72 Classic: Kevin Keegan and the art of the shrewd purchase
Posted on January 21, 2019
NOBODY had really heard of Joseph Kevin Keegan before August 1971. He had previously tried his luck with Coventry City and Doncaster Rovers before signing for Scunthorpe United and had barely appeared on the radar screen of the big clubs. Apart from Liverpool, who had something of a track record in unearthing lower division gems. Bill Shankly liked nothing more than getting value for money and in Kevin Keegan, there would be no better bargain.
Liverpool were in something of a holding position in 1971. Their last trophy was the Football League Championship in 1966 and they had been overtaken by neighbours Everton and Don Revie’s Leeds United. The team that reached the FA Cup final in 1971 included a new find in Steve Heighway, but there was something missing – upfront, Alun Evans had never quite lived up to expectations since being signed for £ 100,000 from Wolves in September 1968 as an 18 year-old, and Shankly’s last big signing, John Toshack, needed a partner to work alongside with in attack. Keegan would, eventually, provide the perfect foil.
Keegan cost just £ 35,000 at the end of 1970-71. He was just 20, so it seemed likely he would sit on the sidelines in his first season. He performed well on the club’s pre-season tour of Scandinavia and, despite being exhausted by the training regime at Anfield in his early days at the club, he was knocking on the door for a first team place. “He’s shattered at the moment,” said Shankly. “But he’s not the first new man to suffer in this respect.”
Some felt that Keegan’s versatility would be a better choice than 29 year-old Ian Callaghan, who had been with Liverpool since the late 1950s. Callaghan, Evans, Brian Hall and Bobby Graham were all left out of Liverpool’s starting line-up for the season’s opening league game against Nottingham Forest. Keegan was included: “He’s quick, good in the air and has two good feet,” said Shankly, explaining why the new lad was in the team. Liverpool had struggled to score goals in pre-season and they had been less than prolific in 1970-71. “I have not the slightest doubts about playing him,” insisted Shankly.
Keegan’s arrival was relatively low key outside of Merseyside and even then, he was an unknown quantity. But behind the scenes, people may have been aware that Liverpool were going through a transition – their reserve team on the opening day of the season included old-stagers Tommy Lawrence and Ron Yeats, as well as an up-and-coming youngsters Phil Thompson and Phil Boersma. The changing of the guard was in process.
Keegan lined-up against a Nottingham Forest team that was not tipped to achieve much, although they did have future Liverpool midfielder Peter Cormack and the much-coveted striker Ian Storey-Moore in their ranks.
Keegan was described as a “young man in a hurry” by some segments of the media and so it proved in that first game against Forest. Keegan almost arrived late for kick-off because he wasn’t used to negotiating big crowds, but he admitted he was not as nervous as he expected to be. “The pace was terrific and I had to take an occasional two-minute breather, but the other lads helped me out tremendously,” Keegan told the local press.
It took 12 minutes for the new boy to make his mark, finishing off a move that saw Toshack send in a low cross and Keegan sweeping the ball into the net. The perfect introduction to the Kop, who ended the game chanting, “we’re going to win the league.”
Yet Keegan was upstaged in Liverpool’s third game of the season at Newcastle United, who were unveiling their own new signing in Malcolm MacDonald.
Whereas Keegan was confident but humble, MacDonald was brash and, some would say, a shade too self-aware. But he was an old fashioned number nine, the type that Newcastle United always enjoyed and were eager to place alongside past heroes like Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Milburn. MacDonald had been signed for £ 180,000 from Luton Town where he had scored 58 goals in two seasons. Although he had spent time in non-league football with Tonbridge and a year with Fulham, MacDonald was still only 21, but there was rarely a more focused player in terms of what he wanted to do – score goals.
He was fast, strong, robust, had a great left foot and rarely let anyone get in his way to score a goal. On August 21, 1971, it was MacDonald versus Keegan and the new hero of Tyneside emerged the winner, scoring a hat-trick as Liverpool were beaten 3-2. “Super Mac has arrived,” said one headline after a dramatic 90 minutes at St. James’ Park.
MacDonald ended the game concussed and couldn’t remember scoring what proved to be the winning goal in the 67thminute. He left the field five minutes from time with the crowd singing his name. Within a few weeks, the chant, “Super Mac, superstar, how many goals have you scored so far,” emerged to the tune of Jesus Christ, Superstar.
While MacDonald’s move to Newcastle was one of the big stories of the summer of 1971, the transfer of Ralph Coates to Tottenham from Burnley represented an even bigger outlay at £ 190,000. Burnley, often described as the “team of the 1970s” in much the same way that Crystal Palace had been called the “team of the 80s”, had been relegated in 1971 and Coates, who was named in Sir Alf Ramsey’s 28-man provisional squad for the 1970 World Cup, only to be one of the so-called “unlucky six” to be excluded from the final pool, was soon the target of the bigger clubs.
Coates had won four caps for England by the time he joined Spurs as their season ticket selling hire of the 1971-72 season. He never played for his country again, perhaps because he was no longer the star name as he had been at Burnley. Certainly, at 25, Coates was in his prime, but his early performances at White Hart Lane were error-strewn and the player appeared to be lacking in confidence. Hunter Davies, in his seminal work, The Glory Game, hinted that Coates was out of sorts, lacking the chutzpah of many of his kipper-tied team-mates. A modest man of sober appearance – his hair-style was compared to the balding Bobby Charlton – his transition from the north of England to trendy London seemed somewhat painful. Coates would have his moment of glory, but not in 1971-72 when he scored just twice in the league in 32 games.
It should be remembered that in the early 1970s, the summer transfer market was nowhere near as frenetic as the Premier League era. There were no event-driven “windows” and players were signed mid-season and up the March deadline. Hence, a big club could reinforce its squad at any stage of the campaign.
Arsenal, for example, stayed loyal to their “double” winning team until just before Christmas 1971 when they signed Alan Ball from Everton for a UK record fee of £ 220,000. Ball, who had become notable for his white football boots, was 26 years of age and starting to become disillusioned with life at Goodison Park, where the club had failed to build on its 1970 league title win. Everton manager Harry Catterick, who had been asked in the close season to put a price on the flame-haired midfielder, accepted the bid from Arsenal, believing the club had seen the best of Ball – “his pace is going” – but it was arguably a misguided decision as Everton certainly missed the 1966 World Cup winner.
Manchester United had been interested in Alan Ball on more than one occasion, but their record around transfer activity had been patchy. As the season progressed, United’s forays into the market had an air of desperation about them. United’s form, under Frank O’Farrell had been surprisingly impressive up until Christmas, but a run of defeats had sent them down the league table. Storey-Moore was a pivotal figure in the Nottingham Forest team that was five points from safety at the foot of the league table. It was time to cash in on their prize asset, valued at around £ 200,000.
Storey-Moore was 27 years old, the big move of his career had to be completed soon and with Forest looking bound for the second division, it was important for Forest to bring in the cash in order to stage a late bid for survival. Derby County thought they had signed the player but after announcing that a deal had been struck, Storey-Moore opted for Manchester United for £ 225,000. Brian Clough, the Derby manager, was incensed. The move was a disaster, despite Storey-Moore scoring on his debut against Huddersfield Town. Within two years, he had retired through injury and United were on their way to relegation. Forest tried to claw their way out of danger, adding former Celtic “Lisbon Lion” Tommy Gemmell to their ranks, but they fell through the trap door.
Another much-discussed transfer was that of Rodney Marsh’s move from second division Queens Park Rangers, also in March 1972. Marsh was also 27 and on the fringe of the England set-up. Critics felt he had stayed too long with QPR and needed to be in the top flight. Skilful in the extreme, Marsh came with a reputation of being difficult and single-minded – he epitomised the term “maverick”.
The club that signed him, Manchester City, had a team built around discipline, flair and organisation. Manager Malcolm Allison, always a man to recognise the value of the unpredictable, was a kindred spirit as far as Marsh was concerned. But the move didn’t work, possible costing City the league title. Marsh had probably left the move too late in his career and the £ 200,000 fee always looked a little extravagant – but that was Malcolm Allison and it wasn’t the last time in his career that big spending would be his downfall.
In hindsight, £ 200,000 for Marsh, £ 225,000 for Moore, £ 190,000 for Coates, £ 220,000 Ball and £ 180,000 for MacDonald. How many of these were truly successful transfers? With the exception of Coates, none won a major prize with their new clubs and it could be argued that none, apart from MacDonald produced the best football of their careers after their moves. What terrific value for money Bill Shankly got with Kevin Keegan.
He scored three times in the first five games of the season but it was not until the end of October that he netted again, a 1-1 draw at Sheffield United. Liverpool struggled to score goals and fell down the league table, but when the FA Cup came around, Keegan reminded everyone of his huge potential with a brace at Oxford United. By the end of the season, Bill Shankly was calling him Liverpool’s most vital player and England caps were not too far away. Fellow professionals were calling Keegan the best young player they had seen in years and that the Liverpool team of 1971-72 could become the team of the decade. How right they were.
The best of Keegan was yet to come, but with some clubs writing huge cheques for largely under-performing assets, the £ 35,000 spent by the bard of Anfield looked very shrewd, the type of business that once characterised Liverpool’s approach to team building. In some ways, Keegan’s arrival transformed Liverpool and provided the platform for a new era of dominance, one that exceeded the achievements of the past. Kevin Keegan also provided the model for the new modern footballer – hard-working, team-orientated, an executioner and an enabler and capable of exploiting his talent. As the next few seasons would prove, this was a player who always gave everything he had, but he always knew his value to the team and his employer. And mostly, he was a decent role model – here was the next standard bearer of the English game, an honest toiler with no small amount of skill. A shallow playboy he wasn’t.
Coming soon: 72 Classic: United – The final flourish of the holy trinity