Kevin Keegan might as well have gone up to the Queen Mother and called her a dirty whore.
The sheer outrage at his remarks – surprisingly realistic when you consider his usual optimism – was felt across the world as various stakeholders in the money-making behemoth that is the Barclays Premier League took it upon themselves to prove that the ‘best league in the world’ ™ was also the most interesting.
Before we get on to the reactions – most of them misunderstanding what Keegan said – let’s look at what he actually said, and how his viewpoint ‘changed’ from when he made the comments to when he ‘retracted’ them.
“This league is in danger of becoming one of the most boring but great leagues in the world. The top four next year will be the same top four as this year.
We’re a million miles away from challenging for the league but if my owner backs me we want to try and finish fifth and top the other mini-league.”
Odds are that the top four next year WILL be the same top four as this year – you might have the odd breakthrough by a club like Tottenham or Everton (the two sides to come closest to doing so in the last 4 years), and with the right investment and players Newcastle might aim for the same in the next few seasons, but by and large that top four is likely to stay the same unless something drastic happens. A one-time appearance in the top four by Everton doesn’t break the order – a club (or a couple of clubs) would need to consistently dislodge one or more of the top four in the Premier League to change the big four into a big three or big two.
Do you see that happening? There’s a chance, and in some corners there is plenty of hope, but Liverpool did finish 11 points ahead of Everton. Everton will need to step up massively just to catch up, and that’s before one accounts for the improvements Liverpool are likely to make to their playing staff this summer. Tottenham had a dismal second half of the season (save the Carling Cup final) and Jaunde Ramos has a lot of work to do over the summer to whip the boys back into shape. For both teams, the realistic objective next season is to close the big gap, a gap that cannot be crossed in one big leap.
For Keegan to say that he wants to play for 5th may sound heretical to Newcastle fans but in the short to medium term it’s a realistic and very positive objective. By putting themselves at the forefront of the chasing pack, Newcastle could benefit from the mistakes of one of the top four and / or push forward to close the gap themselves and in the long run, make a serious attempt at
regular Champions League football.
The shelf-life of managers doesn’t allow Keegan to plan for 10 years – it gives him room for 3-5 years, and within that time frame if Newcastle can achieve 5th spot more than once, and do it convincingly in an increasingly competitive league, that will be quite an achievement. Maybe then he’ll be kept around for phase 2, or maybe they’ll go towards someone to carry them over the finishing line.
The absurd reaction
Keegan’s comments have been treated like an act of betrayal by the Premier League faithful. From the BBC to the Guardian and beyond, every journalist has worked hard to come up with arguments against his point of view. As ‘one of their own’ (in the sense that he is a Premier League manager), he was expected to employ the same rhetoric used by marketers and conveniently peddled by managers and players alike. He broke ranks, and was suitably lambasted.
The reaction was way off the mark though. While the critics spend a LOT of time trying to prove how ‘interesting’ the mini-battles in the league were, they missed the point Keegan was making. His accusation was that the gap between the big four and the rest of the league was too big to be overcome in a single season, and the way he said it made it sound like there was no way to bridge it. That, for him, made it boring.
Some people thing the gap is bridgeable, and I’m sure it is, but you won’t see Tottenham regularly challenging for the title from 08/09 onwards. Everton won’t either. Both sides need time and money to get themselves to that stage, not only because they lack the quality but also the depth that the big four seem to possess. These things take time, and Keegan probably won’t be kept around long enough to see it happen.
Cruel as it might have been, Mike Ashley’s ‘meeting’ and Keegan’s subsequent climbdown has done some good in terms of protecting Keegan from further criticism. On Thursday he claimed to stand by his views, but on Friday after the meeting he sang a different tune, saying that “I’m now convinced by so many people who know the game that I was wrong.”
Since the people he had met after Thursday were Mike Ashley and Chris Mort, one wonders if this wasn’t another subtle jab at the owners similar to the few barbs thrown their way in his earlier comments, when he expressed concern over the lack of communication with Mike Ashley and the club’s lack of action over securing Michael Owen’s future at Newcastle United. Those statements were more worthy of a reprimand (you don’t air your dirty laundry in public) than simply stating the truth – that unless there are drastic changes, Newcastle United are a million miles away from challenging for the league at this point.
The board isn’t above brinksmanship either – when a spokesman was asked about Keegan’s future, instead of saying that ‘he’s certainly going to be the manager next season’, the answer was a more lukewarm ‘as far as I know he’s the manager’. They said the same about Mourinho, and look where that ended up.
The board needs to back Keegan, not undermine him. They might not like their manager being honest and robbing the fans of a few flights of fantasy, but they themselves need to realise that while it’s certainly possible to break apart the big four oligarchy, it’s going to take more than a couple of years to do it on a consistent and regular basis for Newcastle. In the next 5 years, cementing the 5th / 6th position (like Everton have done) should be the primary target.
And right now, Keegan is their best man to make it happen.