Kevin Keegan’s managerial excesses and successes have meant we have forgotten how, during his playing career, KK blazed a trail away from the pitch, believes Barney Ronay
In October 1995, with his Newcastle United team creating a stir at the top of the Premiership, Kevin Keegan travelled south to Brighton beach to meet Tony Blair MP, Leader of the Opposition. Dressed in shirtsleeves, with only a TV crew and a twitching mass of photographers for company, the two men stood and exchanged 27 consecutive headers. A bizarre tableau, perhaps, but far from unprecedented in the extraordinary public life of Keegan. Ron Greenwood once described him as “the most modern of all modern footballers”. In fact he was the first post-modern player: the first British footballer to exploit the commercial nexus between sport, celebrity and pop culture; to create out of himself a branded corporate persona; and the first reigning European Footballer of the Year to have a solo hit record – Head over Heels (B-side: Move on down) reached number 31 in the summer of 1979.
Beachball with Blair aside, Keegan the manager has proved a different animal to Keegan the player. After seven years of golfing purgatory on the Anglo-Spanish Riviera (“golf dominated my life”) and a decade into an occasionally messianic, frequently tearful coaching career, an avuncular, slightly chastened presence remains – but one with an extraordinary past. In this, the Summer Of Beckham, it is salutary to note that it was Special K, Super Kev, Mighty Mouse (and, during his early days at Liverpool, Andy McDaft – explanation: “I wore flares so wide I couldn’t see my shoes”) who blazed a trail through the territory that the Beckham personage has since so smoothly colonised.
There had been famous players before – corralled into endorsing a cocoa or boot-blacking – and players such as George Best had registered with pop culture. But Best seems more like an exploited commodity, whose rudderless buffetings by the world beyond his sport induced a personal implosion. Keegan, bubble-permed and irrepressible in KK-branded Shetland wool V-neck, flared polyester slacks and Cuban-heeled boots, was a natural celebrity. Nobody before or since – Beckham excepted, and the cretinous brouhaha of Gazzamania notwithstanding – has bestridden the multi-headed behemoth of football, commerce and the media with such all-consuming zeal.
A blush of rayon-mix colour in a drab decade, Keegan was once described by Brian Glanville as “the epitome of the fine self-made player”: picture him as he pulls on his cigar, fingers steepled behind his mahogany-effect desk – a cousin of the small-town double-glazing or car-dealing magnate, pumped up on Maggie love and the tax-break boom of the Lawson years. Except, this was the 1970s and, like Martin Peters, Keegan was ten years ahead of his time.
By 1979 he had twice been voted European Footballer of the Year. Captain of England, cheerfully bilingual, a sartorial and hairstyling icon, he was the most recognisable footballer in the world – without the aid of replica shirts, satellite television or marrying a member of the Nolan Sisters. A word about that hair: Keegan’s perm was not a joke. In fact its impact on the styling of certain neglected elements of English manhood was profound. So desperate was comedian Eddie Large to ape Keegan’s shoulder-length curls that an episode of the Little and Large Show from 1979 features footage of Large both pre- and post-perm – continuity sacrificed in the face of a vain hope that a skein of Special K’s populist glamour might somehow lodge in the fat-jawed gagman’s ringlets.
It was the move to Hamburg in 1977 for a British record £500,000 that provided the platform for his commercial conquests, raising the spectre of that dusty British specimen, the tax exile. During the 1970s the top rates of income tax in the UK were over 90 per cent so there was virtually no point in earning any more. In Germany, however, Keegan’s brand instincts could blossom. He signed what he has described as “the first ‘face’ contract in football”, giving the club the right to use his name for all and any commercial purposes. Soon he was appearing on television as “Super Kev” in a series of BP adverts (during an energy crisis), taking a shower with Henry Cooper to draw attention to the Great Smell of Brut, and lending his support to Patrick boots (“all I had to do was act as an ambassador, promoting the boots and dining with their guests. Sadly, within 12 months they went bust”).
He modelled clothing, for department stores or mail-order catalogues, leading to the creation of his own line. The Kevin Keegan Collection featured sweaters, thigh-hugging slacks and formal outfits, including a three-piece pin-striped suit he modelled himself – in awkward sporting pose, like a stockbroker about to run for a bus. Much has been made of Beckham’s cross-cultural appeal, but Keegan was global news 20 years ago. With Southampton, he travelled to Casablanca to play a friendly sponsored by The Marlboro Tobacco Company (seriously), during which Keegan almost incited a riot by remaining in the hotel to nurse a hamstring injury. Under police advice he eventually took to the field with his leg heavily strapped, just to appease the delirious 70,000-strong Kev-fanatic contingent inside the stadium.
An oddly comforting, big brotherly presence, Keegan had the innate shamelessness of a true exhibitionist – and apparently boundless energy. In his book Against the World he describes a typical weekend, beginning with a flight to England after playing for Hamburg in the afternoon. “A BBC limousine whisked me off for an appearance on Match of the Day. Then I went to the Sportsman Club for dinner with a sheikh who wanted to name a racehorse after me. I got up at six and met my agent to discuss contracts, and my next call was to the offices of the Sun for a two-hour picture session. It was still only 10am when I set off for the NEC in Birmingham for a personal appearance at a toy fair; then it was straight back to London for talks with a film producer...” and so on ad infinitum.
A crowning moment: during his second season at Hamburg, Keegan was approached by “two Yugoslav lads” keen to enlist him into recording a single with members of Smokie. Keegan – of course – immediately said yes. Head over Heels made the top ten in Germany and appeared on Franz Beckenbauer’s best-selling Football Hits, its success culminating in Keegan miming the song on Austrian television while sitting side-saddle on the knee of a large middle-aged woman. David Beckham wants to be famous; Keegan, you feel, did all this because he had a spare ten minutes.
The young Keegan was boundlessly enthused by everything the world threw in his direction.Take for example his appearance on Superstars – a kind of tight-shorted, David Vine-voiced Twelve Tasks of Asterix – during which he traumatised housewives across the country by somersaulting violently out of his saddle during a closely fought bicycle heat. True to form, that weekend Keegan had already played for the Rest of the World in a charity match in Paris and kept “a long held promise to open a fête in Rhyl”. Nevertheless, desperate to maintain his lead over the likes of world table tennis champion Stellan Bengtsson, he remounted his bike and eventually won the competition – almost killing himself in the process (“I was on a drip for three days... I had no skin on my back”).
To an extent Keegan’s mildly buoyant, increasingly hackneyed managerial career has obscured the phenomenal social impact he made as a player. Keegan threw a grappling hook across the cultural divide, and the era in which he flourished – the innocence of irony-free medallions, perms that were “easier to wash” and footballers doing nothing but play football – has disappeared for ever. A sullen, moneyed professionalism has all but replaced it. If only for that reason, we will never see his like again.
From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month