There aren’t many people in England who don’t like Kevin Keegan. Younger fans grew to know him through his great Newcastle team of the late 1990s, of course, and through his less than great England side, but this is a detailed look back at an entire life spent in football. From Scunthorpe to Liverpool, from 50-mile cross-country runs to the Ballon d’Or and becoming king of Tyneside.
Presumably, it was that detail which presented the greatest challenge: how to distil a career which spanned over half-a-century and encompassed so much into a readable volume. Keegan, with the assistance of Daniel Taylor, manages that really well. There are no exhaustive chapters dealing with familiar tales of supportive fathers and mothers willing to make sacrifices, although Keegan clearly had the benefit of both. Neither, later on, does he dwell indulgently on his own triumphs.
As a reflection of who he is, it really works perfectly: Kevin Keegan is one of the most decorated English footballers in history, he also achieved tremendous things as a coach, but he and Taylor tell his story with an engaging humility.
There are affecting passages too. His recollection of his famous Sky Sports rant is honest and unflinching, but it also feels like its reputation is something Keegan has had to learn to live. His bitter end with England clearly crushed him, too, and his account of that eighteen months portrays just how much FA obstruction he faced and just how difficult a job his often was. He may take full ownership of his performance, but it’s still hard not to be sympathetic given the cast of characters involved and poverty of common sense at Lancaster Gate.
Similarly, while his decision to join Liverpool for Hamburg proved a great success, the book describes just how difficult a period of his life that initially was. He and his wife, Jean, moved to Germany together and she was fluent in the league, but the early resistance – and outright animosity – he faced from his new teammates, resentful of his wages and reputation, would have made those initial months immensely trying and obviously very lonely.
But Keegan is no wallflower and, when appropriate, he’s capable of returning fire – and, reliably, his version of his return to Newcastle is sensational. Sad and deeply depressing, of course, but still a deep and illuminating look into the dysfunction. Tony Jimenez is dragged satisfying across the coals, Dennis Wise is portrayed as an over-promoted lackey and Derek Llambias is two-footed in glorious fashion.
The sub-text is also revealing. Keegan has always been a decent person, loyal to the game and authentic in his regard for it, and it’s clear by the end that some of that love has been eroded. Not the sport itself, but certainly what surrounds it. At times towards the end of his management career, he’s cast almost as an anachronism – or as someone whose old fashioned values no longer really belong within today’s neophyte, charlatan culture.
Given how real Keegan felt to supporters and how ordinary he remained to football’s public, it’s probably not too tenuous to suggest that, in those moments, he is us or that, at times, his autobiography serves as an extension of the sport’s conscience.