My night at Kevin Keegan’s one-man show – his feud with Fergie is alive and well

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Published Time: 13.05.2024 - 11:40:17 Modified Time: 13.05.2024 - 11:40:17

To listen to Keegan recounting tales of another footballing era is to be reminded of what a wonderful footballer he was There are certain inescapable hazards that come with being Kevin Keegan

To listen to Keegan recounting tales of another footballing era is to be reminded of what a wonderful footballer he was

There are certain inescapable hazards that come with being Kevin Keegan. One, he explains, is the risk of mistaken identity attached to his long absence from the nation’s TV screens. “A guy came over and said, ‘It is you, isn’t it? What a job you did on my next-door neighbour’s roof’.” 

Another is the likelihood that, among those who do recognise him, most want to ask about his 1970s bubble perm, a coiffure so polarising that when he walked into a Liverpool restaurant the day after his salon visit, his wife Jean dissolved in hysterical laughter.

But perhaps the commonest question concerns the immortal moment where, with his voice faltering and his finger jabbing at the Sky cameras, he told Sir Alex Ferguson that he still had to go to Middlesbrough and get something. As we savour this year’s vintage title race, here is one figure who knows more than he would like about end-of-season strain. So often is his “I will love it” rant from 1996 replayed, it has entered the realm of pantomime. 

And it appears that the passing of 28 years has done little to dilute the rancour towards his arch-tormentor. “No I don’t f---ing like him, to be honest with you,” he grins.

How would you like to remember Sir Alex? ‘Miserable’

It is a touch past 10pm and Keegan is in his element, taking his audience at Burton Albion on a riotous tour through the exotica of his life in football. All the greatest hits are rolled out: Newcastle’s 5-0 win over Manchester United, the day he headed a ball back and forth with Tony Blair, the bike crash on Superstars that left him needing a four-night hospital stay at Northampton General – as well as a few deeper cuts, from the alcoholism of Branko Zebec, his Hamburg manager, to his advertising campaign alongside Henry Cooper for Brut 33.

Keegan is a consummate performer on the after-dinner circuit, channelling all the vulnerabilities that made him such a popular, flawed manager into an hour of compelling self-parody. It is not unusual for icons of yesteryear to dial it in on these occasions. But at 73, Keegan has honed his act with such polish that you wonder why, one month out from the European Championship, he is absent from frontline punditry.

One explanation is that he just craves a quieter life, without having every offhand remark mined on social media for potential offence. Keegan had a taste of the viciousness of an online backlash when he was quoted as saying at an event in Bristol last year that “lady footballers” were not qualified to analyse the men’s international game. Lianne Sanderson, the retired England striker, urged him to “shut up”, while Women in Football accused him of advocating “gender apartheid”.

In truth, he did no such thing. Amid the furore, his additional comment on the night – “with the presenters we have now, some of the girls are so good, better than the guys” – was excised. This time, in an evening hosted by The Do Club, a Derby-based corporate events company, Keegan refrains from referring to the affair, reserving any drive-by shots for Ferguson. In case of any doubt about his views on his nemesis, he says: “People think we don’t like each other. But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for me. So we do f--- all for each other.”

: PA/Adam Butler

While Ferguson burrowed under his skin like nobody else, he could at least claim some bragging rights of his own. One was the famous 5-0 at St James’ Park, a result that resonates on Tyneside to this day. “I was asked, ‘How would you like to remember Sir Alex?’” Keegan smiles. “I said, ‘I’d like to remember him as he was at that game, when he was miserable’.” He also turns the anecdote against himself, recalling a commentary that declared: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve just seen the champions of England here today.” “And they had,” he says. “It was Man United.”

A separate source of schadenfreude was his capture of Alan Shearer from under Ferguson’s nose. “This kid had paid £5 to come to a Kevin Keegan Blue Star Soccer Day,” he recalls, proudly. “And I paid £15 million to get him back.” The account comes, of course, with a familiar ironic postscript. “Alex Ferguson, as he then was – he became a Sir after that – had met him in Huddersfield, and I came in afterwards. Alan asked me, ‘What do you think? I’ve also got interest from Man United’. ‘Alan,’ I said, ‘United are not going to win anything’.” They duly won eight major trophies over the next decade, while Shearer ended his Newcastle career without silverware.

Maradona wanted my shirt ‘because you’re small like me’

Keegan remains revered in the North-East but still sends himself up at every opportunity, noting his extraordinary reverse-Midas touch with sponsors. First Advice, who lent their name to his players’ shirts at Manchester City in 2002, went into receivership a year later. Northern Rock, Newcastle’s backers on his return to the club in 2008, became the first UK bank to fold in 150 years. Woolworths stocked an annual under his name for years – “quite a nice little earner for my family” – before collapsing in 2009. So, when FlyBe cancelled operations in 2020, having plastered his face on one of their aircraft, he had reason to fear he was cursed.

“It seemed a nice thing to have your picture on the side of a plane,” he says, ruefully. “But about four weeks later, I was with Jean and our two daughters at Malaga airport, and this woman wandered up to me. ‘It’s Kevin Keegan, isn’t it?’ I thought she wanted a picture. Instead she said, ‘You want to sort that plane of yours out.’”

: Flybe

For all his neat lines in self-deprecation, it is impossible to disguise Keegan’s greatness as a player. You are reminded by the names of the opponents he casually name-checks: George Best, Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini. He tangled with both a 38-year-old Pele and a 19-year-old Diego Maradona. At the end of an England friendly against Argentina at Wembley, he and Maradona pointedly exchanged shirts. “He wanted mine, he said, ‘because you are small like me,’” he remembers. “I should have kept it. One went for £7 million a couple of years ago.”

: Hulton Archive

: Mirrorpix

His luminous talent, decorated with back-to-back Ballons d’Or while at Hamburg, made him a true crossover celebrity. The cachet of Keegan was used to endorse everything from slippers to boots, lollipops to transistor radios. In 1979, he had one unforgettable flirtation with pop music stardom, launching the single Head over Heels in Love with Chris Norman, the original lead singer of Smokie. “It got to No 31 in England, but unfortunately for me it reached No 10 in Germany. That meant I had to go on Der Musikladen, their equivalent of Top of the Pops. I was the only one they said they couldn’t tell was miming. Actually, you couldn’t tell my lips were moving at all. I didn’t know the words.”

‘Shankly told me: Son, you’ll play for England’

Despite touching such heights, Keegan is scrupulous about never taking himself too seriously. It is a trait he ascribes to the privations of his upbringing. Having worked as a paperboy, a railway labourer, even an orderly at an asylum – a useful preparation, he jests, for coaching Joey Barton – he resists any suggestion of grandeur. He paints a vivid picture of his father, Joe, a miner who had fought in Burma in the Second World War. “He was a chain-smoker, with a streak of yellow nicotine in his hair from where he used to hold his cigarette.” He was also one of only two men, Keegan says, “who ever truly believed in me”.

The second was Bill Shankly, instrumental in shaping him from the creative midfielder for whom Liverpool paid £33,000 in 1971 – “if they’ve only paid that much for me, they only want me for the reserves,” he memorably said – into a tireless terrier sold to Hamburg six years later for £500,000, then a British transfer record. “I went there and trained for three days, just after Liverpool had lost the FA Cup final to Arsenal. As I walked off, Shankly put his arm around me and said, ‘Son, you will play for England.’ And I knew I would. That’s why I still believe it’s so important to encourage young people. It’s too easy to knock them down.”

‘I don’t want anyone to feel how I felt’


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