Ten years on: How Kevin Keegan's romantic return to Newcastle ended with but more broken hearts

Kevin Keegan, Michael Owen Newcastle

A decade ago today, King Kev turned his back and headed for the door marked 'exit' at St James' Park, citing irreconcilable differences with Magpies owner Mike Ashley. Plus ça change...

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He’d left Newcastle before. Unusually emotionally highly-strung for a player or manager, Kevin Keegan was often prone to the impulsive gesture – the on-field Charity Shield fight with Billy Bremner, the wild-eyed Fergie-prodding “I would love it” TV talkback, the England resignation in the Wembley toilets – and distraught Magpies fans were used to seeing the back of his bonce disappear over the horizon.

In May 1984, Keegan had been airlifted from the St James’ Park pitch in a helicopter, still clad in full kit, after a Thursday-night testimonial against his old team Liverpool, who were a fortnight from winning their fourth European Cup. His 28 goals had hauled a team mixing the nous of Terry McDermott with the potential of Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle to promotion back to the top division, as promised. At 33, he was eschewing a final top-flight tilt, hanging up his boots and pledging never to become a manager.

Eight years on, he was parachuted (this time not literally) back in to replace hapless manager Ossie Ardiles and save Newcastle from a first-ever relegation to the third tier. Within a month he’d walked out – “It’s not like it said in the brochure” – but new chairman Sir John Hall waved an open chequebook and over the next few seasons Keegan led the club to be, for a while, Manchester United’s main challengers at the summit of English football.

Keegan Newcastle relegation

That reign ended abruptly on January 8, 1997. Less than three months after his side had demolished Alex Ferguson’s champions 5-0 on Tyneside, Keegan suddenly resigned. Newcastle were fourth, world-record summer signing Alan Shearer was scoring metronomically, but the manager walked out on a 10-year contract, saying: “I’ve taken the club as far as I can.” Folk wept on the streets; it would later be described by chairman Freddy Shepherd as “like losing a family member”.

… aaaaand we’re back in the room

Keegan was out of football for eight months before returning via Fulham, then England and Manchester City. He resigned the Maine Road hotseat in March 2005 after informing chairman John Wardle of his intention to retire that summer. As late as October 2007 he doubted he would return to management, but once again Mighty Mouse couldn’t resist when the Bat-Signal went up over St James’ in January 2008.

Not for the last time in his career, Sam Allardyce’s footballing methodology had proved anathema to the inherited belief system of a club’s fan base. Keegan’s swashbuckling attitude brought cavalier football to a Cavalier city: during the Civil War, Newcastle had been a Royalist outpost – the victorious Cromwell subsequently helped Parliamentarian Sunderland loosen Newcastle’s monopoly on coal trading. Allardyce’s perceived Roundhead roboticism was never an easy fit for fans reared on the glorious near misses of Tino Asprilla and Mirandinha.

Hence the Restoration of King Kev. However, it wasn’t quite the inevitable romantic reacquaintance. Mike Ashley had tried to hire Portsmouth’s Harry Redknapp, while other names in the hat included Blackburn’s Mark Hughes, ex-Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier and Didier Deschamps, who was halfway between his World Cup wins as player and manager but recently turfed by Juventus. Even Alan Shearer, 37 and entirely experience-free, was considered before being told this was no job for a newbie.

Meanwhile, the team was suffering. Any notion that the absence of Allardyce would automatically remove the shackles was comprehensively demolished when caretaker Nigel Pearson oversaw a 6-0 capitulation at a gleeful Manchester United.

Kevin Keegan arrives

Keegan’s return on Wednesday, January 16 was greeted with surprise everywhere but Newcastle, where the feeling was more like VE Day. BBC Radio 5 Live's football correspondent Mike Ingham summed it up: “It's a great soap opera. Locally they will be in raptures but outside it there may well be bewilderment.” The incoming manager arrived in the stands during the first half of an FA Cup replay against Stoke, a 4-1 win adding to the party atmosphere.

It didn’t last. His first game back on the touchline was against Bolton, managed by ornery Allardyce-lite Gary Megson. They pooped the party by holding out for a 0-0 draw, but Jussi Jaaskelainen didn’t have a save to make. Two visits in a week to Arsenal, including in the FA Cup fourth round, yielded twin 3-0 defeats. The Second (Managerial) Coming had promised fireworks, but this was a damp squib.

Ins and outs

Upon his return, Keegan had been under no illusions as to the size of his task. Worryingly for Ashley, his new manager had made it publicly known that “It won't be easy: we haven’t got a huge squad”. Indeed, when Allardyce was called in to get the bullet, he had expected the meeting to be an announcement of another completed incoming transfer. But having watched the last manager spend £25m over the summer, the owner wasn’t about to bankroll another spree.

The only incomings under Keegan before the January window closed were inconsequential teenagers: Allardyce legacy signing Tamas Kadar (who would go on to make 18 league appearances in four-and-a-half years on the payroll), Italian forward Fabio Zamblera (zero appearances in three-and-a-half years) and Swedish goalkeeper Ole Soderberg (zero appearances in four years), with 33-year-old Senegalese free agent Lamine Diatta following in March on a short-term deal.

By that time, it had become very clear that Keegan was not in full control of signings. On January 29, with Jim White excitedly ironing his yellow tie, Ashley appointed a slew of suits to act as managerial middlemen. Dennis Wise was the big-name Executive Director of Football, but also incoming were Tony Jimenez and Jeff Vetere.

Kevin Keegan, Mike Ashley

Jimenez, a Brixton-born Cyprus-based Spaniard with an executive season ticket at Chelsea, was to become Vice President of Player Recruitment. Affable with a bulging contacts book, the property millionaire was a longtime friend of Wise and Ashley, and a surprise appointment to many in the business. “I'm amazed that he’s been entrusted with player recruitment,” said one agent. “He knows nothing about football.”

The same couldn’t be said about Vetere, who certainly had the chops. A former Luton apprentice turned quadrilingual UEFA A-licensed coach, he had worked his way up the backrooms from Rushden & Diamonds via Charlton and West Ham to Real Madrid, from whence he was lured to be Newcastle’s Technical Co-Ordinator – in effect, the chief scout.

Clearly, Vetere knew his onions but Keegan was less than pleased by the phalanx of incomers. Ashley wanted what was then parochially known as a “continental-style” set-up in which the manager was little more than a head coach, cheerleader and chief scapegoat. Keegan was particularly unhappy that Wise – whom he had called up as a thirtysomething player to 12 England squads, giving the little aggro-engine eight of his 21 caps – would be in charge of transfer dealings, using Jimenez as the smooth-talking go-between to capture Vetere’s targets. To Ashley, it made perfect sense. To the Newcastle fans, their club was being overrun – and their hero undercut – by a ‘Cockney Mafia’.

Such was the surprise that King Kev’s second spell on the throne was almost cut short within a month. Ever impulsive, the returning hero resigned upon hearing of his new middle-management team, and it took considerable persuasion from the owner to talk him out of it.

Mike Ashley, Dennis Wise

Ashley is a difficult man to side with, particularly in discussions with Newcastle United fans and certainly in comparison to a folk hero like Keegan, but his reasons for wanting oversight on the manager’s recruitment weren’t limited to mere parsimony. This is the gaffer who, in early 1996 with Newcastle’s title charge threatened by a wobbly defence, had signed David Batty with the idea of turning him into a ball-playing centre-back.

Clearly, the man needed guidance, and Ashley had no intention of imitating Sir John Hall with a carte blanche chequebook. The owner had been the sort to gamble on which raindrop would reach the bottom of the window first, but he wasn’t going to stake his own money on the optimistic whim of a mere manager.

Even so, Ashley knew that forcing the messiah into exile would be a horrendous own goal, and he impressed upon Keegan how the new structure would allow him to focus on his prime asset: leadership. King Kev was to be a leader of men, more suited to inspiring on the training pitch and in the dressing room than dealing with agents and fixers.

NEXT: Onwards and... downwards