The signing of Kevin Keegan, twice European Footballer of the Year, from Hamburg, was a masterstroke by Southampton’s Lawrie McMenemy, a move which sent waves around the First Division.
However Keegan’s move from the Saints to St James’ Park in the summer of 1982 was sensational and changed Newcastle’s future immediately and irrevocably.
A Messiah was born under a wandering blue star, with the brewery picking up a reputed £5,000 per week wage bill.
The £100,000 transfer for a 31-year old was insignificant in itself. Terry McDermott had joined from Liverpool for the same fee. But the reality of the current England captain and PFA player of the year dropping down a division immediately woke a slumbering Newcastle from it’s sleep.
“We’re in heaven. We’ve got Kevin” emblazened the Chronicle’s front page.
Years before footballers became pundits, an assured Keegan explained his decision on national television on 18th August at the Gosforth Hotel:
“I have to plan and look for what I need from football for the next year or two and I need a new challenge and I think I will certainly find it here (Newcastle United).
“I think that it is a challenge that given a little bit of luck that everyone needs, (is a challenge that) can turn into unbelievable success.”
How ironic that the future manager of the “Entertainers” should have been so unsettled by Southampton’s failure to sign new defenders and better their 7th place in the division.
The then Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy elaborated:
“In his second season at Southampton he (Keegan) became frustrated at what he believed was a lack of ambition.
“He thought we (Southampton) should be buying better players. Because he had become used to the high levels of expectation at Liverpool and Hamburg he never thought we were going to reach those highs.”
Those highs were in the First Division, Newcastle United were not there, but expectation was alight.
The city of Newcastle was buzzing, crowds shot up 50% to 24,000 a game. Captain Keegan scored on his debut at St’ James Park on 28th August 1982, a 1 – 0 win against QPR. Newcastle finished 5th that season, 3 points behind 3rd placed Leicester City, despite Keegan scored 21 goals in 37 games, and Imre Varadi netting 20 times.
Thankfully there is a great YouTube clip with some of Newcastle’s finest moments from the 1982 – 1983, including Keegan’s first goal in slow-mo (similar to Michael Owen’s goal v Argentina in France ’98?), his hat-trick against Rotherham in October 1982, and others from messers Waddle, Wharton and Varadi.
The potential for promotion in the 1983 – 1984 season would be achieved the following season. Gates were averaging 30,000 per season, the third highest in the country. Keegan et al scored 85 goals in 42 games, with Keegan scoring 27 goals in the 41 games he played.
Newcastle United Manager Arthur Cox explained his attacking philosophy:
“I am directly opposed to any club that has won anything if it is not in the opponent’s half of field. That’s why all season we have worked at creating opportunities to score goals.”
The surge for promotion was more of a stop-start. Newcastle were in 9th with 7 points from 5 games by the end of September. The arrival of Peter Beardsley for £150,000 from Vancouver Whitecaps was the catalyst for promotion.
Beardsley’s partnership with Keegan would rival Astaire and Rogers as the duo dallied and danced through defences thereafter. The third forward Chris Waddle flourished scoring in 5 consecutive games in December, netting 18 goals in 41 games.
A double-header in Wales in mid-Octber yielded 6 points against Swansea and Cardiff, with Beardsley scoring the first of his 20 goals (in 35 games) that season in the 2 – 0 win in the Welsh capital on 19th October 1983.
A thumping 5 – 0 win against Manchester City at the end of October included a hat-trick from the new number 10, and goals from Keegan and Waddle.
The manager described Beardsley as a player of “unknown quality” who could score and make goals, unknown in terms of limits. Waddle “a player who is no good to you unless he has got the ball, so then we give him the ball and then he has got to play.” Keegan himself went on to praise Kenny Wharton and John Anderson as the players at the heart of the promotion.
After 13 games, an invigorated Newcastle were second in the division with 29 points, 4 points behind Sheffield Wednesday. But 4 goals and 6 points conceded against Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday in the next 2 points rattled the Toon. Glen Roeder was signed for £120,000 from QPR, and Newcastle got their fifth away win of the season at Brighton in mid-December.
A poor January yielded only 3 points at Barnsley, whilst Newcastle were dispatched 4 – 0 in the 3rd round FA cup tie against Liverpool at Anfield. Palace beat Newcastle, and rumours were abound of Keegan joining Portsmouth. If he was to go to Pompey, Keegan did not endear himself to his prospective fans by scoring 2 goals in a 4 – 1 (Beardsley scoring a classic) win at Fratton park on 4th February.
Speculation was rife about Keegan’s future and on 15th February Keegan went before the media and announced his intention to retire at the end of the season. The decision was not borne of any pressure other than a pressure to maintain his own excellent standards.
Just 4 days later in front of 42,000 at Maine Road, Newcastle beat Manchester City again with goals from usual suspects Beardsley and Keegan. The same dynamic duo prevailed at Fulham a week later. The great form halted only by a 1 – 1 draw with Chelsea on 10th March.
3 wins on the spin over Leeds, Swansea and Charlton and with the advent of April the top 3 clubs – Chelsea, Wednesday and Newcastle were tied on 69 points, Wednesday having played 2 fewer games than the 35 of their promotion rivals.
With the engine room midfield firing on full power, Terry McDermott and previous £250,000 record-signing John Trewick were free to roam forward as lynchpin Irish international David McCreery returned from injury.
Keegan himself credited the promotion to defenders – specifically right-back John Anderson, a low key signing from Preston North End who played every game of the promotion season and left-back / midfielder Kenny Wharton. Both would become Newcastle legends in the decade that followed.
On 14th April a tee-total Cox picked up the Manager of the Month for March, a giant bottle of whiskey, as St James’ Park hosted promotion rivals Sheffield Wednesday. Such awards always backfire on the recipient, and this time on the Tyne was no different. A 1 – 0 defeat for the Toon.
Easter came, and onetime promotion-hopefuls Carlisle United had a reality-check with a 5 – 1 drubbing, Keegan’s goal with the game at 2 – 0 coming within seconds of a penalty save by Toon keeper Kevin Carr. Results went Newcastle’s way as bridesmaid Manchester City lost at home the same day. Newcastle needed just 3 points to be all but certain of promotion. An unexpected defeat against already relegated Cambridge United left St. James’ Park as the promotion host against Derby County on 5th May.
First Keegan. Then Beardsley. Newcastle were on their way. Waddle made it 3 – 0. A lap of honour followed – celebrating promotion and a style of play that was so overdue on Tyneside. Only maths could stop Newcastle.
A point against Huddersfield confirmed promotion a few days later.
Newcastle were promoted in third place with 80 points, 8 points behind Sheffield Wednesday and champions Chelsea.
The Liverpool match had been a warning for Cox who was offered a new 2 year-deal by the board, but wanted assurances over funds.
Keegan refused to say anything that might be detrimental to Arthur Cox’s position. And so it was Keegan who lead his team out for their last match in division 2, scoring the opening goal against Brighton. Waddle made it 2 – 1 with Keegan’s assist. A brilliant goal from Keegan’s successor, Peter Beardsley. 3 – 1.
Cox compared Keegan to Dave McKay who lead Derby into the first division:
“Looking back on my lifetime in the game, I would suggest that was the best bit of business I ever did.”
Cox wanted to build on the future, to ensure that the progress made with Keegan would not be wasted. The board listened and offered Cox a one-year deal. He resigned.
This though was Keegan’s time, his parting words prophetic for the future:
“The fans have waited a longtime for what is about to happen, they have paid their money they have come where other people have gone away from the game and they have put a lot of money back into the club and I have read things in the papers. I do not know how true they are, that the club are going to wipe some of the overdraft off but I think personally now is the time to go into debt again to make this club because they have got a great chance. With 3 good signings this club could not only go in the first division and hold its own it could and probably challenge everyone bar Liverpool and Man United.”
Keegan’s retirement was all about standards in his eyes, and he was pleased that Newcastle were back in the big time:
“Thank goodness for everyone in this city that I have been able to finish at the top. cos we are back in the first division and you cannot get higher in the world than the English first division.”
“DIVISION ONE HERE WE COME” read the graphics on the scoreboard. Keegan had taken his team to a new height, whilst he reached for the sky literally in a helicopter following a farewell match against Liverpool.
It would take Keegan himself to return to the club and break the bank to take on the might of those two clubs, Liverpool and Manchester United. History will remember him leaning over the Anfield hoarding and his emotional rebuttal of Ferguson on Sky. A Messiah on the pitch, he certainly preached a purity of football once he moved upstairs, but it was as a player that Keegan himself found the pleasure of football.
“After playing football, there’s nothing like it again. Management is a pale attempt to hang on to the excitement.”