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.)