Wednesday 25 April 2018

Dion Fanning: Hoping against hope for next explosion of joy and energy


Dion Fanning

When considering the question, 'Is Steve McClaren the right man for Newcastle United?', it is necessary to first ask the more existential question, 'Is anyone the right man for Mike Ashley's Newcastle United?'

This summer has seen the return of something that resembles hope. Newcastle have spent more than £30m following up on Ashley's vow at the end of last season that they would be making their own luck this time round.

They would no longer rely, as they did at the back end of last season, on the magnetic presence of John Carver alone to guide them through the darkness.

Newcastle have bought players and, more importantly, they have bought players that many clubs wanted, spending money in a manner which suggests they were not merely concerned with the resale value.

They are not the club they used to be, but they are providing glimpses. Time was when they were the kings of the summer (a title which has passed from Tottenham Hotspur to Liverpool in recent years), a glorious era when Graeme Souness would turn up himself at the airport to collect Emre and thousands would celebrate on the streets around St James' Park to celebrate the arrival of Michael Owen

But even those days were touched with a desperateness to recapture what had been lost, kind of a nostalgic parody of an age when everything had seemed possible. The Kevin Keegan era is vividly captured in a new book Touching Distance, which is a story of a time when the only thing that mattered was hope.

Keegan turned hope into a metric and while it came to pass that it wasn't a very reliable one, he found a place where they were ready to believe in his audacity.

And Keegan was central to it all. The journalist Keith Duggan tells a great story of encountering Keegan in the Sandton district of Johannesburg during the 2010 World Cup. Mandela Square in Sandton was full of supporters from different countries. Keegan came out of a restaurant with his friend and his eyes lit with enthusiasm, gestured towards one group who were being particularly colourful and noisy. "Look," he said, "the Mexicans are having a sing-off!"

No wonder these Newcastle players and fans believed in a man who, 15 years later, believed so strongly in a group of supporters. It is a surprise he didn't tell them they were the best supporters in the tournament and he'd never heard anyone sing-off like that.

Keegan believed in belief. It was unmeasurable and unquantifiable and it helped if the best players could also be signed.

As a player, Keegan had been driven by the belief he had in himself. He had so much of it that there was enough to pass on to others when he became Newcastle's manager. That was the founding principle of his management.

This intensity couldn't last and it wasn't always good. Darren Peacock told Martin Hardy that he struggled when he first arrived at the club and the crowd showed their frustration. Unfortunately, they didn't simply do that on match day, the thousands who had started turning up at training would give him a hard time as well.

Most of the time, it was evangelical and glorious as Keegan took them with him, especially during that extraordinary season 20 years ago.

Things are different today. Keegan was pitching an idea, an idea that seemed outlandish even then, but in its reliance on abstract concepts like hope, belief and magic, would never be taken seriously now.

This season, Newcastle seem prepared to tell themselves a better story. They are among a clutch of clubs hoping that things will improve. The big TV money is on the way, but some of them must already be looking enviously at the deal cut by West Ham United. A BBC documentary has discovered that many of the "facilities and services" at the Olympic Stadium, including security, goalposts and corner flags, will be met by the public, one way or another.

The biggest victim in this is not the British taxpayer, it is Daniel Levy. After all, a big stadium in London that was occupied by, say, the Haringey Harriers and not a football club could have been even more of a drain on the man on the street.

But they could have been Tottenham's corner flags. Not since Ava Gardner toyed with Frank Sinatra has one man had his heart broken in such a public fashion and at least Frank got Only the Lonely out of it. It could have been Tottenham Hotspur in that stadium, but instead it is West Ham United, a bullfighter to Levy's Sinatra, who will be enjoying this wonderful arrangement.

Perhaps it is this which has made Levy appear more subdued in recent times. The man who became such a feared negotiator, that many decided they wouldn't negotiate with him at all, is less imposing these days.

West Ham, meanwhile, will prosper in their new ground if they survive this season in the Premier League. They are in the same bracket as Newcastle United as they all wait for the new money to come in on top of the slightly less new money.

McClaren will try to inspire at Newcastle and maybe he will do it. He has developed a reputation as a homme serieux thanks to his time in Holland and Germany. Going abroad is such an unusual thing for an English football man to do that it doesn't matter if they never last long, doing it is all that matters.

McClaren may be the right man for Newcastle, but it will be hard for them not to look back this year.

Terry McDermott told Hardy he knew what would happen as soon as Keegan first went to Newcastle as a player in 1982. "There was going to be an explosion. I f*****g knew . . . I know what he's like, what a fella he is."

Keegan brought that explosion of joy and energy. It was irrational at times, but Newcastle weren't competing with clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, so it wasn't impossible.

Keegan's unravelling in the post-match interview at Elland Road had no bearing on the season, it simply signalled that things were already at an end. Hope was unreliable, but so too was David Ginola.

If Kevin Keegan's management had belief as its foundation, there would be problems when he stopped believing, especially when he stopped believing in himself. Twenty years on, Newcastle are still looking for a man who was as magnificently flawed as Keegan.

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