What just happened to Kevin Keegan at Newcastle should make any football lover curl his hand into a fist and throw a metaphorical punch at the pygmies who’ve taken control of the people’s game. The Geordies are furious and I don’t blame them. They love Keegan there and call him the ‘Messiah’ for reasons that are obvious to anyone who saw what he did for that club as a player and as a manager (first time round). But I don’t want to talk about that here. I want to talk about Keegan as a Liverpool hero. His greatest years, after all, were here at Anfield, wearing the best Liverpool strip of all time, performing in front of adoring supporters on the Kop. I was one of them.
Of course there’s something about Keegan that excites derision. He wears his heart on his sleeve, he appears in public with the emotional controls switched off, he still thinks the sport is more important than the business. You can see it on the RAWK thread about his resignation – amid some genuine sorrow for the bloke is an undertow of contempt for the man’s character. But not, I guess, from anyone who actually saw him play for us. I don’t know any Red who witnessed his Liverpool heyday who has ever felt the slightest inclination to join the weary Keegan-bashing over the years.
And, yet, he’s a sort of semi-forgotten figure at Anfield. There are two reasons why he doesn’t get talked about as affectionately as other Redmen of his generation. The first is that he went on to accomplish great things with other clubs – SV Hamburg as well as the Toon – and therefore we only have shares in him and not the whole estate. We’re not used to that. When players leave us their medal-collecting days are supposed to be over. That’s how it is. But not with Keegan. The second reason is because his direct replacement was Kenny Dalglish who dignified the number 7 shirt with even greater distinction and who was the heartbeat of the club when it was permanently camped out with Zeus on Mt Olympus. I said two reasons, but there’s probably a third. He was, of course, the first of our players to make it clear he wanted to leave us (“I need a different challenge”) and some fans probably never forgave him for that. I struggled with it at the time. It seemed incredible.
But despite all that Kevin is still an authentic Liverpool hero. There’d be far less silver in our trophy room if the intrepid Shanks hadn’t trawled the outer-galaxy of the 4th division and brought this meteor to Anfield. In his days here he helped make Liverpool FC the most talked about club in Europe – for all the right reasons.
There’s a received wisdom about Keegan that he was not a particularly talented player and that “he made the most of what he had”. Kevin himself contributed to the myth with a few characteristically self-effacing comments of his own. But believe me, that’s lazy journalistic bullshit. Kopites of a certain generation will remember a supremely gifted natural talent. His problem was that he broke conventional expectations about what special talent was supposed to do. Skilful players in the ‘70s were typecast as lazy or at least languid. And these were compliments (“the fella has lazy skills”). Frankie Worthington, Alan Hudson, Duncan MacKenzie, Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh – these were the skilful players who didn’t sweat. But Keegan didn’t fit that mould. He fizzed and spun and harried and fought. He also trained hard and maintained a high level of fitness throughout the season. That much was clear when, in his most notorious moment as a footballer, Keegan stripped down to the waist after being sent off during the Charity Shied match v Leeds. Billy Bremner, who inadvisably followed the example, looked like Mr Blobby in comparison. And Keegan did sweat. That was because he was an artist who cared. He had superb skills, including one of the nastiest turns in world football which relied on courage, balance and an exquisite touch from the outside of his right boot. He was also one of those precious few forwards who see gaping holes and wide-open vistas where ordinary mortals only see dense thickets of bodies and legs. A deft touch, a gorgeous flick from Keegan and a colleague was in. This was ‘insp’ as well as ‘persp’– the best combination. A Liverpool combination. But it was a combination that threw British football pundits at the time. There was no mystery about Keegan on the continent – which is why foreign coaches honoured him as European Footballer of the Year twice in a row. But, over here, with the historic class division between thinkers and doers, artistes and beasts of burden, Keegan was misunderstood. A man that was both? Nah, doesn’t exist! Let’s call him a ‘trier’ instead.
Did anyone make that mistake at Liverpool? I wasn’t aware of it. Shanks in his autobiography said “I don’t like to distinguish between the players I had”, before singing the praises – as only Bill could – of the great Liverpool footballers who came under his tutelage. But after doing this he wrote: “Kevin heads the list”. The astonishing rise from 4th to 1st division and the immediate, awesome, impact he made in his first season at Anfield – Shanks was in no doubt that Keegan was the player who ignited his second all-conquering team. “He brought it to life with awareness and skill. He was the inspiration of the new team”. If I was Kevin I’d read that line from the Master every night to know I’d made sense of my life. This, of course, was the team that won the club its first European honours (Keegan twice v BMG in ’73 and twice again v Bruges three years later). Beating through its system was the extraordinary pulse of Kevin Keegan.
A few memories: a cheeky brace against the tight-fisted Leeds defence at Elland Road, the cunning lob that went over Shilton’s head to put us through to the FA Cup Final in ’74, the feint and shimmy that sent us on our way at Molineux, an outrageous back-heeled volley v Spurs that Pat Jennings somehow turned on to the post, the one-man assault on Man Utd in a near-perfect 3-1 victory that kept Sir Bob on course for a second title, the European nights when hapless German, Polish and Belgian defenders crashed into each other in forlorn pursuit of the sprite that was no longer there. Above all, of course, his last game in Red when he destroyed the best man-marker in World football. That performance by Keegan still works. If you get the chance check it out on video. There are some mighty players (from both sides) on display but Keegan is transcendent. He looks to be not just above the game, but above the era. That season he’d gone off the boil a bit. I can remember grumblings on the Kop and half-hearted renditions of ‘Kevin Keegan walks on water’, which had been boomed out (and bounced to!) the season before. Some said he already had his mind on Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. But all was forgotten when he made Bertie Vogts his personal slave for 90 glorious minutes in Rome.
I was on the Kop when he brought his Newcastle team to Anfield and routed us 2-0. It was a couple of weeks before they tore up the terracing, and quite the worst Liverpool team I’ve ever seen. Kevin could easily have crowed but all he talked about after the game was how incredibly moved he was near the end when the old Kop had hoisted its flags and scarves and given the last rendition of YNWA he would ever hear. I remember him coming out of the dug-out to applaud it even as the game was going on. Class.
Rafa and the club could do no better than invite him to Anfield for the United game. Apart from reviving memories of a time when we routinely sent them packing with a free football education, it would show that this club still had its priorities right. Who governs the team? Who buys and sells the players? Keegan thought he did. Rafa would understand that.