Not all England Greats enjoy the international careers their ability and reputations deserve. The 1970s were a notoriously slim period for England, whose FIFA World Cup exit in 1970 ended their spell as world champions and began a decade of qualifying campaigns that did nothing whatsoever to lift the increasingly disillusioned political mood at home.
Kevin Keegan‘s England career overlapped with the team’s darkest decade, but he remains a player we should look back upon with a good deal of pride.
Keegan’s managerial record is a varied one, ranging from hard-earned promotions with more than one club and a thrilling Premier League title challenge with Newcastle United in the mid-1990s, to an ignominious England exit in 2000 and a chaotic return to the north-east.
For younger supporters, there’s something of a figure of fun in Keegan. His “Love it!” rant in 1996 is, for many, the earliest memory of a man who would later set up the aptly-named Soccer Circus and then allow himself to be caught up in the cartoonish feud between Newcastle’s unpopular management and a fanbase drooling at the prospect of their idol returning. It’s a harsh reputation for a man who won – and deserved – consecutive Ballons d’Or in 1978 and 1979.
Keegan the player was a phenomenon. Signed by Bill Shankly for Liverpool in 1971, aged 20, he had played mainly as a midfielder for Scunthorpe United, but was converted to a forward by Shankly and really came into his own during 230 league appearances that would help him become an Anfield legend. He linked up superbly with John Toshack, and the pair formed a formidable partnership that played an important role in Keegan’s impressive honours haul on Merseyside.
Between signing for the Reds in 1971 and leaving for Germany in 1977, Keegan racked up three First Division titles, an FA Cup (scoring twice in the final), two UEFA Cups (two goals against Borussia Moenchengladbach in the first leg of the 1973 final) and, famously, the 1977 European Cup. Keegan had helped Liverpool win their first title in seven years and played a big role in their metamorphosis into European champions and fearsome domestic dominators.
Keegan headed for the German top flight after winning a vital penalty in that ’77 final, again against Gladbach. With Hamburg he won the Bundesliga title in 1979 and guided HSV to the European Cup final the following season. It was England v Germany again, and again the English champions won, with John Robertson’s goal securing a 1-0 victory for Nottingham Forest and Brian Clough. When Liverpool chose not to exercise their option on Keegan in 1980, it was Southampton who brought him to the Dell upon his return to England.
From there, he would join second division Newcastle and begin a relationship that would blossom immediately and emphatically, and then linger on for a generation. Rarely do club and player enjoy such mutual adoration, which was demonstrated in spectacular fashion – with the help of a helicopter – when he departed in 1984.
Keegan’s England career began with fleeting appearances in the ill-fated World Cup 1974 qualification campaign after a debut against Wales in 1972. Along with one or two other players he was unfortunate to have a career that coincided with a poor spell for England, who failed to qualify for the World Cup in ’74 and 1978, and the European Championships in 1976.
He was appointed as England captain by Don Revie in ’76, and during his time in the international set-up he forged partnerships with the likes of Trevor Brooking that arguably should have produced better results. England crashed out of the UEFA European Championships in 1980 in the group stage despite winning their final game against Spain. Keegan’s performance in the draw against Belgium (two weeks after Hamburg lost to Forest) was limp, and defeat to Italy in Turin ended England’s hopes of progressing.
Injury destroyed his only World Cup in Spain in 1982, and he wouldn’t make another appearance for his country after his solitary game that summer – despite a strong start after moving to Newcastle, Keegan was omitted from Bobby Robson’s first England squad.
Keegan was a genuinely brilliant footballer, a pocket dynamo with boundless energy. Written off by some as just another hard-working midfielder when he was a young player at Scunthorpe, Keegan’s ability and ethos made him so much more than that. He had a great eye for the game, more than a little skill on the ball and a knack of peeling off a defender and finding that crucial yard of space in the penalty area, a trait more usually associated with a very different type of forward.
He could dribble, he had excellent strength on the ball, he could score spectacular goals and he was even relatively efficient of the air, a reflection of the spring and energy that made him a very special player. There was more to Kevin Keegan than the Green Cross Code, Superstars and “Head Over Heels In Love”. In the 1970s in particular he was a wonderful player to watch and a credit to England.
England career: 1972 to 1982
England caps: 63
England goals: 21
Major championship appearances: European Championships 1980, World Cup 1982