Build up to Newcastle

Thursday 15 November 2001

Ian McCullock takes a look back at the extraordinary character who was such an influence on the fortunes of two great clubs...

Kevin Keegan's Black & White Army. It's got quite a nice ring to it, hasn't it? And the man liked it so much he did it twice. There's no doubting the enormous effect he had on both black and white clubs, Fulham and Newcastle. And the story was remarkably similar in both cases.

Two struggling Clubs, depressed and heading nowhere but down, living on past glories, faded and tired. And then the rich benefactor comes riding into town to save the day, chooses Keegan as the man to lead the Club back to the promised land, which he does with some aplomb, and then has to watch as he ups and offs in controversial circumstances leaving the fans slightly unsure whether to treat him as hero or Judas.

Keegan introduced his tried and tested management techniques at both Clubs, i.e., he spent fistfuls of cash on the best players he could find, broke all the transfer records going, made sure everybody was highly motivated and sent them out to win the game. If either of the sides employed complicated tactics or strategies on the football pitch then that passed me by completely; basically they were two teams who were very good at what they did, kept things simple, produced some exhilarating football and achieved considerable success at their respective levels.

But unfortunately it all ended in acrimony. It would have been nice on both occasions if there could have been some sort of continuity, a proper succession, handing over the reins and exiting with a bit of dignity. After all, he left both Clubs a lot healthier than he found them. With Sir John Hall he took Newcastle from the verge of the Second Division right to the very top, where they were unlucky not to win the Championship. The Magpies are now established members of the Premiership, and if not quite members of the elite echelon of Clubs, it's unthinkable to imagine them as anything other than top-flight.

Fulham of course were already in the Second Division when Mohamed Al Fayed gave Keegan a call. He won that Division with ease, breaking records all along the way, and set the foundations of the team that are now on the verge of challenging the Premiership's finest themselves.

Keegan spent £60million pounds on getting Newcastle to the top, and it's easy to say that with enough money anybody can be successful. There's a widely held view that buying your way to success is somehow devalued because you've got lots of money. We've had plenty of that kind of feedback at Fulham, the exhilarating football that we played last season somehow becoming invisible behind an enormous chequebook. But the English game is littered with Clubs who have found that it isn't quite that simple.

Wolverhampton Wanderers come to mind. Their Chairman has spent copious amounts of money over the last few years, and most of it has been wasted. I bet Keegan would have got them back to the Premiership, and not only that, they would have played entertaining football on the way. He may have had to spend money to build good teams, but, with a few exceptions, he spent wisely and then had the ability to do something with what he'd got.

There were also similarities in the way that Keegan tried to graft seemingly unnecessary, very expensive new players onto already successful teams. In Newcastle's case, the purchase of Faustino Asprilla was popularly blamed as upsetting the balance of a team destined to win the league. The purchase of Barry Hayles for Fulham, although not having the same effect, also threatened to disrupt what was a remarkably tight-knit side. In Keegan's defence, Asprilla was a delight to watch, and Hayles has gone to show what an astute purchase he actually was.

I'm still not altogether clear why Keegan did leave St James' Park in the way he did. The talk was all about the Club going public, and the new plc owners needing some long-term commitment that he wasn't prepared to give. Rumours of Keegan's dissatisfaction with what had been going on in the Boardroom surfaced, but I suspect there's an awful lot of stuff buried in there that we'll never find out about.

With Fulham, it was a lot more straightforward. After repeatedly stating that he would never leave Fulham for the England job, he did just that. His tenure with England was also to come to a premature close, the last the fans saw of him after the disastrous defeat to Germany was his back disappearing over the horizon. Keegan is clearly an immensely complex character, difficult to predict and difficult to harness, but immensely talented. The only thing you can say with any certainty is that a penchant for walking-out on things is definitely a part of his psyche - Manchester City watch out!

Arguably, Keegan is the manager who has had the most profound impact in the shortest time on both of these two famous black and white Clubs. In the man's own words, "It was a roller-coaster ride". It may not have been perfect, but I suspect there are few fans from either side who would have had it any different.