of the moist-eyed children who would gather outside St James’ if he left once again, Keegan agreed to stay on. He had been managerially emasculated and unable to augment his squad, but the ball rolls on and there was a derby to play.
Middlesbrough came to St James’ and conceded within four minutes, with Keegan’s new captain Michael Owen stabbing home his first goal since October 22 – except Mike Dean disallowed it, reasoning incorrectly that Mark Schwarzer must have been fouled to have dropped the ball. Fifteen minutes later Owen bagged again but was again denied by the officials, who’d this time accurately noted that Emre’s cross had gone out of play.
Owen did break his duck – and score the first goal of Keegan’s second reign – on the hour to put Newcastle in front. Never backwards at going forwards, the manager promptly threw on James Milner for Emre and Mark Viduka for Alan Smith, and watched as Boro equalised in the 87th minute. It might have got worse had the officials not ruled out Jeremie Aliadiere’s late ‘winner’ for offside.
What might have been a bold win almost turned into a calamitous collapse, and Keegan’s luck wasn’t turning. The Boro draw was followed by four defeats on the bounce: 4-1 at Villa, 5-1 at home to Manchester United, 1-0 at home to Blackburn and 3-0 at Liverpool.
By mid-March, Keegan’s first two months back at the ranch had yielded no wins in eight games, three goals scored to 20 conceded, and a slide down the league from 11th to 14th, just four points above the drop zone. By inevitable comparison, Allardyce’s final eight games had included two wins and three draws, seven goals scored and nine conceded.
Questions were now being asked whether Keegan’s tactics and managerial acumen had been left behind in the Premier League’s decade of constant improvement, but a draw from behind at fellow drop-dodgers Birmingham kicked off a seven-game unbeaten charge. They won home six-pointers against Fulham and Reading, enjoyed a 4-1 triumph at Juande Ramos’s wildly inconsistent Tottenham and revelled in a 2-0 home win against Sunderland.
The turnaround helped hoist Newcastle away from trouble to finish in 12th place, a rung below where they were when they axed Allardyce. More notably, by the end of the season there had been a downturn in optimism, notwithstanding the spring surge. Again, the emotion stemmed from Keegan.
On May 5, in their final home game of a mixed season, Newcastle lost for the first time in almost two months, 2-0 to Chelsea. Experiencing their own renaissance under Jose Mourinho’s lugubrious successor Avram Grant, the Blues had collected 73 of the last 90 available points to push the title race to the last weekend of the season, and Keegan could only press his nose up against the confectioner’s window. His press conferences started to sound like a funeral wake for his club’s chances of competing with the new mega-rich elite.
“I know people might be disappointed by me saying we might not win the league, but there would be a real danger of me being whipped off to the nuthouse if I started saying that,” Keegan said. “There is a big gulf and it has been well documented, not just by myself but by many, many other people in the game whose opinions are respected… Maybe the owner thinks we can bridge that gap - but we can't.”
This was not the rabble-rousing, sunshine-radiating optimist Ashley thought he had hired. Contract extension talks with Keegan over the summer generated the usual amount of positivity designed to sell season tickets, but the manager was dismayed that Michael Owen wasn’t being offered an extension on the four-year contract he’d penned in August 2005.
Signed under previous ownership, Owen’s deal was costing Ashley £110,000 a week, and the owner wasn’t sure he was getting full value for money. As if the striker’s regular muscular problems weren’t enough of a concern, Owen missed all of Newcastle’s summer 2008 pre-season with mumps.
Furthermore, Newcastle needed a substantial rebuild, starting with Keegan’s blind spot: defence. The Magpies had conceded 65 goals, a total topped only by relegated Reading and disastrous Derby. In came Fabricio Coloccini and Sebastian Bassong, but Keegan was hardly likely to be satiated with the calibre of forward players hired. True, Jonas Gutierrez would easily recoup his £2m fee by making 200+ appearances, but £2.5m Liverpool export Danny Guthrie didn’t justify Keegan’s comparisons to club forebears Rob Lee and Paul Bracewell.
NEXT: The end of the road