Bassong proving why he was kept a secret; He was not quite the mystery man in a mask but Newcastle United are starting to see why Kevin Keegan was determined to keep Sebastien Bassong's identity such a closely guarded secret. Chief Sports Writer Luke Edwards reports.
FOR those who knew and worked with him, Kevin Keegan was a completely different character in the summer to the one which had marched into St James's Park as a rookie manager back in 1992 and revolutionised a football club.
The hair was greyer, the waistline a little wider and the wrinkles deeper, but there was also spark lacking somewhere, an infectious enthusiasm missing, the brilliance of his charisma dulled by the pain and disappointments of the past.
The scars of ultimately failing to win Newcastle United's first league title since 1927 combined with a torrid time as England coach refused to fade and, while the twinkle in his eye was still there on the training pitch, he had clearly lost his love for other aspects of football management.
Given his lack of control over the club's transfer policy and his frustration at the lack of progress being made by those who had been given the power to sign and retain players by owner Mike Ashley, Keegan spent much of the summer bitter and disillusioned by what was happening at the club he still loved.
Although careful not to openly criticise the Ashley regime, there was disenchantment and tension behind the scenes as the situation begun to unravel, a chain of events which would culminate in Keegan's departure just a few weeks into the new season.
Having signed the Argentina international Jonas Gutierrez from Real Mallorca at the start of July, Keegan had refused to talk about the player. At the time it seemed like obtrusiveness on his part - that Newcastle's manager was being difficult just for the sake of it - but it was actually born out of ignorance.
Keegan could not talk about Gutierrez because, having not signed him, he was not entirely sure what qualities he would bring to a new look side. He did not want to speak because he still had not had a close look at his first signing of the close season.
However, when Keegan resorted to a similar tactic later that same summer, refusing to reveal the identity of a young French centre-back before a pre-season friendly at Doncaster Rovers, it was done for entirely different reasons.
At his request, Keegan had kept Sebastien Bassong's arrival on Tyneside secret for fear that news of his trial at the club would alert rival Premier League clubs and he knew he had a rare talent on his hands.
The 22-year-old had already been watched by several English clubs at Metz, including Everton, and Keegan was determined not to allow another potential signing slip through his fingers.
Listed as 'A Trialist' on the team sheet and tossed the anonymous number 46 shirt, Bassong did not put a foot wrong against Doncaster, despite the constant attention of the Newcastle fans desperate to know who the new face was, and was promptly signed the following day with a glowing endorsement from Keegan.
"It was a very strange day because nobody knew who I was and there was no name on my number 46 shirt," said Bassong, whose excellent command of the English language has inevitably helped him adapt to the Premier League. "None of the fans knew who I was and they were singing songs about it. It was funny, but also very strange, because they didn't know my name and it was 46 this and 46 that.
What I have tried to do is work hard so that the fans get to know me and now I am very happy and very proud that they do."
Labelled as one for the future by Newcastle's former manager, Bassong has proven to be one for the here and now, particularly following Joe Kinnear's decision to draft him into his natural position at the centre of defence rather than at left-back.
"I am very pleased with my start for Newcastle and I just hope that the future will be the same," said Bassong. "I am enjoying it. When I signed I just wanted to play. That's what I have done, so I am very happy. Hopefully it will carry on in the same way. I suppose it may have happened a bit more quickly than I expected, but that was still what I wanted.
"When Kevin Keegan signed me he said I wouldn't play straight away, but I've worked very hard and I'm in the team.
Newcastle signed me because they had faith in me and trusted me and because they must have thought I was a good player."
Bassong has been United's outstanding performer in the goalless draws at Chelsea and Middlesbrough, his form so good that Kinnear has refused to bring Steven Taylor straight back into the side following his recovery from a niggling groin strain.
But the Frenchman knows he will face a new type of test in English football against Stoke City today, a challenge it has been impossible to prepare for properly in training. Pass this one and Keegan's game of secret squirrel will seem even more sensible.
Bassong added: "The long throw is Stoke's big weapon and their set-pieces. But it is not just about long throws. It's about us trying to play very well."