This series on Kevin Keegan initially ran on taleoftwohalves.uk – this piece was published on September 28, 2019
I am a passionate football fan, someone for whom the sport is MUCH more than a game (and indeed takes up far more of my time, interest and emotional reserves than it should – just ask my wife…)
I am, therefore, naturally drawn towards people involved professionally in the game for whom the sport is clearly more than ‘just a job’ as well. Rather, for them, it is “a labour of love” too.
There have been numerous characters down through the years, both players and managers, for whom I have developed a huge deal of respect because the game clearly meant so much to them. One shining example would be the late, great Brian Clough, a man who achieved so much with clubs that wouldn’t have been expected to win such major honours. Others (particularly those who have spent time at the two clubs I have supported for many years, Manchester United and Linfield), such as Sir Alex Ferguson, have been rewarded with more than respect. They have almost had familial love placed upon them.
The subject of this article falls into the former category. He never played for either of my clubs; indeed, he spent the best years of his playing career turning out for United’s bitter arch-rivals, Liverpool. His name is Kevin Keegan.
In The Beginning
Kevin Keegan, as his name would suggest, is of Irish descent. However, he grew up in Armthorpe, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, and has always been a proud Englishman. Keegan was born on St. Valentine’s Day 1951, into a family of coal-miners; his grandfather Frank heroically saved many fellow miners’ lives during the 1909 West Stanley Pit disaster, which still claimed the lives of 168 working men.
Keegan, a midfielder, was a very decent young player. He had trials with Coventry City, then managed by a certain Jimmy Hill, but did not get offered a contract. At the age of 15, he started working at a brass works as an office clerk, but continued to play football both on Saturdays and for a Sunday morning league team that represented a local hotel. During one game, he was being marked by an older man called Bob Nellis, who had contacts at Scunthorpe United. Nellis was so impressed by Keegan’s work-rate and ability with the football that he contacted the Irons, and arranged a trial for the teenager. It would be the start of a lifetime adventure in the game for Kevin Keegan. He was successful at his trial and duly signed for the Lincolnshire club.
The Scunthorpe Dynamo…
Scunthorpe United were then a Fourth Division outfit with very little money, managed by Ron Ashman. Keegan impressed him enough to make his debut against Peterborough United at the age of 17 during the 1968-69 season, finishing his first season in professional football with 33 league appearances and two goals from a midfield position.
Ashman viewed Keegan as a right-midfielder, which was fair enough since the major strength of the young man’s game was incredible stamina which allowed Keegan to run around for 90 minutes without appearing to suffer any fatigue whatsoever. He was also very gifted as a creative force for the Irons, so that his tally of only 18 goals in a total 124 games for the club, whilst looking unremarkable, tells only a small part of the story. After becoming a first-team regular during 1969-70, Keegan’s performances for Scunthorpe starting to attract the interest of scouts from clubs further up the English football pyramid, including Arsenal and Preston North End. However, nothing concrete materialised, and the young Keegan (on very basic wages at the Old Showground) began to get disillusioned with the game. He even talked of quitting and getting a regular job.
Into The “Big Time”!
Then his big “break” came along. Towards the tail end of the 1970-71 season, Keegan’s form caught the eye of Liverpool chief scout Geoff Twentyman, who recommended that the Merseyside giants make an offer for him. Manager Bill Shankly had great faith in Twentyman’s ability to unearth “rough diamonds”, and so Keegan found himself at Anfield on 3 May after the clubs agreed a transfer fee of £33,000.
Shankly thought he had signed a midfielder, but Keegan’s positional discipline to play in that area was sorely lacking. In a reserve game against Tranmere Rovers, he continually drifted so far forward that he was almost playing as a second striker, much to coach Ronnie Moran’s ire. However, Shankly was suitably intrigued enough to suggest Keegan be played as a striker in another reserve game against Southport; Kevin scored both goals in a 2-1 victory, and thereby altered the course of (his own) history.
Making An Impact At Anfield
Kevin Keegan made his First Division debut at home to Nottingham Forest on 14 August 1971, partnering big Welshman John Toshack up front….and scored after only 12 minutes in a 3-1 Liverpool victory! By the end of that initial campaign with Liverpool, he’d scored 11 goals in 42 appearances. He would never play a game for the reserves again.
The Reds finished third in the league table, a mere point behind the new Champions of England, Derby County (who were managed by a shy, retiring young man called Brian Clough…), and only beaten to the runners-up spot by Don Revie’s Leeds United on goal difference. It was good enough to qualify for the following season’s UEFA Cup competition.
Three Lions On His Chest
By then, Kevin had broken into the senior England set-up too. He made his debut for his country, then under the guidance of Sir Alf Ramsey, in a 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff during the 1974 World Cup qualification stage on 15 November 1972.
If his first season at Liverpool was a disappointment in terms of medals and trophies, Keegan certainly made up for lost time in 1972-73. Although he started in every single game, including the season opener against Manchester City on 12 August 1972, it took Keegan almost a month to notch his first goal of the new season, at Carlisle United in a League Cup fixture. Five goals in six games followed.
Goals Lead to Glory…
Luckily for Liverpool, Keegan’s strike partner John Toshack was in red-hot form, scoring six goals in the opening seven games. With the likes of Emlyn Hughes, Ian Callaghan and Steve Heighway also contributing goals, Keegan’s lack of them was not really a problem as the Merseysiders made a strong start to the season. Indeed, between suffering a 2-1 loss at Derby County on 2 September 1972 and going down 2-1 at Wolves on 27 January 1973, Keegan’s team only lost a single league game (a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United); that was one defeat in over four months of league action.
In the end, it was Liverpool’s imperious form at Anfield that made the difference, as they claimed the league crown in 1973 by three points from a strong Arsenal team; Shankly’s men only lost a single game at home all season, and that was to Arsenal. Keegan had assumed penalty-taking duties from Tommy Smith midway through the campaign, and finished the season with 13 goals from 41 league appearances.
However, the winners’ medal from the Division One campaign wasn’t the only one Keegan got his hands on that season. Liverpool had also battled their way through the rounds to make it to the two-legged UEFA Cup Final, where they faced powerful German side Borussia Monchengladbach (see footage below). Along the way, Keegan had bagged crucial goals against Eintracht Frankfurt and at Dynamo Dresden to help carry the Reds to the decider.
The first leg of the final tie, at Anfield on 9 May, was somewhat farcical, but in a manner that worked to Liverpool’s advantage. The attempt to stage the game had to be abandoned after 27 minutes of play due to a torrential downpour on Merseyside which quickly rendered the pitch unplayable.
However, Bill Shankly had noticed that the German defence was susceptible to high balls into their penalty area, and when the game was rescheduled for the following evening, he altered his starting line-up to include big John Toshack instead of the diminutive Brian Hall. After just 21 minutes that change paid dividends as Toshack rose to redirect a Chris Lawler cross to the far post back across the penalty area, where Kevin Keegan waited to head it home for 1-0.
Four minutes later, Ian Callaghan floated another high ball into the visitors’ penalty area. Under immense pressure from Toshack, Rainer Bonhof inexplicably handled the ball to concede a penalty kick. With a chance for his second goal, Keegan hit his effort weakly for the bottom left corner- only to see ‘Gladbach keeper Wolfgang Kleff guess correctly and save it!
The game was effectively decided in five frantic minutes. First, Borussia midfielder Dietmar Danner hit the Liverpool post with a speculative effort that left keeper Ray Clemence as a spectator. Then, a few minutes later, the game swung decisively in favour of the hosts; Tommy Smith lifted a free-kick high into the German box, which Berti Vogts could only head out towards Emlyn Hughes. Hughes headed it back into the area, where Vogts’ second attempt at a clearance fell kindly to Toshack, who in turn knocked it down for Keegan to volley home.
Toshack was rapidly becoming the ‘difference’ between the sides. He underlined that fact by bullying the German defence into conceding a corner on the hour mark, from which centre-half Larry Lloyd rose, totally unmarked on the six-yard line, to head home Keegan’s centre and give Liverpool a commanding 3-0 lead.
Borussia squandered a final chance to take an away goal back to Germany for the second leg when Jupp Heynckes saw his penalty kick brilliantly saved by Clemence after Steve Heighway had fouled Henning Jensen in the area.
Proving Hard To Beat…
That missed penalty would prove decisive. More rain in Germany ahead of the return game left a heavy pitch, which suited Liverpool as Shankly set them up to stoutly defend their three-goal advantage. Forced to press for goals, ‘Gladbach put their visitors under constant pressure, and that seemed to work wonders as they grabbed a 2-0 lead by half-time, both goals coming from Heynckes.
However, the heavy pitch sapped their energy, and as the game wore on Shankly’s men became more comfortable in dealing with the German threat. ‘Gladbach finally ran out of steam, leaving Liverpool as 3-2 aggregate victors, and so Kevin Keegan added a UEFA Cup winners’ medal to that he’d just claimed for helping Liverpool to First Division glory.
Kevin Keegan: Ever-Present.
Having had such a successful season, hopes on Merseyside were therefore high going into the following season, 1973-74. Keegan had established himself as an ever-present fixture in the Liverpool front line, and indeed, quite remarkably, he played in every single one of the 61 matches the club competed in that season.
Bill Shankly, in his last season as club manager before announcing his retirement, knew he had a competitive team, but the side made a mediocre start to the campaign, especially away from home, where they found it difficult to score. Early season defeats, mostly by just a single goal, at Coventry City, Derby County, Southampton and Leeds United would prove crucial.
Their European Cup adventure had barely gotten off the ground before it was over. After disposing of Luxembourg outfit Jeunesse Esch, the Merseysiders crashed out to Red Star Belgrade on a 4-2 aggregate scoreline, losing both home and away to the Yugoslavs.
Scoring Goals, Going Unbeaten.
For his part, Keegan weighed in with goals on a reasonably regular basis, helped by being the club’s nominated penalty-taker. He sealed a 2-0 win over Derby County at Anfield on 4 September with a converted spot-kick, and then scored the only goal as Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 four days later.
After losing 1-0 at Leeds on 20 October, the Reds went on an incredible unbeaten league run over the next six months, losing just a single game (2-1 at Burnley) until they went down 1-0 at Sheffield United on 8 April 1974. Keegan played in every single game, scoring seven times during the period, including his first senior hat-trick in a 4-2 victory over Ipswich Town at Anfield on 17 November 1973.
Left Behind By Leeds…
In the end, though, it wouldn’t be good enough to retain their title. Leeds United, in a final season under the management of the legendary Don Revie (before he took up the England job), were a machine. The men from Elland Road had started the season by going for a then-record 29 games unbeaten. Liverpool won the return fixture against the Whites, 1-0 in front of 56,000 fans on 16 March, thanks to a Steve Heighway goal. However, Leeds still won the league title by five clear points, since they’d lost only four games all season.
Solace for Keegan and Liverpool came in the shape of the F.A. Cup. He scored both goals in a 2-2 draw at Anfield to secure a Third-Round replay, and save blushes all around, against his hometown club, Doncaster Rovers. Keegan also scored twice more on Liverpool’s journey through the Rounds to Wembley.
A Cup of Cheer…
There, for the 1974 F.A. Cup Final, they came up against the club both his father and grandfather had supported as boys: Newcastle United. Despite a lot of positive ‘bluster’ beforehand from the likes of star striker Malcolm Macdonald, the Magpies were very much underdogs. However, they held their own in a drab opening half which was devoid of either chances or excitement (see game footage below).
That all changed after the whistle for the second half sounded. Having had a goal by left-back Alec Lindsay wrongly disallowed for off-side, Liverpool moved up a gear and took control of the game. Keegan, fed by a good ball into the box from veteran Tommy Smith, volleyed past Willie McFaul on 55 minutes.
With Newcastle hemmed into their own half, Liverpool put the game beyond reach on 75 minutes when Heighway ran onto a John Toshack header and calmly placed the ball into the corner past a stranded McFaul.
Keegan then grabbed his second goal, and the final Liverpool goal ever scored under Bill Shankly’s management, when he again met a nice ball across the box from Smith on 88 minutes to make it 3-0.
So, Keegan added yet another winners’ medal to his growing collection. He’d finished his third season at Anfield as the leading club goalscorer with 19 goals in 61 games, and was a firm favourite with the fans. He was also supremely fit, as attested to by the fact that he’d turned out for Liverpool 167 times over the course of only three seasons- the man simply never got injured, nor failed to last a whole 90 minutes!
With Bill Shankly’s retirement at the end of the season came a new challenge for Keegan: impressing new boss Bob Paisley enough to remain the first name on the team-sheet when it came to leading the Liverpool front line.
Join me again next time, as we look at how Kevin Keegan rose to that challenge.