Dave Johnstone



Fifteen games into Kevin Keegan’s return to Tyneside, has his second coming been the success faithful Geordies predicted or the disaster many journalists were so ready to write about?

After under achieving spells with both England and Manchester City, English football saw one of its great characters slump away from the arena. A beaten man; the two times European player of the year saw his reputation transform from gifted player and promising manager into that of a man who would go hiding and resign under the pressure of management.

With his status in tatters Keegan’s return after an eight year exodus was met with almost equal amounts of bewilderment and excitement. Excited Geordies greeted his return like a second coming of the Messiah; local newspapers ran with “God on the Tyne” and “Return of the Geordie Messiah”. In contrast the national press were at best cautious, Jim White of the Telegraph writing “there is only one thing certain about making Kevin Keegan manager of your football club: it will end in tears.”

Unfortunately, within six games of the new reign messiah Keegan had extended Newcastle’s winless run to an alarming ten games. Locking horns with his old adversaries Ferguson and Wenger had only delivered Keegan and his Geordie faithful humiliation – a 5-1 home defeat to United must have been a particularly hard pill to swallow, regardless of their breathtaking form. With the spirit and forward play of a typical Keegan team lacking it seemed that in ‘Special K’ the Geordie faithful had not in fact found the Messiah but more a very naughty boy.

Only six games in and Keegan’s kingdom seemed to be cracking already. Dennis Wise was brought in without Keegan’s approval prompting many to suggest that Keegan’s return would surely only be temporary. Something made all the more likely by the leering shadow of Alan Shearer which consistently casts itself over St James Park like the Angel of the North.

Further to this Keegan had to cope with other off field issues. Joey Barton’s approaching court case refused to go away as the manager was tasked with playing Barton whilst trying to work within the courts wishes. A situation which saw Barton having to be flown to and from training in order to fulfil bail condition. 

The dressing room offered no shelter either, only a week into the job and any journalist worth their wage had hunted down Michael Owen’s autobiography. In ‘Off the Record” Owen was less than complimentary when recalling his time under the former England boss whilst on national team duty, “If Kevin’s style was for some players, he wasn’t for me”.

With strike partner Obafemi Martin’s adding he had never even heard of Kevin Keegan, the always tabloid worthy Newcastle dressing room seemed just as unbalanced as the rest of the club.

A 1-1 draw with Birmingham in front of a surprisingly small away following saw Newcastle in real danger of becoming the latest club who were ‘too big to go down’ to go down. The situation Keegan found himself in was perhaps the toughest seen by a manager in the Premiership and in truth the whole situation looked like the match made in heaven had turned in to a Geordie nightmare.

Fortunately for Newcastle they didn’t have to wait that long to play the Premiership’s worst travellers; Fulham. Having not won away all season, in Fulham, Newcastle finally had a team lower on confidence than themselves to play. Newcastle obliged with a 2-0 victory.

Even though it was hard to see the victory against a team as poor as Fulham as a catalyst, since Keegan picked up this first victory of his second coming, Newcastle have managed to go on a five game unbeaten run and now sit comfortably in mid table. Suddenly the supporters inside St James Park are back to swinging the scarfs and in some cases shirts above their heads in uncensored delight, as if the Tyne itself had been filled with Brown Ale.

A stylish 4-1 victory at Spurs encompassing what every supporter had been dreaming of when they heard their favourite son was returning. Just how have Newcastle managed to turn around what looked liked being the Premiership’s most notorious slump?

In truth, where a lot of the problems at Newcastle were beyond the control of Keegan, the turn around of performances on the pitch has to, even by the most begrudging of journalists, go to the one hailed by fans as the ‘Messiah’.

Since the draw at Birmingham, Newcastle have persisted with an attacking 4-3-3 formation, and there has been no looking back. Early problems with Owen have been forgotten and he has adopted and flourished in a deeper role for the first time in his career, dare I say operating in a role which may help prolong his stay at the top now his pace and fitness have begun to decrease, Owen has scored four in five games. Martins is relishing the freedom of having three up top and even the frustratingly gifted but notoriously inconsistent Mark Viduka has enjoyed having players to run for him.

Indeed when all three were on target against a distinctly average Reading, Keegan seemed to have found a formation that will support Newcastle through till the end of the season, if not further.

The disjointed midfield that had seemed unbalanced all season is now solid if unspectacular, the naked determination of Butt and Barton appearing enough to keep Newcastle’s below par  defence from having to deal with too much.

Under the coaching of Keegan and the newly appointed Chris Houghton, a defence which even under a tactically astute Allardyce had put on shows Moscow’s flying circus would struggle to match, have somehow contrived to concede only one in five.

Even Geordie heroes like Chris Waddle and the infamous Mickey Quinn had not foreseen Newcastle’s revival coming from refined tactics rather than Geordie spirit. Quinn commenting, "That (tactics) is the only thing that could let Kevin down. In modern-day football, with all the systems that are used, it can be really tough."

Whilst Newcastle are far from the finished article, a professional victory over arch rivals Sunderland and yet another clean sheet continued the signs of improvement under Keegan. And in a game where the passion Keegan was once famous for could have cost the Magpies, it was a tactically astute and disciplined performance which saw them take the points.

Often it becomes all too easy to remember the mistakes people make. As hard as it is to forget Keegan’s “love it if we beat them!” comment, it should be equally taxing to forget the promotions he achieved with both Fulham and Newcastle.

Whilst more balanced judgements on Keegan’s return will have to wait until next season when he is able to form a squad of his own, it would appear he has gone a long way towards shaking off the view of him as a man with plenty of enthusiasm and spirit but little substance. Indeed his determination and tactical play have been the attributes that have stood out on his so called second coming.

They say a week is a long time in football; well it must seem even longer in Newcastle when the club can flirt with depression and ecstasy so frequently. One thing is for sure, which ever way Keegan’s second spell at the club finally goes, press and fans alike will be watching intently.