The manager merry-go-round has been in full spin these past weeks. New names, same old ambition. But for Joe Kinnear it was fate rather than failure that cut short his time at St. James’ Park.
Joe Kinnear gave a great insight into his brief career as Newcastle United manager last week at the “Black and White Reunion” in Dunston on Thursday, organised by Steve Wraith of Players Inc Event Management Ltd. Since that evening the media has reveled in his insights into his brief tenure at a turbulent St. James’ Park.
The 65-year old Irishman has had a diverse managerial career – international management in Asia, club spells at Wimbledon, Luton and Nottingham Forest. Steve Wraith sent an array of tweets of Kinnear’s comments, one of which will fill Toon fans with pride but also some surprise:
“Newcastle (is) the best job I’ve ever had”
As at Wimbledon a decade before, illness curtailed any aspiration to continue in the role, when following an emergency triple by-pass operation on 7th February 2009, the then Newcastle manager was unable to retain his post.
The question is what could have happened had Kinnear stayed at Newcastle? Would relegation have been avoided? Should 5 months have become 5 years? Perhaps history would have repeated itself for Kinnear as per the 90′s?
In January 1992 Kinnear, the manager, came to the biggest stage with the smallest club to have graced the Premier League. Wimbledon had a magnificent 7 years. In 1988 the South London club had shocked the football world by winning the FA Cup against Liverpool. Although failing to grace Wembley again, the Dons did reach the semi-finals of both major Cup competitions in 1996 – 1997, beating Manchester United 1 – 0 on route. Surprise was replaced by expectation by Kinnear. Wimbledon were at home in the new Premier League, despite having lost their own stadium.
When Kinnear arrived at Newcastle United a decade later, he was stepping out of a football wilderness of 4 years. Kinnear would surely draw credibility from his Wimbledon years in other circumstances, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and faced a harder climb than when he managed Nepal.
Since January 2008 Kinnear’s Wimbledon captain Dennis Wise was the “football-related executive director” at St. James’ Park. The question as to how football related to Xisco proved to be the straw that broke Keegan’s back. The Crazy Gang was now a cockney gang, with Ashley the boss.
Kinnear hardly endeared himself to his new audience when speaking on BBC Football Focus about Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley, he said:
“He’s the one who’s got Newcastle out of the s**t”.
Kinnear was banished to the stands before he attended his debut Toon game, the weekend before officially taking over the hot seat (a 2 -1 home defeat against Blackburn Rovers on 27th September 2008).
The new manager was also aware of the possible hostility following the departure of Keegan:
“The (Newcastle) fans will be disappointed, I understand that, but I can’t do anything about it.
“I will just be doing my very best because I am desperate to get back into the game. I will be going up to Newcastle on Monday and will pick the team from then. It is a big challenge but one I am really looking forward to.”
Kinnear portrayed himself as the Toon sheriff awaiting the cavalry of Keegan and Shearer, guiding the team through the sale of the club. Only Shearer came, and not in the circumstances hoped for nor of which Kinnear approved.
Matches are won with games on the pitch rather than in the media and Kinnear pulled no punches with the press. If Newcastle were on the ropes financially, a swearbox would have yielded millions, but could he cope with the pressure? Or did Kinnear bring direction and stiffen up the team and the club?
The colourful Kinnear was interim manager for a period of 19 Premier League games. Coach Chris Hughton welcomed Kinnear’s experience and direction and expected an immediate change of fortune.
At the outset of his Newcastle career the team were bottom of the Premier League, having lost 3 in a row. After the 3 – 2 win in February the team was in mid-table, 13th with 27 points, 4 points shy of either 9th placed Manchester City or the relegation zone. There was everything left to play for.
Newcastle yielded 23 points from 19 league games (Won 5 / Drawn 8 / Lost 6), an average of 1.21 points per match. Taken over 38 games Newcastle would have finished with 46 points, and in 11th place in the League. Instead the Toon were relegated with 34 points, just 1 point from safety.
Newcastle came from behind in their first two matches under Kinnear, drawing 2 – 2 with Everton and Manchester City. Affronted by the press and often confronting referees, Kinnear always praised the likes of Jonas Guitierez, Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor to the hilt, saying of Taylor in the Daily Mail at the beginning of November:
“I think Steven Taylor has all the ability to go all the way. He is a real athlete, strong, terrific lad in training, Geordie through and through, and he would run through a brick wall for you. He is brave as a lion.”
Such stirring words seemed to work. Aston Villa and James Milner were beaten 2-0 at St. James Park and the Toon climbed to 14th in the table. Newcastle lost the next game 2 -1 at Fulham but went the next 6 games unbeaten in November, although the first 4 were draws. After a 2 -1 win against Spurs at St. James’ Park on 21st December, Newcastle were 12th, but their next win was Kinnear’s last game.
Newcastle struggled with suspension and injuries to key players before Christmas – Sebastien Bassong (Player of the Season come May), Joey Barton, Obafemi Martins and Mark Viduka were all absent for one reason or another as Newcastle were beaten 5-1 at home by Liverpool.
Kevin Nolan arrived in January for £4 million, but Newcastle were on a bad run with only 1 point in 5 games by the end of the month, coupled to a 3rd FA Cup defeat against Hull City. Winger and whinger N’Zogbia left for Wigan on transfer deadline for £6 million and Ryan Taylor. Icon Shay Given headed for Manchester City on 1st February.
However, was another corner about to be turned in February? Shola made a point against the Mackems and WBA were beaten 3 – 2 away with Peter Lovenkrands scoring his first goal for the Toon, the day Kinnear was admitted to hospital.
The question that must be asked is not where would Newcastle have finished the season without Kinnear, but what would have happened had they finished the season with him?
In an interview published in today’s Sunday Sun Kinnear was confident in his response:
“We (Newcastle United) were at West Brom and I clearly remember saying to Chrissie that if we won, and we had got ourselves up to 12th, then a top-10 finish before the season was over could be on.”
Was he the right man for Newcastle? Certainly he attempted to bring stability to the team whilst chaos reigned in the boardroom with Wise seemingly bored of all things Newcastle-related. In February 2009 Kinnear bullishly asserted that there was a sense of unity at the club, as reported in the Telegraph:
“When I came in I kept getting caught between different people wanting different things but hopefully that has now disappeared and we can start to look forward.”
Did anyone believe him? His lauding of Ashley making a firmer “commitment” of 3 days to a club in crisis could be interpreted as a step-forward or the work still to be done.
As for results on the pitch his win ratio of 22% is evidence that Kinnear was one of the worst managers in Newcastle’s history, just ahead of Ardiles, and 10% behind Sam Allardyce. The implications for the remainder of the 2008 – 2009 season were made worse still by inexperienced Shearer having only 12.5%. Was Kinnear to blame?
Both Kinnear and Shearer answered the call to help when it came. Shearer risked his legendary status as a player, Kinnear his pedigree of having been named Premier League manager of the season 3 times in his career.
Should the club have hired a manager with heart problems for such a stressful role? Did Kinnear’s rant at the media stem from unbridled passion or a lack of posture?
Would Newcastle have been relegated if N’Zogbia and Given had not left the club? Players of the calibre of Owen, Smith and Geremi were on massive wages, but not producing massive results.
Pardew is becoming a Newcastle great, has picked up his Manager of the Season award, but the recognition had to be ground out. For Ashley the road to redemption is winding. But Kinnear still yearns to have had the chance to continue at St. James’ Park. Just months after his by-pass Kinnear wanted to come back to St. James’ Park, as he explained to the Sunday Sun:
“The reason I was desperate to get back was because it was Newcastle. I would never have been so determined had I been most others places. I know what that football club can be and wanted to be part of it.
“I believed, and still do, Newcastle are as big as Manchester United. It’s just we didn’t have the team to match them.
“But you can’t tell me that it’s not as fanatical a football city and there is only one team here. The support is phenomenal and that’s why I wanted to go for the job big time.”
It could have been third time unlucky given his health, but his passion for the game and Newcastle is admirable and we can only speculate as to what could have born.