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Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Hiring of Keegan shows level of Newcastle's desperation


LONDON — When Kevin Keegan was asked in 1998 about managing Newcastle United,again his reply was: "No . . . I won't go back to managing Newcastle . . . that's 1,000 percent."

Christopher Davies

Last October, Keegan admitted he had not seen a game of football live since leaving Manchester City two years ago and "nothing" would bring him back to management.

On Wednesday, Keegan was confirmed as the successor to Sam Allardyce — or as the Newcastle Web site reported: "Geordie messiah to be unveiled as new United manager."

Eleven years ago, in January 1997, Keegan walked away from Newcastle after five colorful years in charge, saying he wasn't enjoying it any more. The messiah obviously believes he can now enjoy managing Newcastle again. The fans are delighted and owner Mike Ashley is a hero.

It is an appointment made with the heart rather than the head, and even billionaires can't turn the clock back.

The first time around Keegan made Newcastle English football's Hollywood with superstars such as Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand and Peter Beardsley, plus mavericks like David Ginola and Tino Asprilla.

They were the great entertainers, playing with a style that won them admirers but not a single trophy.

The difference was it used to lose 4-3 rather than 2-0. If Keegan couldn't bring success to Newcastle with a good team what chance of a pot or two with the current mediocre bunch?

The domination of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in the Premier League owes as much to Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba and Thierry Henry as the rock solid crew they each have at the back. The big three can tear opponents apart when they attack, but they also know how to defend.

Keegan's philosophy places defending low on the priority list.

Football, like life, moves on, and if anyone thinks the messiah can return and replicate the good (if trophy-less) old days of the 1990s, they are living in cloud cuckoo land.

And for all of Special K's charisma, he also has a record of leaving jobs in a huff (notably England) when things go wrong.

Since Keegan left Newcastle 11 years ago, six permanent managers have come and gone at St. James' Park, while it has been 39 years since the club claimed a major trophy.

Many will feel Ashley has bowed to fan pressure, which at least buys him time. In that respect it is a shrewd appointment because it guarantees no criticism from the Geordie nation about his new manager.

Those who take a colder, less romantic look at Newcastle will suggest Keegan's appointment is a panic measure from an owner after his first choice, Portsmouth's Harry Redknapp, turned him down.

Keegan was disillusioned when he walked away from Manchester City, his affection for the sport appearing to have disappeared as he cut his ties with top-flight football.

No one should doubt his love of Newcastle, and it is ironic that he starts his second stint at Bolton where Allardyce's principles worked so well but were not what the Geordies wanted.

There may be no guarantees in football but it can be said with confidence that whatever Keegan achieves the second time around at Newcastle it will not be dull at St. James' Park with the messiah in charge again.

* * * * *

IN 1955 A BOOK called "Clown Prince Of Soccer" by former England international Len Shackleton included a chapter "What the average director knows about football."

It was a blank page.

More than half a century later the blank page is still relevant, not least with the goings-on at Liverpool.

It is difficult to know which is the more worrying — Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks admitting he held talks with Jurgen Klinsmann in November about taking over as manager in case Rafael Benitez left the club, or that the American believed a German who lives in California and has never been in charge of a club would be the best man for the Anfield job.

Klinsmann is a charismatic figure, whose reputation was enhanced by leading his country to the World Cup semifinals in 2006, but he has never worked with players on a day-to-day basis for a long period or dabbled in the transfer market.

Hicks' admission that he had spoken to Klinsmann about a possible job was a public relations own-goal on a grand scale.

"We attempted to negotiate an option as an insurance policy . . . if Rafa left for Real Madrid or other clubs rumored," said Hicks adding: "Or in case our communication spiraled out of control."

He was referring to the criticism of himself and co-owner George Gillett by Benitez over their transfer policy which angered the Americans.

True it is never good to criticize your bosses, but the Spaniard had a point even if he should have kept it to himself.

But why did Hicks feel the need to tell the world he had spoken to Klinsmann?

A man who has become a multimillionaire has obviously been making the right decisions in the business world, yet not for the first time when they join Planet Football the money-men do the wrong things.

For Benitez to hear through the media that Klinsmann had effectively been offered his job surely makes it more a matter of when rather than if the manager leaves.

It smacks of what Tottenham did to Martin Jol, the board going behind his back (which it denied) to recruit Juande Ramos from Sevilla.

Benitez is hugely popular with the Liverpool fans despite failing to make a realistic challenge for the Premier League title.

Two Champions League final appearances, one successful and one unsuccessful, plus an F.A. Cup triumph have given Liverpool supporters plenty to cheer about in the almost four years Benitez has been in charge.

The American owners and Benitez had clear-the-air talks last month and Hicks insisted his manager has their full support.

"We put all of our issues behind us and received Rafa's commitment that he wanted to stay with Liverpool," said Hicks. "We never reached agreement on an option with Jurgen. Rafa has both of our support and our communication has greatly improved."

Really?

Christopher Davies writes about the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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