I don’t know; you take a short trip to the Lakes to get away from it all, and on the first morning you are dragged back into the real world when you hear on the radio that the manager of your team has left the club by mutual euphemism. Typical.
I am sad to see Kevin Keegan go, but not surprised. The lesson of Ferguson, Strachan and Robson is that you cannot set a date for your retirement and then see it through; you either have to go early or postpone your retirement. Keegan was always going to go early; it was just a matter of when.
Oh City will be all right, don’t worry about us; but my sympathies are for Keegan at the moment, particularly when you read the various footballing obituaries and profiles of the man. It seems to be a part of media law to refer to his playing days as something like “a triumph of hard work over natural ability”, which is damning him with faint praise when you consider he was probably the most famous footballer in Britain during the Seventies. It suggests we could all be European Footballer of the Year if we just knuckled down a bit.
But it certainly seems agreed that his managerial career suffers by comparison with his playing days. He was often criticised for his sides defensive frailties and for his inability to win a major honour; but personally it is not the allure of a well organised back-four that draws me to a game, and the managers who have won major trophies are in a pretty select club. Overall, his record in management is remarkable.
Taking over Newcastle as they were about to tumble out of the First Division, getting them promoted as Champions the following season, and finishing as runners-up in the Premiership just a few years later is a tremendous achievement. Of course he will probably always be remembered for throwing away a huge lead over Manchester United that season, and for his emotional rant against Alex Ferguson (which you can listen to here, via Anthony at The Filter^); but Ferguson and Wenger have also thrown away leads in their time, and in fact it is unusual for a team to win the title leading from the front. Keegan is still revered on Tyneside, and Newcastle have not hit those heights since.
At Fulham he was also a success, again winning promotion as Champions in his first season in full charge of the team, before leaving for the England job by popular demand. And at the risk of seeming revisionist, it is often forgotten that at England he took over a team going nowhere under Glenn Hoddle, yet we managed to qualify for Euro 2000. The performances in Belgium were poor (despite victory over Germany), but don’t forget we were just a minute away from qualifying for the Quarter Finals before Phil Neville’s intervention inside the 18-yard box. Had we gone through who knows what could have happened? A good performance then would have erased memories of the earlier matches; it is largely on this basis that Messrs. Venables and Robson have a decent reputation with regards their spells in charge of the national team.
So onto City, where he took a side that had just been deservedly relegated from the Premiership (one season after they were fortunate to have been promoted from the First Division under Joe Royle) and turned them into a side that eventually romped away with the League title, brushing teams aside and scoring goals for fun. This was not City’s usual style; we’ve had more than our fair share of promotions, and we usually achieve it by scraping through on the last day of the season; but not under Keegan. On the day we won the Championship I turned to my mate Jim and said, “I don’t think the future has ever looked so bright”, and he agreed.
And in the Premiership we finished a respectable 9th in our first season, flirted with relegation last season (and honestly, we were really unlucky that year; we played far better than our position suggested. We had a positive goal difference for God’s sake, despite finishing 16th), and are now looking at a third season of safe, mid-table mediocrity. Perhaps that doesn’t excite some, but for me, recalling our recent history – having watched us lose at home to Stockport County and being relegated to the division below them; playing Macclesfield on an equal footing in the Second Division; being beaten home and away by Lincoln in the League Cup, watching the second leg at Maine Road in an almost deserted stadium with only blue plastic seats for company – I can take a bit of mid-table mediocrity, to be honest with you.
Yes, Keegan has made some mistakes, and some bad purchases – Vuoso for £4m (yes, you may well ask “who?”), Macken for more than 50 pence – but many signings such as Trevor Sinclair and Steve McManaman were warmly received by most City fans, myself included; no-one expected them to perform so abjectly, as if they had left any semblance of talent at the door. However, I think the good by far outweighs the bad when you look at Keegan’s contribution as a whole; we even have one of the best defensive records in the league this season, for those who get worked up about such things.
To me, Keegan’s overall reputation as being permanently tainted by failure is way harsh. Perhaps if he had left on a high with City after that first barnstorming season then people would view him differently; but had he done so he would just have confirmed some peoples’ opinion that he is a quitter; an unfair allegation when you look at the facts. He is even our longest serving manager since the Seventies; although that probably says more about City than anything else.
But Kevin has now gone, and good luck to him. Fingers crossed that Stuart Pearce can make a good job of it; he has been my choice for a while, especially as there appears to be a queue forming of managers stating they don’t want the job. Keegan’s legacy? Well, a lot of good memories, particularly of the promotion season, and some great performances and results against United. He leaves us as an average team in the Premiership; not perhaps what one dreams about, but still a better position than the club has known for years.