Kevin Keegan managed Manchester City for four years, including one fantastic campaign in in 2001-2, when they were promoted to the Premier League. Those years take up two chapters in this autobiography.
I started with the City years because I wanted to know why things had got so bad at the club in the 90s and noughties, and how Keegan had managed to turn things around. He said the drinking culture was the key, and he sold one of the club’s most skilful players, Mark Kennedy, to send a message to the team about the booze.
I remember taking my son to watch City train in the late 90s. Michael Brown wagged his hand as he was leaving the ground in what looked like an offer to share a pint with another player. Then Brown stepped into his Mercedes Coupé and drove off. He was a good player but I think he underachieved in his career, and wonder whether the drinking culture was the reason.
That same day a muscular young Shaun Wright-Phillips ambled back from the pitches about an hour after the rest. He was tiny and looked like a school boy with freakishly large calf muscles. I guess he must have been nearly 19 at the time. Maybe that extra training was why he went on to play for England, and was sold to Chelsea for £21 million, whilst Brown moved to Sheffield United for just £400,000.
Keegan describes the troubles he had over alcohol with several players, including Richard Donne, who needed professional help, but triumphed and went on to win player of the season on several occasions. Keegan bumped into Steve Howey, Jeff Whitley and others at a bar in Hale in his early days at the club, and describes his anger at their unprofessional behaviour and attitude.
He mentions Nicky Weaver too, and I wondered about Michael Johnson, a brilliant revelation in the few games he played with us, who found the pressure too much and gave up football completely. A sad loss.
Joey Barton was another who Keegan came across in this vein, and it was interesting to hear about his later encounters with Joey when Keegan was managing Newcastle United, and Barton was imprisoned for assault. Joey was a youth team player for City who achieved a lot but there were a series of incidents involving violence, and seemingly fuelled by drink.
I used to enjoy following the fortunes of City’s youth team before the advent of the Gulf money. In those years before the cash arrived you could have made a strong team of former academy graduates, and it was always interesting to see how they progressed, and sad to see their occasional demise. Below I’ve listed some from the pre-Gulf years, with the teams they represented.
One of the key characters in the promotion year, 2001-2002, when City scored a record 108 goals, was Ali Benarbia. He was a genius with a football, and a joy to watch. At the time it was tempting to put the discovery of Benarbia down to Keegan’s knowledge and expertise, but apparently it was a fluke and Keegan is honest enough to admit this. In fact honesty is the key to his character, and to this book. There are few holds barred.
In the end Keegan left City because he disagreed with the approach taken by David Bernstein, and later with directors Ward and Makin, who were all quite conservative in their approach to the transfer market. This rings true. There were a few frustrating years when the club stumbled along with a mixed bag of players. But with Leeds United £100 million in debt in 2004, and Portsmouth going bankrupt, it was sensible. Maybe financial prudence helped tip the balance when first Thaksin and then Abu Dhabi invested in the club.
For me the most interesting sections of this book apart from City concerned Keegan’s time in charge of England, and the controversial period when he returned to manage Newcastle United a second time. And of course the Ferguson rant.
Keegan’s account of his time as England manager is brief. He reiterates what he said at the time, that it was a step too far, and that he was not quite good enough. But he doesn’t go into details about exactly what he was getting wrong – tactics, training, personnel – and I get the impression he is covering up to some extent for the players. The free kick conceded against Germany, and scored by Did Hamann, when England were slow and unprofessional in organising the defence was surely the players’ fault alone.
In the end it is the FA that Keegan criticises most, confirming their reputation as upper class twits, and amateurs in a professional world. It’s Keegan’s encounters with managers and bosses that seem to have given his life direction, from the beloved and inspirational Shankly through to Wise and Jimenez at Newcastle. It’s almost as if he can’t put his scorn for those two into strong enough words!
The section on Mike Ashley and Keegan’s time at Newcastle is interesting because now, in 2019, it is still so relevant. Benitez has secured Newcastle United’s premiership status for another year despite a lack of funds, and Ashley is still a controversial figure. With his purchase of House of Fraser, and the debacle of Debenhams he is in the public eye, and to some extent an emblem of the failure neoliberal economics. Will he ever fund the club for success? Will he sell? Who knows.
In the end it does seem that in those early years of ownership it was Ashley’s naivety and inexperience that led to the crisis. That was news to me. I had seen him as a much more malevolent force.
Of course Liverpool fans will will enjoy the part of the book about Keegan’s time at Anfield, but that was a bit predictable for me, a typical sporting tale of success.
Kevin Keegan, My Life in Football is well written by Daniel Taylor, chief football correspondent at The Guardian and winner of all kinds of awards. It’s hard to write a book like this, about a lifetime’s achievement in sport, without sounding either complacent or arrogant, but mostly between them they avoid those pitfalls.
There are moments of self-justification though, and the Ferguson rant gets quite a lot. You should read it and see what you think.
Keegan was always one for going his own way. He was not a footballing prodigy, partly because of his size. English football was always dominated by the biggest boys in the class in those days. That was the problem. They were the biggest, but not always the brightest, and good football is like chess. Look at Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino. There’s brawn with the last two but it’s brain that all three have in common.
But Keegan worked hard. He bulked up running up and down the stands at Scunthorpe, and that gave him the muscle he needed to succeed. He left Liverpool FC and Hamburg at times when many would have hung around and milked the money and the fame. If the end of his career was a disappointment at club level, it seems that it was because his wife made him turn down a move to an Italian club because of a spate of kidnappings. Good for him I say.
Southampton was probably a disappointment professionally, but Newcastle United as a player led to Newcastle United as a manager and it seems that those were amongst the best years of Keegan’s life.
GK Kasper Schmeichel Manchester City, Leicester City, Denmark
RB Tyrone Mears Burnley, West Ham
CB Micah Richards Manchester City, England
CB Nedum Onouha Manchester City, Sunderland, QPR
LB Stephen Jordan Manchester City, Burnley
RM Shaun Wright-Phillips Manchester City, Chelsea, England
CM Glenn Whelan Sheffield United, Stoke, Eire
CM Joey Barton Newcastle, QPR, Glasgow Rangers, Burnley
LM Stephen Ireland Manchester City, Aston Villa, Stoke, Eire
RW Stephen Elliott Sunderland
CF Daniel Sturridge Chelsea, Bolton, Liverpool, England
Michael Brown Manchester City, Sheffield United, Spurs, Fulham
Dickson Etuhu Fulham
Willo Flood Manchester City, Celtic, Middlesborough
Shaleum Logan Aberdeen
Adam Clayton Middlesborough
Michael Johnson Manchester City