Ten years on: How Kevin Keegan's romantic return to Newcastle ended with but more broken hearts
End of the road
Moreover, with something like £15m spent on incomings and a lot less recouped from sales, Ashley was getting itchy. So was James Milner, who had asked for a transfer: “I knew offers had come in over the summer and the club ad turned them down. Their valuation of me wasn't reflected in the deal I was on.” Aston Villa, who had just finished sixth (and would do so for the next two seasons), shelled out £12m on August 29.
A brave-faced Keegan described the deal as “win-win”: “James has got a fantastic move and we have got some more money in the pot, should we choose to use it in this window or the next. I did want to keep James but there comes a point when a deal is right to do.
“I’m convinced that despite the fact that it won't look a positive move to our fans at the moment, I think what will happen over the next two or three days will be positive for the future of this club.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way. Within a week, Keegan was gone. Although he wore a painted smile, he felt the club had sold him short by claiming they could replace Milner with Bastian Schweinsteiger. In the event, chief fixer Jimenez asked the manager to ring his old friend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at Bayern; Keegan did so and discovered that Newcastle had offered a derisory €5m, literally laughed at by Bayern.
By deadline day, Monday September 1, Newcastle were inviting offers for any and all first-team players, up to and including Owen and Joey Barton. In the event, there were no further departures, but it was incoming business that led to Keegan’s departure. The manager had dropped broad hints about two or three exciting signings, but the best the suits could provide was £5.7m Deportivo frontman Xisco.
Meanwhile, Uruguayan midfielder Nacho Gonzalez had been signed by Valencia and immediately farmed out on loan to Newcastle, apparently without Keegan’s knowledge – let alone assent. It later emerged that the deal was “a favour to two South American agents”, in order to get first dibs on the best young talent from that continent.
Coupled with the attempts to sell his best players and the risible failure to sign Schweinsteiger, the manager felt he had no option but to leave.
Even that became its own long-running farce. As early as Monday, word leaked that Keegan had resigned, quickly denied by the League Managers’ Association. Hundreds of Magpies fans descended upon St James’, calling for Ashley and Wise to resign, as intense negotiations continued behind the scenes. On Tuesday, the club issued a statement insisting that Keegan had not been sacked, but by Thursday the manager acknowledged that he had indeed jumped – for the third time.
“I’ve been left with no choice other than to leave… I’ve been working desperately hard to find a way forward with the directors, but sadly that has not proved possible,” he said in a statement. “It's my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want.”
With artless lack of grace, the club responded on Saturday, September 6 via a website statement. “It is a fact that Kevin Keegan, as manager, had specific duties in that he was responsible for the training, coaching, selection and motivation of the team… It is a fact Keegan was allowed to manage his duties without any interference… It is a fact that Kevin Keegan worked within that structure from 16th January 2008 until his resignation… It is a fact he agreed not to talk to the media in relation to the acquisition or disposal of players… ”
With the Premier League on an international break – Keegan’s old side England were in Andorra opening their 2010 qualification – the spat dominated the agenda, and football’s old guard sensed another long-term shift in the dynamics of the game.
Former FA executive director David Davies took refuge in scorn: “I think it’s a really sad thing that football is without Kevin Keegan again, and I do ask about a game that can be without people like Kevin Keegan. Having said all that, he is something of an old-fashioned manager. He actually believes, having been brought up by the likes of Bill Shankly and played under Lawrie McMenemy, that managers should manage, and they should have the final say on who their players are.”
Perhaps the saddest observer was Sir Bobby Robson, by now 75 and recently confirmed to have terminal lung cancer.
“The breakdown between the different job titles has left Newcastle in disarray and it is time for Ashley to sort it out,” pleaded the avuncular Magpies legend. “The owner or chairman is the most important person at a football club, the manager is second and everyone else third. If a director of football doesn’t have the blessing of the manager, it doesn’t work… no manager worth his salt is going to take the Newcastle job with the current set-up.”
Sadly for Sir Bobby, he was right. By the time the cancer killed him in July, Newcastle had been through four more managers – and been relegated.
What happened next?
On Friday 12 September, Kevin Keegan met Mike Ashley again in an attempt to reach a workable compromise. It didn’t work, and on Sunday 14, Ashley put the club up for sale. As late as October, the LMA were saying that Keegan could return if the structure was changed. But Ashley couldn’t find a satisfactory buyer and withdrew the sale on December 28.
As predicted by his England predecessor Graham Taylor, Keegan sued Newcastle for constructive dismissal. An October 2009 tribunal ruled in his favour, awarding him £2m. Keegan has never returned to management.
Chris Hughton took over as caretaker until September 26, when Newcastle appointed Joe Kinnear as interim manager. The former Wimbledon boss started spectacularly with an expletive-laden, media-threatening press conference, and only lasted until February 7, when he was admitted to hospital with heart problems.
Hughton was recalled as caretaker until April 1, when – with Newcastle in the bottom three – Alan Shearer was appointed interim manager for the final eight games of the season. Shearer briefly got the club above the dots with a win over Middlesbrough but otherwise only managed two draws and five defeats, condemning the club to the drop.
Dennis Wise left Newcastle on April 1, the same day Shearer took over. “Mike sacked me,” he later said. “It has had a damaging effect on my career and has not been fantastic for me.” Indeed, Wise hasn’t had a frontline football job since Newcastle, but has kept himself busy with media, hospitality and appearing on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and The Crystal Maze.
Tony Jimenez left Newcastle in early October when Ashley put the club up for sale. In January 2011, along with Michael Slater, Jimenez took control of Charlton Athletic and immediately sacked Phil Parkinson. He sold out to Roland Duchâtalet in 2014. By then Wise had sued Jimenez for £500,000 in damages over a golf-course property deal in France; the same deal was at the heart of a 2017 litigation in which Ashley sued Jimenez for £3m.
Jeff Vetere spent two years at Newcastle before becoming Gerard Houllier’s chief scout at Aston Villa in November 2010. The following June he returned to Jimenez-run Charlton as technical director. He later worked for Fulham, the Premier League and Birmingham, the latter as Harry Redknapp’s Director of Football.
Xisco scored on his debut, against Hull, but never repeated that trick in 10 further appearances over four-and-a-half long, expensive seasons.
Nacho Gonzalez made two substitute appearances for Hughton’s Newcastle – both in losses – before an achilles injury ruled him out for four months. He later played in Greece, Spain and Belgium before returning to Uruguay. Despite the promise of first choice on promising youngsters, Newcastle didn’t sign another player from South America until August 2014, when Facundo Ferreyra arrived on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk. He didn’t play a senior minute for the team.