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Keegan Halled back from the brink; BRIAN MCNALLY examines the events that led to Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan contemplating quitting in the middle of the Xmas programme. And he looks at the pressure on Keegan to to win a major trophy.

The inner torment which brought Newcastle United boss Kevin Keegan to the very brink of resignation before the Christmas fixture with Spurs first surfaced during the tense final days of last season's Premiership title run-in.

For the roots of Keegan's problems this term are inextricably entwined in the 12-point lead Newcastle squandered last season.

The ghost of last season's spectacular championship fade-out still haunts Keegan, who is suffering from the same stresses which afflicted Kenny Dalglish and Sunderland's one-time Messiah Bob Stokoe.

And increasingly it looks as if only a piece of silverware will chase away the demons which cast a shadow over Keegan's Newcastle future.

The simple truth is that Keegan hasn't mentally recovered from the choking disappointment of blowing the title seven months ago. As Manchester United gnawed away at Newcastle's seemingly unassailable advantage, Keegan became increasingly morose, withdrawn and bewildered. But it was a mischievous piece of gamesmanship from Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson, a master of psychological warfare, which publicly exposed Keegan's growing vulnerability.

Ferguson's call for Leeds to play as passionately against Newcastle as they had at Old Trafford riled Keegan.

Millions of TV viewers were shocked to see the normally composed Keegan lose his self-control in a live, post-match link-up from Elland Road.

And as one Newcastle player later admitted: "We knew from the gaffer's reaction that night the title had gone."

On the morning of Newcastle's final game of the season, ironically also against Spurs, headlines proclaimed that Keegan would quit.

Keegan dismissed that story as "garbage" and the board demonstrated their confidence in Keegan just a few months later with a world record pounds 15million investment in England centre forward Alan Shearer.

"We will win the title," boasted Sir John Hall, basking in Shearermania.

But a Charity Shield hammering by Manchester United and defeat in two of the first three Premiership games had the Newcastle top brass calling a crisis meeting at Sir John's Wynyard estate.

And one local journalist perfectly captured Keegan's puzzlement after he refused to speak to the Press after a shock defeat at Coventry.

"The sight of the most loquacious manager in English football staring blankly into the darkness of his team bus should send shivers down the spine of every Newcastle United fan," he wrote.

Keegan's troubled demeanour certainly had Sir John shivering. Just 48 hours after that defeat, huge headlines accompanied Sir John's demand: Newcastle MUST win something this season.

That story was interpreted in some quarters as a threat, though Hall later claimed that he was misquoted.

But there is no doubt in my mind that Hall's ultimatum was the catalyst for Keegan's thoughts of resignation.

A few days later I had a three-hour briefing with the Newcastle board at which it was made absolutely clear that Keegan's job wasn't under any threat.

Key directors Douglas Hall, the powerful son of Sir John, and Freddie Shepherd, the vice-chairman, both reiterated their total support for Keegan, despite the depressing run of results.

The only threat to Kevin Keegan completing five years at United next month or staying for the seven years of his contract would come from within himself.

And that's how it turned out. After the Boxing Day defeat at Blackburn, a dejected Keegan told the board he felt he may have taken the side as far as he could and offered to step aside.

But United were horrified as the prospect of a change of management halfway through the season, especially with a pounds 180million share issue scheduled for this spring.

The resignation offer was rejected out of hand and Douglas Hall and Shepherd persuaded Keegan to stay.

And the following day the seven-goal slaughter of Spurs lifted spirits even though Keegan's agonised expressions suggested that he was still far from happy.

The short-term problem may have been solved, but long-term questions remain unanswered.

A wall of silence surrounds the Keegan affair, but that hasn't stopped details leaking out on Tyneside.

Newcastle may try to give us the impression everything is sweetness and light, but the pictures of Keegan's grim, gaunt face are worth a thousand words.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Mcnally, Brian
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 5, 1997
Words:683
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