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Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Meddling from management left Keegan, Curbishley with no choice


LONDON — Kevin Keegan and Alan Curbishley resigned this week as managers of Newcastle and West Ham because the new breed of Premier League owners wouldn't let them manage.

Christopher Davies

Chairmen chair board meetings, players play but maybe the days of managers managing are drawing to a close. Portsmouth's Harry Redknapp, the second-oldest manager in the Premier League after Sir Alex Ferguson, thinks so.

West Ham's Icelandic owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson typifies the new breed of billionaire owners who, as Redknapp put it "sign whoever they think is a sexy name and they sell whoever they want . . . the days of managing as I know it are coming to an end . . . you will basically be given the players and told to get on with it."

Curbishley walked out of West Ham on Wednesday with his head held high.

Players were sold behind his back by the board so Curbishley, his position undermined, quit.

"Some managers may not have taken this decision but I could not stand around and be silent on it," he said.

The fans were never totally behind Curbishley as the Newcastle supporters are with Keegan, but despite a crippling injury list the Hammers finished 10th last season and are currently fifth.

"I take my hat off to Alan for sticking to his principles," said Redknapp. A day later Redknapp was doffing his hat again when Keegan resigned after eight colorful months in his second spell at Newcastle.

"I've been working desperately hard to find a way forward with the directors, but sadly that has not proved possible," said Keegan. "It's my opinion that a manager must have the right to manage and that clubs should not impose upon any manager any player that he does not want.

"It remains my fervent wish to see Newcastle United do well in the future and I feel incredibly sorry for the players, staff and most importantly the supporters. I have been left with no choice other than to leave."

Six months after taking control of Newcastle, Mike Ashley sacked manager Sam Allardyce having allowed him to spend £25 million on six players. Allardyce's compensation was reported to be £6 million, which would have softened the blow of being shown the door.

Bringing Keegan back to St James' Park in January was the ultimate public relations exercise, the Messiah uniting the Geordie nation. Appointing Special K earned Ashley the sort of praise from the Toon Army he had no doubt been craving and though Newcastle's results were initially inconsistent, the fans remained convinced that Keegan could bring the good times back to the success-starved region.

So what did Ashley do?

Thirteen days after appointing Keegan, he brought in Dennis Wise as executive director (football), Tony Jimenez as vice president (player recruitment) and Derek Llambias as managing director. When Keegan agreed to return he had no idea of Ashley's Plan B.

The team in charge of recruitment, which operates out of London rather than Newcastle, has been at loggerheads with the manager, and it became obvious when crisis talks between all parties at Newcastle started on Monday something would have to give.

Players who Keegan wanted were vetoed by the Toon Trio, while players the manager didn't necessarily want were brought in. Keegan, a manager who was not being allowed to manage, didn't want the club to sell James Milner to Aston Villa for £12 million but was told everyone has his price.

Keegan 0, Wise 1.

Instead of unity there has been a clear divide among the club's power brokers.

Ashley has never been a conventional club owner, wearing a Newcastle shirt with "King Kev" on the back and preferring to sit among the fans rather than in the directors' box. If Ashley sits among the fans at the next game against Hull, it will be tantamount to a suicide note.

"I hope he does," said former Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd (there would be thousands willing to second that emotion) who has fond memories of his time with Keegan.

Shepherd admitted he is baffled by Ashley's strategy and said: "When I was there with Kevin we had a simple strategy. Kevin identified the players and we tried to get the money to buy them. It wasn't rocket science. I don't know what's happening with Mike's structure, but obviously Kevin's not willing to go along with it.

"I worked with Kevin for five years on a daily basis and he was fantastic. Sometimes his principles get in the way of success, but I had a great time with him and can only say good things about him."

The first hint of a troubled marriage came last May, when Keegan reacted to defeat against Chelsea by claiming Newcastle would not be able to break into the top four, adding: "Maybe the owner thinks we can bridge that gap but we can't."

Four months on Keegan felt he was being undermined, a manager who couldn't manage after having clear differences of opinion with Wise. It would be understandable if Keegan felt he has a pedigree as player and manager that is light years ahead of Wise.

For all the failings of Keegan, who has now walked out on Newcastle twice, Manchester City and England as manager, he wears his heart on his sleeve and fans love his enthusiasm for the game.

It was wrong but typical that Keegan should publicly support Joey Barton, twice convicted of violence and who is the least popular footballer in English football (as close as an opinion can be to a fact).

Newcastle fans have stood outside St. James' Park this week with optimistic banners reading "sack the board" but of course boards don't sack themselves.

If Ashley is not aware that he is unloved and unwanted by the supporters, then he also believes in the tooth fairy. Ashley and Wise also know that Keegan's popularity remains sky high with supporters, play ers and the media but in any power struggle involving the board, the manager is usually a loser.

Ashley had to make a choice between Keegan or Wise. He wouldn't, so Keegan quit.

If Ashley didn't see this one coming, he is in a minority of one.

Not a single Newcastle supporter is behind Ashley and Wise, while the backlash of effectively forcing Keegan's resignation will run and run.

If Ashley and his spin doctors can find a way of turning public opinion around, it will be the greatest public relations achievement ever.

Since Keegan's first spell ended in 1997, Newcastle has had seven managers. Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Robson, Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder and Sam Allardyce all came and went before Keegan's return.

Good luck to the next man in the hot seat. He'll need it because the Newcastle circus never leaves town.

Christopher Davies is the author of the recently released book "Behind The Back Page."


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