Flawed relationship with Ashley that set the clock ticking for Keegan
Published 03/09/2008 | 10:00
Friday 9 May and Kevin Keegan is in an upstairs banqueting suite at St James' Park playing air guitar on stage with Bobby Davro.
The place, packed, was rocking. It was a tribute night for Sir Bobby Robson's cancer charity and that fact had persuaded Keegan and the Newcastle United owner, Mike Ashley, to share a table.
But beneath the smiles and raucous applause for Keegan's star turn, there was stress, which ultimately revealed itself in yesterday's confusion; because Friday 9 May was also the date of Keegan and Ashley's "showdown talks" in London.
Four days earlier, after Newcastle had been beaten 2-0 at home by Chelsea, Keegan had used the post-match press conference to state his view that, unlike the first time he was at St James', breaking into the top four was not realistic during his three-and-a-half year contract.
"In my time Newcastle will not be in the Champions League," Keegan said. "I do not want to mislead the fans. You'd be mad in my position to say we'll get in the top four next season. The gulf is too big.
"I can say we will be trying to get fifth and win the other league that is going on in the Premiership. We should make a fist of it next season, provided the owner backs me – which there is no proof of yet. But I have no reason to doubt."
But there were and are doubts which led to yesterday. With Newcastle finishing 33 points off fourth-place Liverpool, the sanity of this opinion was obvious, but upstairs, where Ashley was wearing his replica jersey with King Kev on the back, Keegan's words went down like a bad pint.
Senior figures at Newcastle felt they were being squeezed for cash by Keegan, and in public. They let their displeasure be known more quietly, but it was still on the back pages. After three days of tension, talks were held at the Fleet Street offices of then chairman Chris Mort. Dennis Wise attended. Mort described the meeting as "good, productive and constructive."
Publicly Keegan would concur, but although he and Ashley were then due to travel to St James' for Robson's benefit, where they would sit at the same table together, it is understood they travelled from London separately. At the dinner Keegan was seen and heard to point to Middlesbrough's chairman Steve Gibson and describe him in flattering terms.
By that stage it was apparent there were two factions at St James'. When Keegan walked through the doors at the ground with Mike Ashley on 16 January 16 for an FA Cup-tie against Stoke, it was different. Sam Allardyce had been sacked a week earlier. The mood was miserable. On Boxing Day, losing 1-0 at Wigan, 5,000 Newcastle fans had chanted: "We're shit and we're sick of it." That was the night Joey Barton went AWOL in Liverpool.
So Keegan's return was an immediate lift – even if Harry Redknapp had been offered the job first. Tyneside was half- thrilled, half-dazed and children were seen outside the ground holding up packets of Special K. That was what Keegan meant to their parents.
But the wider football world was sceptical. The game had moved on, that was the prevailing sentiment. A drab 0-0 draw against Bolton in his first match showed that it had not moved on that much, though off the pitch one development within football was about to make its impact felt on Keegan: the continental model of the Sporting Director.
That is not Wise's title, but there are not many within the building who think Wise's role is limited to recruiting youngsters to fill Newcastle's under-performing academy.
Wise was appointed twelve days after Keegan. His title is Executive Director (player recruitment) and his brief seemed initially to be primarily concerned with the acquisition of young players for the academy. But everyone asked the question why Wise would give up being manager of Leeds United for a position at Newcastle's academy.
Privately Keegan must have asked that himself, but publicly he tried to sound convincing when the news broke on 28 January just before a pre-match press conference at Newcastle's training ground.
"I am very happy," Keegan said of the Wise development and his awareness of it. "That is a fact. I have just spoken to Chris [Mort] before I came here and I knew where everyone would go, but really it is a distraction we do not need today – and that's not a distraction in a negative sense."
When it was put to Keegan that there needed to be clarification of Wise's role, and that it had to be spelt out, Keegan replied: "I said that to him [Mort] that it leaves it open to interpretation, but until Chris tells you exactly what it is... I think when he tells you it will be self-explanatory."
Not long after that, muttering began. Keegan was unable to get Newcastle to win and Wise was off scouting for players – first-team players. The sense was that Wise was doing more than recommending names to Keegan, he was informing the manager who would be coming. Keegan was emasculated and could not disguise his frustration when Luka Modric joined Tottenham ahead of Newcastle.
Keegan and Wise go back further than many think. Wise was an apprentice at Southampton in 1982, when Keegan was still a superstar player. "I have some lovely memories," Wise wrote of his brief time at the club, "like having my picture taken with Kevin Keegan."
At Newcastle, briefly the two camps got together, but a club sponsor was still able to relate that at Heathrow's Terminal Five towards the end of the season, Keegan and his assistant Terry McDermott were at one end of the bar, while Wise and his assistant Tony Jimenez, were at the other. The quartet had been scouting together, perhaps in France.
Since then, since that Chelsea match in May, really, people have been waiting for Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United's relationship to unravel.
Highs and lows in Kevin Keegan's career as player and manager
Born 14 February 1951 in Armthorpe, Yorkshire
1968 Joined Scunthorpe as an apprentice
1971 Transferred to Liverpool for £35,000
1971 England debut against Wales in Cardiff
1984 Retired from playing
1992 Returned to football as manager of Newcastle and three months later signed a three-year contract.
1994 Keegan appointed director of football and agreed new deal that tied him to club for next 10 years
1995 Newcastle reached quarter-finals of FA Cup but failed to qualify for Europe
1996 Saw his Newcastle side lose 12-point lead at the top of the Premiership and finish second to Manchester United
1997 Resigned as Newcastle manager in January. Returns to football on 25 September when appointed chief operating officer at Fulham
1999 14 May Appointed full-time England coach
2001 Appointed as new manager of Manchester City.
2002 24 April Keegan wins the old First Division in his first season at the club, his side scoring 108 goals and finishing the season with 99 points
2005 10 March Keegan leaves Manchester City and also announces retirment from management
2008 16 January Returns to Newcastle to replace sacked Sam Allardyce as manager
2008 2 September Keegan reportedly on the brink of leaving the club after a meeting with Mike Ashley