On this day: When Kevin Keegan offered England the falsest of dawns

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 27, 2018
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Since the Football Association first began appointing full-time coaches to preside over the national side, they have selected fifteen men to ‘permanently’ take on the role regarded by many as only being second in importance to the Prime Ministership. Of that number it’s not difficult to determine which the most pivotal choice was: the one that defined us then and has defined us ever since.

At first glance and on first thought that would be Sir Alf Ramsey, who masterminded a World Cup triumph that sustained Albion with pride through half a century of disappointment. At first glance and on first thought you’d be close, but get no cigar.

A decent shout too could be made for Graham Taylor’s ill-judged promotion from Aston Villa. If Sir Bobby Robson got a rough ride from the media, Taylor’s treatment amounted to a cruel vilification, a character assassination that forever changed the dynamic of the position to that of ‘the impossible job’. Furthermore, during his tenure the Three Lions went from a continental breakfast of Waddle and Gazza to the chips and gravy of Batty and Palmer and in an age of enlightenment England became In-ger-land and sought refuge in a by-gone era. As lovely a fella as he was Taylor’s appointment was a wrong turn at a major crossroads, a decision made infinitely worse by the fact that England were already in desperate need of a Sat-Nav.

Yet still you would be wide of the mark if you believe that it was he who set the national team’s outlook – for good or bad – in stone.

A final guess then, and this time a more zeitgeisty one in the form of Sven Goran-Eriksson. After all, the Swede’s recruitment was both a tacit acceptance of England’s limitations and an uncharacteristic embracing of open-mindedness. It was a cardinal move and one that sculpted our identity for here on in. He’d have to be a contender right?

Wrong.

England’s Kairotic moment that has shaped the set-up and determined its circumstance ever since took place in the summer of 1977. At a time when the Sex Pistols gobbed all over the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and on the footballing scene the Dutch were elevating sport to abstract art, over at FA headquarters they faced a straightforward choice between rolling the dice on a maverick genius or playing it safe with a company man. Predictably, depressingly, they went for the latter.

But you knew that already; you knew that the overlooking of Brian Clough for West Ham’s Ron Greenwood would be highlighted here as the critical juncture in England’s fortunes, because you’ve heard your dad and pretty much anyone of a seasoned vintage down the years blame every misplaced pass and bottled penalty since on that erring to caution. “They should have given it to Cloughie. He’d have sorted them out”.

Which he probably wouldn’t have, if truth be absolutely told. The firm notion that this anti-authoritarian egomaniac would have dragged a staid institution kicking and screaming into the 20th century and not imploded within a year is merely projecting the best possible outcome on what might have been. Yet that is almost by the by, because what the decision made that summer represented was a spurned opportunity to reach for something very special and potentially spectacular. It was a settling for the ceiling. While others dared to dream and some were realised England clung to the functional and familiar. From such a concession it could be argued that we’re still playing catch up to this very day.

This is why the luring of Kevin Keegan to Lancaster Gate in February 1999 was not only greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm from the English public but also outright amazement. Here for the first time the stuffed shirts bound by convention and conservatism had opted for the bold risk; the pre-flop all-in with ace-king suited. With Alan Curbishley – the millennial Greenwood – over-looked in the wings it was a little too much to absorb, this strange new reality. Frankly we’d never known the like.

Indeed so taken aback were we that a role-reversal took place that saw the authorities trumpet the exciting new direction England were heading in while we tempered our joy with doubt. For all of Keegan’s thrilling adherence to open, attacking football, wasn’t he too cavalier for the international stage where the world’s elite punished tactical naivety for fun? Furthermore his C.V was riddled with capricious departures prompted by brittle emotion. Surely he would walk the moment he didn’t get his own way?

Most worrying of all was that this was an experiment in speculation that coincided with the country’s possession of a ‘golden generation’: a defence featuring Ferdinand, Woodgate, Sol Campbell, Terry and Ledley King with two of Europe’s finest full-backs in Ashley Cole and Gary Neville bombing down the flanks; a midfield resplendent with Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham, Scholes, Carrick, and Joe Cole; and an attack potent with Shearer and Rooney and a 20 year old goal-machine in Michael Owen. Wasn’t this a rare collection of treasures that warranted shrewd and sensible guidance?

Perhaps, but outweighing those concerns ten-fold in our thinking was the chance to atone for our historic sins. Had Keegan been in charge during the 1970s Tony Currie, Stan Bowles and Frank Worthington would have been lavished with significantly more caps than the pitiful thirty they collectively accrued. In the eighties he would have built a team around the silky brilliance of Glenn Hoddle and had he began his managerial career on the highest rung in the early nineties we’d have seen rather more of Matt Le Tissier and less of Andy Sinton. Keegan viewed such talents as necessities, not luxuries. It was organised solidity that to him was dispensable.

So in this respect, along with many others, wasn’t he what we’d always wanted? Cried out for in fact? For fifty years we’d wondered just how good we’d be if we took the brakes off and went for broke and now – furnished with an extraordinary array of home-grown potential to boot – we could finally find out. To the moon we go then or else fall flat on our face.

So it was that an excited fatalism accompanied Keegan’s first game in charge; that took place nineteen years ago today. The opponents were Poland in a crunch Euro qualifier and the result and performance was perfectly true to type. It ended 3-1 delighting a packed-out Wembley with Paul Scholes getting a hat-trick (prior to kick-off Keegan’s instructions to the ginger magician was to ‘drop some grenades’). Yet until the decisive third was nodded home from close-range England looked startlingly exposed at the back and had both sides been clinical the contest could easily have ended 4-3 either way.

What a ride we were in for. Sure, it was destined to end in heartbreak and probably a near-miss at greatness such was Keegan’s modus operandi, but until that day came international breaks would be relished for their gung-ho thrills ’n’ spills rather than elicit a nationwide yawn.

Almost immediately, however, we got the rug that we believed to be a magic carpet pulled from beneath our feet. A workmanlike draw against Hungary gave way to an uneventful stalemate vs Sweden and soon after that came a flat 1-1 away to Bulgaria. It was fair to expect teething problems but still very odd to witness a Keegan side lack bite, never mind drama. Bluntly, any England gaffer worth his salt could have presided over such displays. This was not what we waited several generations for.

An unexpected loss to Scotland had the scribes sharpening their pens, but notably the public reserved their judgement and even after a dismal Euro championships in 2000 – admittedly brightened by a terrific win over Germany – led to a group dismissal, the fans clung to a diminishing hope that the famous Keegan formula for entertaining football would eventually materialise.

It didn’t and more so a comment made shortly after returning early from Charleroi – “Since I’ve been in charge, I’ve never seen us play as well as we can” – suggested that the under-fire coach was as mystified as anyone as to why he was over-seeing such ordinary fare.

A lumpen reverse to Germany in the last ever match held at the old Wembley finally brought a faint chorus of boos from those feeling short-changed and that was enough for Keegan; that was his pathetic and flimsy excuse to hang a resignation on. He quit just moments after the final whistle in a toilet, as Chief Executive David Davies pleaded with him to at least stay on for the fixture against Finland that Tuesday; to at least not leave his country in the lurch.

“You’re not going to change my mind, I’m out of here,” was the response. When the going got mildly tough a brittle and emotional Keegan usually got going.

His eighteen games in charge brought a win ratio of 38%, the lowest percentage of any permanent England manager and in hindsight it’s clear that we got it all the wrong way around in anticipating the national side to become fun under his residency. It was the players who had a blast. It was us who had to toil.

Ray Parlour confirmed this years later in his autobiography stating that joining up with the England squad was ‘like going to Las Vegas’ what with all the card schools and race nights. “Tactically we were never going to win anything with him,” he damningly concluded.

In November 2016 Gareth Southgate was announced as the England manager to take us to Russia and beyond. It’s hard to think of a more in-house, pragmatic and thoroughly underwhelming appointment as the FA reverted to ultra-conservatism in response to the scandal brought upon them by Sam Allardyce.

“It should have been Harry Redknapp. He’d have got the players enjoying themselves. Expressing themselves. Watching England should be enjoyable, not a chore.”

Variations on this sentiment have been aired many times since Southgate was installed with his quiet efficiency and unimposing demeanour.

If the eighteen months of bathos endured under Kevin Keegan taught us anything it’s that we should always be careful of what we wish for. And really careful of what we’ve wished for a very long time.

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