Mourning all?

Ian Cusack reports on the way the local media handled the departure of Kevin Keegan

I happened to be in Newcastle city centre at 10.30 am when the story of Kevin Keegan’s resignation broke, so I saw the stage-managed outpourings of false emotion at first hand. The sudden nature of the departure made it a perfect opportunity for soundbite and snapshot.

 The composition of the crowd of around 400 that had gathered at the ground was a sociologist’s wet dream: the retired, the unemployed, the terminally lazy and the socially inadequate, as close as they were ever likely to get to the inside of St James’ Park, rubbed shoulders with camera crews and agency hacks committing the unwashed legions’ banal opinions onto videotape and dog-eared notepads.

As the untidy throng assembled outside the ground it became clear that this could not be a representative sample of Newcastle fans, if such a thing exists, and that they could be manipulated into acting the way the media wanted. With last season’s sob-ins at Anfield and Ewood clearly fresh in their memories, photographers organized posed shots of supposedly broken-hearted youths clinging onto each other for support and news crews interviewed sobbing fans whose expressions often erred too close to smirks to be totally convincing.

Local media reaction was varied. Most of the usual ratpack were to be found in The Strawberry, immediately outside the Gallowgate End, either affecting stunned bemusement or alluding to the “real reasons” with a knowing wink.

The story of Keegan’s resignation had been broken, speculatively perhaps, on 5th January in the Sunday Mirror by Brian McNally, a locally-born journalist who had previously worked on North Eastern papers for years. There are three local papers in Newcastle, the Journal, the Evening Chronicle and the Sunday Sun, all coming out of one building and all with a very different attitude to Newcastle United. Ever since the Journal had one of its employees banned from Newcastle’s Malden Castle training ground for writing copy not approved by Keegan and Sir John, their coverage has been factual and low-key. The Evening Chronicle’s two main writers, John Gibson (author of a dozen books on Newcastle United history and chairman of Gateshead FC) and Alan Oliver, could have made a living in the Soviet Union in the 1940s writing Stalin’s speeches, such is their loyalty to the club. Having backed Sir John Hall’s takeover bid they have failed to criticize the club since and produce what amount to daily press releases from the bowels of St James’ Park.

The Sunday Sun, Brian McNally’s former paper, was a different case. McNally is a Celtic fan, and his neutrality enabled him to point out the shortcomings of every club in the region. Perhaps he deliberately sought to be controversial, but he wasn’t afraid to accept the consequences of his pronouncements. Subsequent events proved his Keegan exposé to be spot on. His replacements at the Sunday Sun were the wonderfully named Steve Bott, a Man Utd fan, and Neil Farringdon, a Noel Gallagher lookalike, who had covered Boro games previously and never missed an opportunity to blindly praise “Bryan Robson’s Riverside Revolution”. Both made constant attacks on Keegan’s tactics and transfer dealings, especially regarding the defence, and they reacted to his departure with glee: their campaign had been vindicated.

The Chronicle had endlessly trumpeted Bobby Robson for the manager’s job when it was clear that he was Sir John’s choice, while the Sunday Sun appeared to prefer Toshack ahead of Dalglish. One person who thought he was ideal for the Newcastle job was Malcolm Macdonald, now a radio pundit on Century FM, who specialize in employing Z list celebrities, the other sporting big name on their payroll being Malcolm Allison. Macdonald was a big hero at Newcastle, but he left over twenty years ago and has not worked in day-to-day football for over a decade since being shown the door at Huddersfield. His recent jobs, including making himself bankrupt in a hotel venture and working for Italian Telecom, didn’t really prepare him for the St James’ Park hotseat.

His pitiful trumpeting of himself was the act of a bitter and deluded ex-pro, still frustrated at being born too early to catch the wages gravy train. He’s currently joint favourite for the vacant Gateshead job, with Keith Houchen. (God knows who else applied for it – Alan Ball? Terry Butcher?)

If Newcastle United wasn’t the main topic of conversation for about three quarters of the population of Tyneside, then perhaps the resignation of Keegan wouldn’t have received so much publicity. Then again, it is a measure of the progress he made that his departure is the first in living memory that has not been accompanied by dancing in the street. Except perhaps at NUJ meetings.

From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month