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October 7th, 2000. Not only was it the day of England’s first 2002 World Cup qualifier against Germany, but it was also the final ever match to be played at the old Wembley stadium. The twin towers were due to be hauled down shortly afterwards to make way for a brand new, state-of-the-art, national stadium. Over 76,000 fans were due at the match, hoping to celebrate the most famous football ground in the world with a win over their German counterparts
Kevin Keegan pulled open his curtains that morning to reveal a torrential downpour. It summed up perfectly how he felt. After a sleepless night, Keegan was for the first time considering his appetite for the manager’s job. Not the ideal preparation to a massive game, and it certainly didn’t start this way…
The People’s Choice
When Glenn Hoddle made his ill-advised comments in January 1999 about the disabled living out the consequences of a former life, the FA had no choice but to sack him. England were three matches into their Euro 2000 qualification campaign and had began poorly – a 2-1 defeat in Sweden and a 0-0 draw at home to Bulgaria immediately putting the Three Lions on the back foot.
Howard Wilkinson was already named as caretaker for the friendly against Argentina in February, but the country needed a lift before the next qualifier with Poland. Kevin Keegan was the stand-out English candidate at the time. His Newcastle entertainers team from three years earlier had endeared him to many. He unashamedly wore his heart on his sleeve and was a very patriotic man too. Senior players, including the likes of Tony Adams, Gareth Southgate, Gary Neville and Alan Shearer were consulted. England captain Shearer especially championed Keegan’s cause, he was his former club manager after all.
It was agreed at the FA that Keegan would be approached. The only problem being he was manager of Second Division side Fulham – who were bankrolled by Mohammed Al-Fayed. Keegan was granted permission to talk and met up with representatives from the FA. In the meeting, Keegan said he would like to do it for four games until the end of the season, alongside the Fulham job. It was a proposal that the FA hadn’t even considered, but they were more than happy to agree. Keegan may have thought he held all the cards in these negotiations, however, the committee of suits knew that once he was inside the England bubble, he would want the job full-time.
There was also a financial incentive for Keegan. He would be paid very nearly £1 million a year if he took the job permanently. This was new territory at the time, especially when you consider Terry Venables was on around £125,000 and Glenn Hoddle double that.
Short Honeymoon Period
His first match in the Euro qualifier at home to Poland went like a dream. England badly needed a convincing win and Keegan delivered, with his side going out 3-1 winners. A hat-trick from Paul Scholes was apparently down to Keegan’s advice, telling him to go out there and drop some hand grenades. Scholes certainly did that, even getting away with one of the goals actually going in off his hand. But nobody cared, the feel-good factor was around Wembley again. Memories of Keegan’s messiah-like arrival at Newcastle seven years before were flooding back. Could this be the right man for the job?
Following his second match, a friendly draw in Hungary, the inevitable happened. The bandwagon was now in motion, with the press and fans alike calling for him to take the job full-time. Keegan duly obliged.
The appointment didn’t exactly have the desired effect, and momentum was lost with two dull draws with Sweden and Bulgaria over the summer. A 6-0 thrashing of Luxembourg at the start of the next season did little to boost England’s morale, and when they were held to another goalless draw in Poland, qualification was now out of Keegan’s hands. These results were a far cry from the free-scoring wins he was known for at St James’ Park.
England needed a Sweden win at home to the Poles to give them a play-off spot. The Scandinavians were terrific and won 2-0, despite their own qualification already confirmed weeks before. It was a huge relief. Keegan had failed to get England over the line as group winners, and now had been given one final chance with a two legged play-off.
Of course England got Scotland in the play-off draw. Keegan had joked many times that he wouldn’t be surprised if their neighbours north of the border came out of the hat with the Three Lions. The battle of Britain began at Hampden Park for the first leg, which England won comfortably 2-0; Scholes adding two more to his international tally. Once again Keegan was the saviour, as the cocky English press assumed their nation had already made it. The second leg at Wembley was a very poor performance by the home side. Don Hutchinson gave Scotland the lead in the first half, and they very nearly doubled it near the end, with David Seaman pulling off a tremendous point blank save from Christian Dailly. England had made it, just.
Regardless of how they got there, by qualifying for Euro 2000, Keegan had achieved his main priority as England manager. In the months leading up to the tournament, he firmly believed his side could win it. They were put with Germany, Portugal and Romania in the group stages, a difficult task for most nations, never mind a struggling side.
However, results leading up to the summer weren’t half bad. An impressive performance in the 0-0 friendly draw with Argentina was a solid start to the calendar year. Frustratingly for Keegan, this was the only match he had with the players before naming his preliminary squad for the Euros in May. There were then two more good displays at Wembley – 1-1 draw with Brazil and 2-0 win over Ukraine. Learning from Hoddle’s La Manga debacle, Keegan told the players who would miss out on the finals privately just before the Ukraine game.
To be fair to Keegan, you couldn’t argue with his man-management skills. In fact the vast majority of his England players liked him and wanted to do well for him. Gary Neville, Tony Adams, Graeme Le Saux and Sol Campbell all speak highly of him in their autobiographies. The only exception is Michael Owen. The young Liverpool striker has said many times since that he felt almost picked on by Keegan. Apparently he always making an example of Owen in training, wanting him to change his natural game and subbed him off repeatedly without explanation. Make no bones about it, Owen was pleased when Keegan eventually left.
The squad itself for the Euros didn’t exactly excite. Keegan dropped young talents like Kieron Dyer and Rio Ferdinand, instead going for a more experienced group. Six players named were over the age of thirty-two, making it one of the highest average ages for an England finals squad.
The opening match against Portugal began with a bang, as Keegan’s side went 2-0 up within twenty minutes – Scholes and McManaman the scorers. However, Luis Figo began pulling the strings for the Portuguese and they were level by the break. By the hour mark they were leading 3-2 and never looked threatened by England’s attack. Adams also came off injured. It was a worrying start.
Five days later England papered over the cracks with a memorable 1-0 win over the worst German side in living memory. But Shearer’s goal sent the country into raptures and this victory over their great rivals became Keegan’s finest hour. The mood in the camp changed for a few days at least.
In the last group game with Romania, all England needed was a draw to progress to the last eight – a scenario which probably didn’t help Keegan’s preparations. Before kick-off David Seaman was forced to pull out through injury, giving Nigel Martyn his first taste of tournament football. From the start, the aging midfield of Paul Ince and Dennis Wise were overrun, and Romania took the lead, albeit fortunately from a cross-come-shot. Despite this, England somehow went in at the break with a 2-1 advantage, with Alan Shearer tucking away a penalty before Michael Owen pounced on a defensive mistake.
Just two minutes after half time the Romanians equalised, causing Keegan to try and hold on to the vital draw which would send them through, sacrificing both Owen and Scholes in the process. But with only three minutes remaining, Phil Neville brought down Viorel Moldovan to concede a penalty and Ionel Ganea sent Martyn the wrong way with the resulting kick. There was no surprise with the result. England had been poor all tournament, but being so close to the quarter-finals was a bitter pill to swallow for Keegan.
King Kev Abdicates
Even with a dreadful showing at the Euros, the press didn’t give Keegan the same abuse that previous managers like Graham Taylor had suffered. In return he gave the papers a back-page lead to die for, indicating if he didn’t get good results in the first two World Cup qualifiers with Germany and Finland, he would quit. Whether he said this because he had full confidence in his ability or not, we’ll never know. Either way, it brought on more pressure.
A decent 1-1 friendly draw with World and European champions France in Paris certainly raised optimism. Remember, Keegan was now without his main striker and captain, Alan Shearer, who retired from international football in the summer. With goal scorer Michael Owen and Andy Cole now up front, could this be the start of a new era after all?
And so to the crunch match with Germany, who were seeking revenge for their Euros defeat. Unfortunately for Keegan, ten days before the game his mother Doris passed away. Ever the professional, Keegan took one day off and went back to work. He seemed fine on the outside, but by the eve of the match, he was understandably a bit tetchy.
His seemingly good relationship with the press had also nose-dived dramatically. First they accused him of lying about an injury to Steven Gerrard., but when his team sheet for the match got out and was ridiculed on national TV, in Keegan’s eyes they had crossed the line. He had planned to use Gareth Southgate as a holding midfielder, so he could keep an eye on German playmaker Mehmet Scholl. The news was discussed and joked about by journalists on an episode of ‘Hold The Back Page’ that Friday night, which Keegan and his staff watched in dismay.
The next morning he looked like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Keegan needed to get off to a good start in this campaign, as he was desperate to lead his country into a World Cup. There was also the added pressure of it being the last match ever at the old Wembley. For this reason alone, whatever the result that day, it would be remembered for years to come.
He stuck to his guns and named the team that had been leaked to the press, with Southgate in the anchor role. Remarkably, Paul Ince didn’t even make the bench that day. In his team talk, Keegan urged his players to give Wembley something to remember them by before the bulldozers moved in. He was in a buoyant mood by kick off, waving to the crowd and taking in the occasion as he took the long walk to the dugout.
The match itself was very much a damp squib. The Wembley pitch looked like a bog with the persistent heavy rain and Germany took advantage of that fact early on. After 13 minutes, Dietmar Hamann took a quick free-kick 30 yards from goal, catching David Seaman off guard, as his shot skidded off the drenched turf into the bottom corner. Seaman got a hand to it and maybe would have got down quicker a couple of years earlier. However, it was quick thinking from Hamann.
A header from skipper Tony Adams and a long range drive from David Beckham were as close as England got to salvaging the match, as Germany looked comfortable and were good value for their lead. The Southgate gamble hadn’t paid off, as England ended up playing the match with five defenders and five attacking players throughout. Any changes Keegan made were just like for like. He had ran out of ideas.
The final whistle went and Wembley was denied one last magical moment. Indeed the old stadium had seen many glorious occasions and historical landmarks in it’s 77-year history, but this would not be remembered as one of the them. However, the real drama was yet to come…
The twin towers were not the only things that were finished at full-time. Keegan had made his mind up as he shook hands with his opposing manager Rudi Voller. This was not for him anymore. This decision was confirmed as he made his way towards the tunnel. Looking like a drowned rat, he endured some torrid abuse from fans waiting for him as he left the field. Vicious taunts he had not heard before as a manager. Keegan was used to people needing and loving him. Now those same fans who got him the job in the first place, wanted him out.
To be fair to Keegan, he did not mess around when he got back into the changing rooms. As his players were still taking off their soaked kits, he told them straight;
”Lads, you’ve given your all, much better in the second half. I can’t complain about the effort you’ve put in for me. But I can’t go on like this. I’m not getting the results. I want to thank you for what you’ve done for me, but that’s me finished.”
The players were stunned. Tony Adams attempted to reason with him but Keegan wouldn’t have any of it. His coaches Derek Fazackerley and Arthur Cox were also trying to talk him out of it. He was adamant that he was done. David Davies, the FA’s chief executive, came in and was confronted with Beckham and Seaman begging him to change Keegan’s mind. He had spent more time with the manager than anyone during his reign and knew it was a waste of time. Davies called in his senior FA employers and they all went to the toilet area of the changing rooms, where Keegan officially handed in his resignation.
He went out to face the press where announced his decision live on Sky Sports. Keegan was as honest as he could be. He simply wasn’t good enough at this level. He didn’t have what it took to be manager of his country. He knew he would be branded a quitter, but didn’t see the point anymore. Keegan had fallen on his sword, big time. As soon as the interviews were done, he went swiftly back to the team hotel, grabbed his stuff and was driven home by his wife. It was the end.
18 Months at the Pinnacle
Regardless of what Keegan went through as manager, he always saw the job as the ultimate honour. In a way he couldn’t quite believe he’d got there in the first place – after all this was a man who had walked away from football after retiring from playing, with no intention of ever being a manager before Newcastle begged for his help.
As mentioned earlier, the players liked him, but at the same time they knew he was tactically inept. The complete opposite of Hoddle. Some who played under both say a mixture of Keegan’s man-management skills and Hoddle’s tactical nous would have made the perfect England manager.
Keegan walked away with the worst win percentage of any England manager in history. In his defence he always tried to have testing friendlies, against the likes of Argentina, Brazil and France, instead of any walkovers. But in his eleven competitive matches, Keegan only won four (Poland, Luxembourg, Scotland and Germany), which is a dreadful return.
However, like Graham Taylor before him, Keegan was unfortunate to be in between generations of players. Shearer, Adams, Seaman, Ince, Keown and other stalwarts of the 90s were coming to the end of their international careers and certainly didn’t play their best under him. To his credit, Keegan did give debuts to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who both went on to win well over 100 caps, and he was probably the one England manager who got the best out of Paul Scholes. Unfortunately, this is where his good points end.
The fact is Keegan always saw himself as someone who would step up if his country needed him, and that’s exactly what he did. A patriot like him would have been the best type of manager to be successful in the job. Had his England side been able to reach a semi-final or better, he would have been fondly remembered with the likes of Bobby Robson and Terry Venables. They were likeable characters and so was he.
It’s just a shame that the job widely seen as a ‘Poisoned Chalice’ turned out to be just that for Kevin Keegan.