In the early 1980’s there was probably no more high profile English footballer than Kevin Keegan. Multiple trophy winner with Liverpool, successful spell in the Bundesliga with Hamburg, endorsements for this, that and the other, chart singles and twice European Footballer of the Year are to name but a few of the highlights on his impressive CV.
Even though the bubble-permed superstar was coming towards the end of his illustrious career, he still commanded the headlines wherever he went.
Spain ’82, Keegan’s one and only visit to a World Cup, was frustrating and ended in disappointment. Having been injured for the early part of the tournament, he was given 26 minutes against hosts Spain to help his country gain the victory they needed to advance to the semi-finals. Sadly, his glorious England career, a substantial part played as skipper, would end in failure and his headed miss near the end of the game remains an abiding memory of his final international appearance.
So after his summer swansong with England, he decided to call time on his Southampton sojourn for one last assignment. The surprise destination: Second Division also-rans Newcastle United.
The Magpies had been relegated from the First Division in 1978 and hadn’t shown any signs of making a return when Keegan put pen to paper at St.James’ Park in August 1982.
To say the hysteria on Tyneside hit epic proportions would be something of an understatement. And for the season opener against Queens Park Rangers, Keegan’s debut attracted an official crowd of over 35,000. The real figure in attendance almost certainly exceeded this, with the Gallowgate and Leazes End terraces bursting with expectant Geordies.
Standing between Keegan’s Newcastle and a fairytale start to his time in the North East, were promotion favourites and FA Cup finalists from just 3 months earlier, QPR. Future England boss Terry Venables, who would swap Loftus Road for the Nou Camp just two years later, fielded a side which included Terry Fenwick, John Gregory and Ian Stewart who himself would play for Newcastle later in the decade.
Lining up alongside Keegan in the black and white stripes was former sausage factory worker Chris Waddle in his pre-mullet days and the speedy striker Imre Varadi, a player who had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus.
Referee for the day was Trelford Mills, a man seemingly named after one of those retail parks where you can find camping stores and kitchenware outlets.
As the late summer sun beat down on both sides, a scrappy first half came to a close without either keeper having to pick the ball out of their net. Obviously the occasion, the weather and more than likely too many bottles of ‘Broon’ had intoxicated one enthusiastic gentleman, who ran onto the pitch at the start of the second half ‘au naturel’ to hang his scarf round Keegan’s neck. Welcome to Newcastle, Kevin!
With manager Arthur Cox’s words still ringing in their ears, United came out swinging and took the game to Venables’ men as they attacked the Gallowgate with fervour. Varadi ‘s pace was troubling the Rangers defence and it was only a matter of time before the deadlock was broken.
The script, of course, was written for The Messiah’s First Coming to see him score. After a headed one-two with Varadi, Keegan burst through a yawning gap in QPR’s backline to calmly slot the ball past the on-rushing Peter Hucker. Cue scenes of delirium as a mini pitch invasion engulfed the new Geordie hero.
Newcastle had more glorious opportunities to increase their tally, but indecision of front of goal by Varadi and a shot blazed high over the bar by Waddle from 8 yards ( yes, he could do it back then too) meant King Kevin’s goal proved to be the winner.
QPR picked themselves up from this opening day reverse to finish the season as champions. Newcastle, even with their new talisman could only finish in 5th, just three points from promotion in these days before end-of-season play-offs.
They only had to wait one more year to reach their target however, as Keegan and his attacking cohorts Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley, inspired the Magpies to 3rd place and their return to the First Division.
Keegan decided to call it a day on the final day of the 1983-84 season, before he could turn out for his adopted city in the top flight. His final appearance for Newcastle came fittingly in an end-of-season friendly against champions Liverpool, the club where he made his name.
After the final whistle and a farewell lap of honour in front of his adoring fans, Keegan was spirited away from the centre of the St.James’ Park pitch in a helicopter leaving the Geordies hungry for the Second Coming.