It’s hard to believe it now but in 1999 Kevin Keegan’s appointment as England manager was a cause for national jubilation (not just in Newcastle). English Football had finally appointed its greatest hero to its biggest job. After the fractious ending of Glenn Hoddle’s reign here was the man to bring the nation together.
It wasn’t just the cult of King Kev’ that got fans excited, Keegan’s management record to that point was outstanding. He’d taken Newcastle from the bottom of the second division to a whisker away from a Premier League title, more recently he’d turned Fulham around in both cases bringing a style of football rarely seen at either St James Park or Craven Cottage.
Almost everyone believed he could do it with England particularly given the quality of young players he had to work with; David Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Emile Heskey and Lee Bowyer. Keegan had always been a strong advocate of his ex England manager Don Revie, often stating England’s problems in the 70s were simply down to a lack of quality players, here there seemed evidence England might finally have the talent to succeed.
But those expecting a youthful reinvention of England were soon disappointed. It became clear very quickly Keegan favoured veterans. He retained Alan Shearer as captain having previously broken the World transfer record to sign him for Newcastle. The problem was by 1999 Shearer had lost a yard of pace and was embroiled in a difficult relationship with new Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit. Keegan also retained the spine of the Euro ’96 team- Davis Seaman, Tony Adams & Paul Ince all by now on the down slide of their careers. The youth of the side was again provided by Manchester United; right sided pair Gary Neville & Beckham continued their right wing/back partnership from club level in a 4-4-2 with right footed Phil Neville at left back and Paul Scholes playing attacking midfield.
The qualifying situation Keegan inherited was worrying. England had taken a poultry 4 points from their opening three Euro 2000 qualifiers. The group was headed by Sweden who’d beaten England in Stockholm and held a 2 point lead in the table with a game in hand, but Keegan projected his usual air of self confidence and insisted England would qualify.
In March 1999 Keegan strode out to the Wembley dugout chest puffed out for his first game as manager, ready to face England’s most familiar qualifying opponents; Poland. Scholes slid onto a through ball to put England 1 up after 12 minutes, 10 minutes later he headed home a Beckham cross and England were in charge. The Poles pulled a goal back before half time but England bossed the second half and Scholes completed his only England hat trick on 70 minutes to finish off the Poles in a 3-1 win.
Keegan had to wait another 3 months for the biggest qualifier- a chance for revenge at home against Sweden. The Swedes arrived at Wembley holding a 100 percent record in the group. Injuries dictated team selection and Keegan made the bizarre decision to include Tim Sherwood in his starting 11.
It was a turgid ill tempered match with Scholes making a predictably poor tackle and being sent off early in the second half. It ended 0-0 with England’s chances of winning the group disappearing down the Wembley tunnel with Scholes. It was now about finishing second and winning a play off.
Even finishing second started to look difficult when England drew their next qualifier later that week in Bulgaria. When September came around England needed maximum points from their remaining 2 qualifiers. The first was easy- Luxembourg at home, the open goal was duly accepted and England won 6-0, leading to the regular event of an England qualifying campaign ending with the need to ‘get a result in Poland.’
The teams were level on points but crucially Poland had one more game to play whilst England’s campaign would end that night in Warsaw. Keegan went with tried and trusted a 4-4-2 with Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler partnering Shearer in attack and Fowler’s old pal Steve McManaman on the left. Poland played for the draw, England huffed and puffed but Fowler and Shearer weren’t a natural pairing and England struggled to create anything of note. In the 84th minute David Batty was red carded and Poland got more interested in winning but England held out for a 0-0.
England’s qualification rested on Poland losing their last game away to Sweden (who’d already qualified) and then getting it right in the playoffs, most fans consigned the campaign to failure and started thinking about the 2002 World Cup.
But it was at this point fate slipped Kevin Keegan an ace; Poland crashed 2-0 in Sweden, with Celtic’s Henrik Larsson injury time goal guaranteeing England a place in the play off draw. At UEFA HQ the draw was made, the first team drawn from the pot of 8 was Scotland and there was something in inevitable about who was drawn to play them. It was an Auld Enemy clash to decide a place at Euro 2000 and all talk of 2002 was on hold, England suddenly expected.
The first leg would be held in Scotland, as an icon of English football Keegan made for a convenient target for the Scots as match day approached and Keegan seemed to revel in the atmosphere, for the first time he looked truly comfortable as England manager and it had the effect of taking the pressure away from his players.
Come the game Keegan made another odd selection decision- picking Sol Campbell at right back in the absence of Gary Neville and Jamie Redknapp in the troublesome leftwing position.
50,000 Scots crammed into Hampden Park baying for blood like an Alex Salmond wet dream. But Scottish hopes for a Braveheart inspired pitch battle were quickly muted. A rangey cross from Campbell found Scholes who nipped in front of Colin Hendry and put England 1 up after 21 minutes. Despite their imbalanced looking side England outclassed Scotland, with the second goal arriving before half time; One Beckham cross, One Scholes header 2-0. England controlled the second half and rode off to Wembley with what looked like an unassailable 2 goal cushion.
Wembley was a sell out for the return match 4 days later, most went to Wembley in party spirits with the Scots already beaten for Keegan’s coronation as England’s saviour. Keegan made only 1 team change with Gareth Southgate replacing Martin Keown, the gamble of Campbell at righback had paid off and Keegan stayed with the winning formula from Hampden.
But Scotland hand’t read the script, they produced a stirring fightback and after Barry Ferguson had missed a gaping early chance, a Neil McCann cross found Don Hutchison and Scotland were back in it 2-1 (on aggregate) after 39 minutes. In the second half the Scots pushed for an equaliser, England looked rigid and unable to find a response sat further and further back, they almost paid for it- A close range Christian Dailly header ws brilliantly saved by Seaman and England just hung on for an aggregate win but a loss at Wembley to Scotland. It was an odd sobering night for England fans, qualification which looked lost a year earlier had been achieved but it had been a constant struggle
In truth the campaign had been awful with England only managing 3 wins in the group (2 against Luxembourg) 4 draws and that opening loss in Stockholm, indeed England finished 9 points adrift of Sweden. They’d only made the playoffs because Poland had blown it and when drawn against an unfancied Scotland they’d done it by the skin of their teeth.
It wasn’t neccasrily Keegan’s fault, Hoddle had dropped him in it with a lousy start, his options had been hugely debilitated by injuries and ill discipline, but there was little to suggest England would play the champagne football Keegan had previously brought to Newcastle.
But the most obvious deficiency Keegan had to wrestle with was the shocking lack of left sided options available to him. In the era before Ashley Cole but after Stuart Pearce (not that being 37 stopped Keegan calling him up!) England couldn’t produce a single left footed defender and few natural left wingers. Keegan often played Phil Neville at left back arguing he’s played their successfully for Manchester United, true but at United Neville had the marauding Ryan Giggs in front of him, he had no need to run the left corner and cross, with England he always had a right footed midfielder ahead of him meaning England leaned to the right more than a Donald Trump rally.
Keegan now had some respite through friendlies and time to prepare his team for the finals ahead, he also had a draw ceremony to attend. Given how England had sneaked into the tournament the seeding in the draw was low and fears were raised of a tough group, but again fortune favoured Keegan and England drew Germany, Romania & Portugal. Germany were a fading force whilst the Portuguese had a talented side but one with a reputation for under achievement, Romania had beaten England at the previous World Cup but were seen as an ageing side.
The friendly results were middling, Keegan chopped and changed without finding the combination to unlock the kind of football his club sides had often played. In the final friendly he opted to give youngsters Steven Gerrard & Gareth Barry their debuts. Gerrard impressed but more importantly the left footed Barry offered a possible solution to the left side issue, left footed and able to play at left back or left midfield Barry could have been the missing piece Keegan needed to complete his jigsaw.
Gerrard & Barry made the squad as did the recalled Steve McManaman (fresh from scoring in the Champions League final) and fit again Michael Owen. Owen had been the star of the previous World Cup campaign but often injured during the Euro qualification campaign. England were ready to roll.
England would start against Portugal or to give them their official title of the era Luis Figo’s Portugal. Keegan again opted for Phil Neville at left back with McManaman on the left wing, alongside Scholes, Beckham, Owen & Shearer this was a very attack minded side with Seaman, Adams & Campbell & the Neville brothers only screened by the ageing Ince.
England got off to a perfect start, a 3rd minute Beckham cross was headed home by Scholes 1-0. Beckham was the best player on the pitch and 15 minutes later he crossed again for McManaman to volley home. 20 minutes gone 2-0 up what do you do? If you’re managed by Keegan you push men forward for a third. But with England in the ascendancy the ball broke to Figo who ran unchallenged through England’s half and blasted home from 25 yards, 2-1. From then on Portugal had the upper hand playing in a flexible 4-3-3 England were simply out numbered in midfield, on 37 minutes a fine team move saw Rui Costa float a perfect cross for Joao Pinto to head home 2-2 at half time.
During the break Keegan sent Peter Beardsley of his coaching staff out for the interview who gave the insightful soundbite “2-0 is often a dangerous lead to have.” The second half saw England unable to regain their mojo and Portugal got the winner on 59 minutes when Nuno Gomes slid home 2-3. England had blown it, they were too open too cavalier and got caught out whilst on top and Keegan faced a storm of criticism.
Next up were Germany, the game was hugely hyped and the fixture inevitably was the one England fans had circled. But this was not the Germany of old or more specifically it was an Old Germany. Incredibly Lothar Matthaus was captain aged 39, elsewhere they had Liverpool pair Christian Ziege & Didi Hamann, the dour midfield duo Jens Jeremies & Mehmet Scholl, giant striker Carstan Janker who had a turning circle bigger than an oil tanker and the deceptively slow Ulf Kirsten.
Keegan made 2 team changes dropping McManaman for the more workmanlike Dennis Wise and replacing the injured Adams with club mate Martin Keown. The first half was tepid, England went close when Owen headed a Phil Neville cross from the edge of the box but little else of note happened.
On 53 minutes a Beckham free kick found Shearer on the left of the box who headed a low effort past Oliver Kahn 1-0. Germany fought back and Keegan perhaps learning from his mistake against Portugal dug his side in replacing Owen with Gerrard who marked the occasion with crunching tackle that left Hamann “screaming like a girl.’ Germany had little cutting edge and England had done it!
Germany were beaten and a draw from the Romania game would see them into the quarter finals. Keegan again had a change forced on him- Seaman got injured before the game and Nigel Martyn played in goal. Romania made a fast start and Christian Chivu headed home from close range after 22 minutes. England laboured but won a penalty which Shearer despatched on 41 minutes, then on the verge of halftime a break through the centre saw Owen burst forward and tap home a second 2-1 at the break.
England had looked ragged, struggling with their passing and lacking the fluency of the Romanians. They needed an improved performance in the second half but got a poor start when a weak Martyn clearance fell to Dorinel Muntaneu who lashed in an equaliser. Romania swept forward, England repelled with Martyn partly atoning for his error with a series of fine saves. There was little tactical advice from the sideline with Keegan instead encouraging his players to stand tall, it was a disjointed performance but the result was enough so long as nobody did something silly at the death, enter Phil Neville. The young fullback committed a clumsy tackle in the box and the referee pointed to the spot Ionel Ganea put away the penalty and England were out.
The knives were out and England’s poor tournament was ridiculed, Keegan took the brickbats and prepared for the new season. Shearer retired from international duty that summer depriving Keegan of his captain, he was replaced with Adams.
Preparing for England’s first game of the new campaign (a friendly against France) Keegan gave an interview saying he’d needed time after the Euros to lick his wounds and then gave an odd analogy to his current predicament saying “Sometimes a boxer gets off the canvas to fightback and land the knockout blow, I want to be that boxer’. The unfortunate thing with that analogy is of course more often than not a floored boxer gets up just to stumble around in a trance, take more punishment and fall flat on the canvas as the referee decides he’s had enough. And here were Germany rocking up at Wembley to start World Cup qualifying.
Despite a credible 1-1 draw with newly crowned World & European Champions France hopes for Keegan’s side heading into qualifying weren’t high. On the eve of the game Keegan made yet another surprise selection- picking defender Gareth Southgate as a defensive midfielder, Southgate had only played that position briefly in his early career at Crystal Palace but had spent the last 5 years as a centre half at Aston Villa.
Wembley was sold out as usual but this was more than a qualifier, it was Germany and it was the old ground’s final England game. The German’s were little changed from the summer encounter but did have a new coach in Rudi Voller and the sides kicked off in a light London drizzle.
Germany won a free kick 30 yards from goal, Hamann stepped up and lashed a low shot that skidded around the wet surface, was fluffed by Seaman and squirmed into the England net 0-1.
England responded with chances falling to Andy Cole & Captain Adams before half time but to no avail. In the second half Keegan brought on Barry and changed shape to nearer a 3-5-2 but the second half was a turgid affair with England pushing, Germany hanging in and occasionally breaking forward, a couple of long range efforts from Beckham were as close as England got, the game ended 0-1 and as Keegan trudged down the Wembley tunnel he was heckled by a small group of fans, he looked up clearly hurt by it and disappeared into the dressing room. Soon after FA chief Adam Crozier was called in and after short delay Keegan faced the press declaring he’d resigned as manager.
In his resignation speech Keegan gave a heartfelt thanks to the FA & his players for their support and effort but also declared he felt he just wasn’t quite good enough for international management. It was a staggeringly honest assessment of his reign and one few managers would dare admit but he was probably correct in what he said.
I like most were relieved it was over and that’s the saddest thing about Keegan’s time with England. Most respected his brutal honesty and accepted England should move on without him although there was criticism that he was leaving 4 days ahead of England’s second qualifier in Finland. The most surprised person at Wembley that day was probably Howard Wilkinson who arrived Under 21s Manager and left in temporary charge of the senior side.
Soon after Crozier crossed the Rubicon (quite literally) in appointing Lazio boss Sven-Goran Eriksson as England’s first overseas manager. England would go on to qualify for the World Cup, beating Germany 5-1 in Munich 11 months later. Keegan resurfaced the following year at Manchester City, a great name of English football fallen on hard times, a typical Keegan project. He took them to promotion and into their new Stadium but crucially left before the Abu Dhabi billions rolled in. His most recent management stint was an ill advised return to Newcastle in 2008 where he fell out with Mike Ashley.
Looking back on Keegan’s time with England the biggest problem seemed to be his pushing square pegs into round holes; Campbell at right back, Neville & Redknapp on the left, Southgate in midfield to name a few.
But also there was a lack of a defined team shape, like a lot of England managers he correctly identified the best 11 players and simple put them out on the pitch. In Michael Cox’s recent book ‘The Mixer’ Cox reviewed Keegan’s time at Newcastle pointing out their problem in that title near miss of 1996 was the team lacked a defined shape and scheme and Keegan simply fitted it around the best 11 players, a particular problem when they signed Batty & ‘tino Asprilla. You could certainly see a similar pattern in his England tenure.
There were also problems with his coaching staff, Keegan wanted Arthur Cox as assistant but the FA refused on the grounds of Cox’s age. Notably after Keegan left Crozier recruited top coaches Brian Kidd & Sammy Lee to work with the as yet unnamed new England Manager. A similar policy when Keegan was in charge would have helped, I can’t help thinking had he had a top line coach to help with his own short comings (Kidd or Ray Harford say) things might have been different.
In a recent interview Keegan gave some interesting insight into his management at Newcastle. On taking the job he noticed the training ground was run down and decrepit so he immediately persuaded Sir John Hall to invest £40k in having the dressing rooms retiled, cleaned and out dated equipment replaced over the weekend. It had the desired effect lifting spirits amongst the squad and Keegan used such incentives to motivate his players as he rebuilt the club.
It was a great trick at a run down Newcastle but not the sort of thing that works with top level players at Wembley (where I”m sure the floors have a nice polish). And of course at international level he didn’t have the fantasy football chequebook of Sir John to back him up. Whilst his shortcomings in tactics and team shape came into far sharper focus at international level.
Kevin Keegan the England player is a legend, arguably the best his country as ever produced, as a manager he said it himself he just wasn’t quite up to it. He did however achieve England’s only tournament victory over Germany since 1966 and for one night only We Loved it when we beat them! LOVED IT!!