In previous editions of my footballing grumbles, also known as ‘Middle-aged Man Shouting at the Sky’, I have railed against any number of items or topics at a time. This week I concentrate my ire on one man. That he was my first, and possibly only, footballing hero merely adds to the irony.
Kevin Keegan and Billy Biff
Kevin Keegan was probably the first British footballer to ever do ‘really well’ out of football. By that I mean he was perhaps the first player to make enough money purely from a playing career to enable him to live the rest of his days in luxury.
Unlike the current day when a twenty-year-old starlet with 30 Premier League appearances to his name could afford to retire and never have to work again, days were when even the most well-paid of players would have to make arrangements to provide an income once their playing days were over.
Through careful marketing and astuteness, KK changed all that. Hitting the heights of the English game in the mid-1970s with Liverpool, Keegan was cast into the national spotlight. With George Best already off the scene, there was a gap in the market for someone with commercial nous to exploit as the face of British football.
Employing a high profile, Keegan was able to find fortune as well as fame through a series of lucrative advertising deals with brands such as Patrick sportswear and Brut aftershave. He ventured into the music world and made the top 30 in 1979 with ‘Head Over Heels’ (check it out on Youtube… it’s a belter) and he negotiated his own contracts and transfers throughout his career.
So, why does he get my goat, then? Well, simply because he is a Billy Biff.
By this I mean he’s a guy you can’t really take totally seriously for the simple reason that he takes himself too seriously. There is, ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve’ and there’s …well, there’s, Kevin Keegan.
To ‘do a Keegan’ is to flounce, to pout, to storm out (or almost, nearly, not quite, go, return, or threaten to do so, call people ‘pal’ in a passive-aggressive manner, say ‘hey’ a lot, purse one’s lips, and finger-jab). Doing ‘a Keegan’ really is a sight to behold.
It was during his playing career that Special K first perfected the art of flouncing. Some notable occurrences include the time he single-handedly took on Leeds United at Wembley, having separate bouts of fisticuffs with both Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner in the space of 90 seconds.
After being knocked to the ground by a sweet Giles’ right-hander, Keegan actually pleaded with the referee not to send the Leeds man off. Instead, it was Keegan himself who was making the long walk to the changing room barely a minute and a half later.
Looking at the whole incident now, it is actually quite comical. Keegan loses his head and chases after Giles, giving Bremner a kick on the way, gets knocked down, gets up and pleads with the referee, the free kick is eventually taken and cleared. Keegan gets into an off-the-ball ‘incident’ with Bremner, the referee calls both men over, Keegan goes ballistic when it becomes clear he’s being sent off, and then, the coup-de-grace, Keegan rips his shirt off and jogs around the track at Wembley to the changing room.
Anyway, further episodes were to follow. There was the time Keegan walked out of an England squad managed by Don Revie because he hadn’t been informed personally of the reason he’d been dropped; the time when he demanded a transfer from Southampton because Lawrie McMenenemy wouldn’t let him pick the team or dictate the club’s transfer policy; the public statement that he would never play for England again because Bobby Robson had the cheek to leave him out of his inaugural squad without letting him know in advance; and the off-the-cuff decision to retire from playing while still relatively young based simply on the fact that Mark Lawrenson outpaced him to a through ball in an FA Cup match in 1984 – a sign, Keegan said, that he was ‘past it’.
Another Billy Biff moment concerned his final farewell game when a special match was arranged at St. James’ Park between Newcastle and Liverpool. The match ended in a 2-2 draw and then someone thought it would be a good idea for KK to leave the scene in a helicopter departing from the centre circle.
My toes are actually curling up as I’m typing this some 36 years later!
Into management and…..I’m losing the will to live here as I recall the Biffness of Keegan in the management stakes so let’s wrap this up quickly, shall we?
Newcastle the first time out: Appointed as ‘saviour’ in early 1992 he sweeps in and wins his first match in charge before threatening to quit within a fortnight as conditions were ‘not like the brochure’. Five years pass in the blink of an eye. Promotion is gained. Attacking football. Best player is sold to main rivals – Keegan goes on the steps of SJP to explain the decision to fans – biggest rivals win everything with said player in the team while NUFC win nothing. Keegan threatens to quit several times. Finally does.
Fulham: Takes over as ‘Executive’. Appoints Ray Wilkins as Team Manager. Sacks RW and takes over the position himself. Is approached by the FA to take over as England manager. Declines and says he will never leave Fulham. Leaves Fulham and becomes England manager.
England: Is cheered by England fans in his first game. Qualifies for Euro 2000 courtesy of winning a two-legged play-off with Scotland in which a 2-0 away victory trumps a 1-0 home defeat. England are booed. England fail in the Euro’s and are knocked out in the group stage More boos. England lose at home to Germany in Wembley’s last match. Keegan endures another Wembley Walk of Shame 26 years after the hits and giggles of the Leeds Affair and is booed all the way back to the changing rooms. Keegan quits in the Wembley toilets.
Not done with football yet, Keegan has enough left in the tank to manage, and resign from, Manchester City and Newcastle (again) in the coming years.
Finally, after all that exhausting Biffness and flouncing, KK retired from the game.
He still surfaces every now and again, however, and like his old nemesis, Sir Alex, he too has displayed a penchant for releasing autobiographies. At least three have been released over the years and quite colourful they are too.
In his books, and in various interviews, Keegan describes himself as a self-made player who made it to the very top of the game through pure hard work and industriousness. He claims that he wasn’t the most talented of players and so what he lacked in ability he had to make up for with sheer hard work.
That annoys me.
No doubt Keegan did indeed work very hard in his career. One could see at the time how much he was dedicated to his craft and to improving himself yet it is simplistic in the extreme to claim that hard work was behind his success. The truth of the matter is he was a fantastic player and was wonderfully gifted with an awesome natural skill that he honed through thousands of hours of practice on the training field.
On skill levels alone, KK was one of the best five players to ever pull on a Liverpool shirt and one of the all-time greats of British football. That he is not universally remembered as such as much to do with his ‘Biffness’ and the oft-repeated and erroneous claims that his was a manufactured talent.
Finally, knowing that in the pantheon of Liverpool Greats, Keegan doesn’t get the recognition his talents and achievements at the club deserve and this too is a niggle of consternation to me. There is a feeling amongst many Liverpool fans that Keegan betrayed the club when he voluntarily left whilst at his absolute peak in 1977. At the time, Liverpool had just established themselves on their perch as league and European champions and so Keegan’s decision to seek fame, and more importantly in some eyes, fortune elsewhere was unforgivable in certain quarters.
That KK declared his intention to seek pastures new a year in advance of his subsequent transfer to SV Hamburg didn’t help dilute the feeling that he had his own rather than the club’s best interests at heart, and so his final season at the club was often a fraught one. The reason Keegan repeatedly gave for wishing to leave Anfield was in order to ‘seek a new challenge’.
This statement was resented on the grounds that it was difficult to understand what could possibly hold a greater challenge than playing for the best team in Europe. Most suspected that what was remaining unsaid was the four-fold hike in wages as an incentive.
The fact that Keegan negotiated his own contract and transfer terms at Liverpool was another stick to beat him with and another sign that he was supposedly looking after himself to the detriment of the club. When he agreed to stay with Liverpool for one extra season in the summer of 1976, he did so on the understanding that Liverpool would cap any transfer fee requested for him at £500,000, thus allowing him to negotiate a greater signing on fee.
Since leaving Liverpool some 43 years ago now, Keegan has also refused to play the ‘Liverpool Old Boys Game’ of declaring ever-lasting love for the club. Unlike players such as Steve McManaman and Michael Owen who grew up supporting Everton and then also felt their talents deserved a bigger stage than the one afforded them at Anfield, Keegan sees no need to forever be on television using the personal pronoun ‘we’ when talking about Liverpool.
Keegan is judged to have his heart in Newcastle and the fact that he spent the best years of his playing career at Liverpool has largely been forgotten. That he was ultimately replaced in the side by Sir Kenny Dalglish, The Greatest-Ever Liverpool Player *, doesn’t help Keegan’s legacy either.
*I am legally required to refer to SKD as such. It’s the law.