Thursday, 10 August 2017

Kevin Keegan: superstar, and "emotional lad"



We’ve just seen another ‘Charity Shield’ go by, the current league champions and FA Cup holders playing out a big curtain-raiser for the new football season. 43 years ago today this match threw up one of its most incendiary stagings.

The man who struck the spark was Kevin Keegan: the superstar of 1970s English football, the game’s first millionaire and multi-media celebrity, twice winner of the Ballon d’Or and one of precious few British footballers who made a success of a career overseas, winning the Bundesliga with Hamburg in 1979. That was Keegan’s last winner’s medal in the game, though; and his huge achievements were, over time, to be weirdly eclipsed by incidents arising from his determined, passionate temperament – the same one that had driven him to singular success.

On August 10 1974 champions Liverpool were led out by their recently retired manager Bill Shankly, a show of respect to the great man. Striding along beside them were cup holders Leeds, behind their new boss Brian Clough, who had already been typically outspoken in his disparaging view of the Leeds brand of football. It soon became apparent that the Leeds players hadn’t cared for that: having been stigmatised thus, they were about to make a great show of holding up their bloody stigmata.

Kevin Keegan’s views, expressed in his 1977 memoir, were even more radical than Clough’s: ‘I hated Leeds and everything they stood for.’ From the moment the Charity Shield game kicked off, Revie’s team seemed to fancy a scrap. Soon the game became one big niggle. As Johnny Giles would tell the Guardian with relish, ‘Keegan was quite an emotional lad and he was in one of his moods that day.’ Giles and Billy Bremner were happy to buddy up for a sort of tag-team toughness: together they helped to make Keegan’s afternoon a misery, and Keegan felt he was getting no help from the ref.

Around the hour mark, incensed, Keegan pursued a loose ball and went through Bremner, then hared after Giles, who felled him with a right-hook. From the resulting free- kick the ball went up into the Liverpool half, but Keegan went after Bremner. ‘I have Irish blood in me,’ he would write, ‘and sometimes my temper rips.’ He and Bremner exchanged blows in front of the ref, and though Keegan protested when they were pulled up together he surely knew he was for the early bath. He stripped off his shirt and flung it away. Bremner copied him, though he might have thought twice about showing his pale gut alongside Keegan’s ripped and muscular torso. Joe Keegan was in the Liverpool changing room to console his son, and when Bremner entered to make an apology Keegan’s dad told him to bugger off.

Keegan would be made an example of – fined and banned for 11 games. In the aftermath of the game he chose to drown his sorrows in beer then awoke blearily to the unwelcome news that he was required to play in a testimonial for Celtic’s Billy MacNeill on Monday night and had to get himself up to Glasgow. On the other side that night was Kenny Dalglish, Scotland’s finest player, whose path had crossed with Keegan’s before and would do so again.

Keegan ran into Leeds United again, famously, in 1996. He was now managing Newcastle United, they were bidding for the league title but had let a 12-point lead over Manchester United dwindle to nothing and were now having to chase.  Man Utd made hard work of beating a Leeds side reduced to 10 men, after which Alex Ferguson resorted to his familiar psychological tricks, suggesting that Leeds had tried extra hard against his team but would likely roll over when they next met Newcastle.

Keegan’s team eked out a win over Leeds: they were three points behind Man Utd, two games left apiece. Sky was covering every game in the run-in and it was a tolerably satisfied Keegan who left the Newcastle changing room to do his duty before Sky cameras over a relay to studio presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Keegan set forth cheerily enough. But soon there was a reference to ‘slanderous’ remarks by Ferguson – and Keegan was not having this marked down to banter.

He spilled his vessels live on TV, louder than he had intended on account of wearing heavy headphones for studio relay, jabbing a finger for unneeded emphasis: ‘I’'ve kept really quiet, but I’'ll tell you something – he went down in my estimation when he said that…... I’ll tell you, you can tell him now if you’re watching it, we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and… and… I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.’‘'

It was quite a show. McDermott, having watched the broadcast in some incredulity, reached Keegan on the phone. ‘Ah, sod him,’ said Keegan, still seething with regard to his nemesis at Old Trafford.

Keegan could not have envisaged the extent to which his public image, into which he had put so much graft and applied so much polish, would come to be defined by that flailing and profitless outburst against Ferguson. No golden goals for Liverpool or England or Hamburg, no pop records or Brut TV ads or BBC Superstars heroics would be recalled with such relish in the coming internet age as ‘I will love it if we beat them.’. And yet, for seasoned Keegan-watchers it was nothing so unusual: the resurgence of the heart-on-his-sleeve ‘emotional lad’, as observed so vindictively by Johnny Giles. Reputation-wise it’s a poor return for what Keegan has done in – done for – the game. He was always his own man, and there has been no one quite like him within football or without.

(For a more multi-stranded version of this argument, I refer you to my Keegan and Dalglish, published today.)

Best signing in British football ever: Dalglish!


The best signing in the history of British football is not Eric Cantona, or Roy Keane; nor is it Thierry Henry, or Patrick Vieira, as great as all these players were. The Premier League is turning 25 years old, which is a perfectly good excuse for a party. But football fans of my vintage quite often have to remind the young ones that the game wasn’t invented in 1992, and that loads of brilliant football happened back in the dark ages.

Another recent and over-hyped twist in the British game is the ‘transfer window’: now 15 years old, originally an idea to stop clubs from being perpetually engaged in wheeler-dealer player-swapping, but now a tight time-frame that bids up the prices for top players at big rich clubs and causes serious pain for smaller cash-poor sides who have no choice but to get involved.

For the majority of football fans the transfer window is a source of exquisite agony, frustration and envy. You know you shouldn’t be goggling at Sky Sports News or the tabloid back pages or your team’s fan websites, fuelling the speculation about who’s been talking big and who’s moving where. But you do. And you find yourself madly urging your team to spend more money than you’ll ever see on some extravagantly tattooed young millionaire who’s liable to care less about the club they’re joining than about what they’re driving, who they’re dating, and where they’ll be moving to next.

It’s a brutal thing, but football success can be bought. And the Russian, American and Arab tycoons who have bought up England’s top teams since 2003 pay top dollar for off the shelf talent that was, invariably, reared and tested overseas. Back in 1977 Kevin Keegan left Liverpool, having made them European champions, to join Hamburg in Germany, and Keegan made clear he needed to better himself since the English game was short-changing its home-grown talent. Since Keegan, from Ian Rush to Paul Gascoigne to Gareth Bale, the really eye-catching moves for British players have been abroad. The idea that a British-born player transferred between British clubs could cause a sensation in the game now seems to belong to another era.

Still... if you seriously ask yourself what was the single best signing ever made in British football – even solely in terms of the weight of pure silverware to the pound – then it’s very hard to see past Liverpool’s acquisition of Kenny Dalgish from Celtic for £440,000 in 1977. Liverpool needed a replacement for Keegan and had change over from the Hamburg deal. Celtic were a selling club in decline, and Dalglish, the finest player in Scotland, had effectively downed tools for a move. Liverpool manager Bob Paisley was quite sure he’d got himself a bargain; and he was right.

Fans and pundits alike really doubted Keegan could be replaced, so integral had he been to Liverpool’s success. Yet Dalglish took over Keegan’s number seven shirt and, incredibly, inspired the club to greater heights: to speak only of three European Cups and five league titles as a player, and a further three titles after becoming player-manager in 1985. There was a Roy of the Rovers aura to Dalglish that can’t possibly be overestimated: he hardly ever missed a match, scored loads of vital goals (including league and cup winners), and was the beaming hero of innumerable schoolboys – the top Panini card in the pack, no question.

As Liverpool manager Dalglish also steered the club through the catastrophe of Hillsborough, at great personal cost, which he bore bravely and so earned a yet deeper, undying love from the support. One of Liverpool’s loyalist servants, from this season Dalglish will have a stand named after him at Anfield, and he has spoken of the ‘absolute pleasure and a privilege for myself and my family to have been part of such a special club and a special city.’ Any supporter of any team anywhere would walk over coals to have had such a man wear their club’s colours: it just doesn’t get any better than that record of service. In bringing Kenny Dalglish to Liverpool, I contend, Bob Paisley made the hands-down greatest deal in the history of British football.

(For a more multi-stranded version of this argument, I refer you to my Keegan and Dalglish, published today.)

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Keegan & Dalglish: together again, tomorrow...




From the Introduction to my new book, available from tomorrow:
Across 50 years the careers of Keegan and Dalglish have shadowed and mirrored one another, both for good and for ill. Now in their mid- sixties, they are elder statesmen – resemblances to their shaggy- haired Panini portraits of the 1970s long faded. Keegan now wears a trim crown of grey and a perpetually rueful mien, while Dalglish has grown a face of quintessential Glaswegian cragginess.

They are two highly talented, quietly complex men from equally unglamorous backgrounds, born in the same year, who ascended to superstardom almost in tandem. Their playing styles were notably different, as thumbnailed cannily by Dalglish: ‘He ran onto flicks, while I went about my work slightly deeper.’ But though as players (and again as managers) they were on opposing sides, they served the same clubs at different times and seemed not ‘rivals’ so much as exemplary figures in the game, capable of inspiring youngsters and fans not just by heroic feats on the pitch but by rigour and dedication on and off it. 

Keegan and Dalglish were football royalty, sporting kings – as intensely revered as any players these isles have produced. And yet, having made their names and reputations in the 1970s and 1980s, they would become recognisable to the next generation as top managers – albeit more fretful, troubled figures, given to big gestures and stunning departures. Both men acquired airs of enigma, as a consequence of strong- willed decisions made in private then dropped onto the heads of a startled public.

What had kept them both in football so long? The love of a club, and a principled, even romantic vision of how the game ought to be played? That’s what some hardcore supporters believe, and there’s evidence in their favour. But the desire to remain a big player on a big stage, the interest in a big paycheque, the resumption of old rivalries and unfinished business – these things, too, may have had their pull, serving to draw both Keegan and Dalglish into a Faustian pact...

Friday, 16 June 2017

On The Knives for the Guardian's Paperback Writer


Pleased to see how this piece turned out, describing the genesis and gestation of The Knives from the back-of-an-envelope stage when I was calling it 'Homeland.' It's a terrific slot that the Guardian offers to authors to say a little of their process on the occasion of a book going into paperback. And it's a great song, too.

On the title of the piece: I wouldn't do Mrs May's job today for all the Jie in Changxing.

On the extract chosen: I suppose I could claim a little prescience on this one - '‘a Tory government’, yes, but by a gnat’s whisker and no more, propped up by deals cut with Ulstermen' - except that I had governments past fully in mind here. We're encouraged to think that what's happening today is unprecedented, unique, and how things are going to be from now on. But all our lives have been lived before us.

The Knives in the Guardian's Best of Westminster



I’m honoured to have made the cut for this Guardian Books list of the Top 10 books about Westminster politics, as selected by the novelist and ex-BBC reporter Terri Stiatsny. 

Having had a go at a similar list in the past I know it would be a hard thing to get to a Top 20 without resorting to filler material, i.e. the great many books that depict democratically elected politicians as venal, craven, thieving scum, which is to speak of books that don’t have much to do with life itself – since, as Senator Silas Radcliffe, anti-hero of Henry Adams’ Democracy, puts it, ‘No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.’


So, a thoroughly agreeable thing for me to rubbing shoulders with Hilary Mantel, House of Cards, James Graham’s This House, and the Alans Clark and Hollinghurst...