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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Jan 21, 2008

Signings may define Keegan tenure

Revered in some quarters and ridiculed in others, Kevin Keegan's return on Saturday proved that attacking football is easier to preach than practice. A stranger to the concept of quiet consolidation, the next questions about the new regime concern the personnel involved in his overhaul of the club.

There is the sense that a transfer market profit is anathema to Keegan, though chequebook management should not be the stock in trade of a supposed messiah. Moreover, by his own admission, the new manager has not watched a live game in the three years since he left Manchester City, which may not bode well for his recruitment drive and suggests he will not be rivalling Arsene Wenger for obscure but emerging talents overseas.

Even at City, when he had a closer vantage point to prepare purchases, some of his buys resembled an old pals' act. If David Seaman and Robbie Fowler, both in decline then, were signed, which era will Keegan recollect when planning his next spending spree?

The presumption is that his targets will be predominantly forwards and, given the seeming largesse of owner Mike Ashley, ambitious. The most far-fetched suggestions are that he will sign Dimitar Berbatov and Micah Richards, though there is yet to be a coherent explanation why either might opt for Tyneside.

Both, obviously, would benefit Newcastle, though both their ethos and the identity of their appointment may preclude dealing with the most difficult issue. After a manager, in Sam Allardyce, completely ill-suited to Newcastle, they now have a man who epitomises the club, from its endearing enthusiasm for attack to the inherent flaws in his continual disdain for defending.

But having inherited a faulty defence, the cynics may suggest Keegan will see no need to change Allardyce's rearguard. Though, having used David Ginola, Keith Gillespie and Shaun Wright-Phillips as wing-backs in his earlier managerial incarnations, Keegan may be tempted to reduce their number to three as a way of introducing another attack-minded player.

Indeed, the excellent David Bentley has already been linked and would make both a plausible and a promising addition on the flanks. Meanwhile, the presence of three wingers, in Damien Duff, Charles N'Zogbia and James Milner, in Keegan's initial selection, may reflect a historic fondness for wide players, but is a closer indication of just how decimated Newcastle, in inimitable fashion, were. The willingness of much of the midfield to pick up suspensions, just as the alternatives were heading off to Africa, is indicative of the club's self-destructive streak.

It rendered Keegan's first match tougher, with the only ten available outfield players all enforced picks. So the most notable choice was that of captain, a department where Allardyce twice erred by opting first for Geremi and then Alan Smith. Nominating Michael Owen is a statement of a preference for attack, yet appointing a player who mustered a mere 18 touches at Old Trafford the previous week is not a recipe for inspirational leadership. A capacity for anonymity does not rank highly among the ideal criteria for a dominant leader. In any case, Owen is now in the position Alan Shearer was in Keegan's England team in Euro 2000, when the manager deferred to his captain's reputation rather than judging him on his mediocre form.

As it verges on the inconceivable that Keegan will not sign a forward, Owen's status as skipper is a further complication to the striking situation. Allardyce opted for two captains who scarcely merited a place in the team. There is a danger that Keegan could repeat his predecessor's errors especially as, when Obafemi Martins returns from the African Cup of Nations, his is a stronger case for selection than Owen's.

Moreover, with the spectre of Shearer to complete the so-called dream team on the coaching staff, Keegan is in danger of beginning his regime with a brace of appointments for the wrong reasons: Owen to placate a player unhappy with his treatment in Euro 2000 and Shearer to sate Tyneside's appetite for big names and fascination with their own.

It would be more constructive to focus on the flaws in the team he inherited. The unsettled Emre apart, there is a marked lack of creativity in the centre of the midfield, indicative of Allardyce's preference for costly scrappers. Keegan, who has long appreciated gifted passers, should make the signing of one to complement Nicky Butt a priority. Steering Joey Barton back to the straight and narrow path that he has always struggled to follow should be another though, as both Allardyce and Stuart Pearce can testify, investing too much faith in the midfield miscreant is a dangerous policy.

And while, despite suggestions of Sol Campbell and Daniel van Buyten, it is unlikely to be Keegan's first objective, identifying and - in all probability - buying, a central defensive partner for the excellent Steven Taylor is necessary. To aid him in the process, he could do worse than turn to another much-maligned manager (in Manchester, at least). As Keegan's assistant, Stuart Pearce deserves much of the credit for transforming Richard Dunne and Sylvain Distin into one of the Premier League's most dependable defensive duos. Were he to do something similar at St James's Park - possibly combining it with his Under-21 duties - it would reduce the pressure on the forwards to prove free-scoring.

Given his lack of recent exposure to the game, Jermain Defoe would represent a logical addition for Keegan as a player capable of operating in harness with either Martins or Mark Viduka. Certainly his speed is required as Allardyce left a team that, with notable exceptions such as the Nigerian and Charles N'Zogbia, is worryingly slow.

But, while Keegan appears under the illusion that he has inherited a small squad, that is merely a consequence of Newcastle's many absentees. Dispensing with the deadwood, or those who could raise value funds, is essential; Owen, Smith, Geremi, Jose Enrique and David Rozehnal would all be deemed surplus to requirements by this observer.

With Newcastle near-certainties for a mid-table finish, there should be no rush. All this could happen in the summer but then Keegan has always done everything in a hurry and impatience is a trait he appears to share with Ashley. Expect rapid change.

But while an understanding of the psyche of the fanbase equips him to know the style of football Newcastle fans desire, it does not necessarily suggest he will recruit well. At both Newcastle and Manchester City, many of his successes and failings were attributed to signings, from inspirational additions like Peter Beardsley and Andy Cole to questionable choices such as Steve McManaman, Fowler and Seaman. It is likely to be a similar situation again and Keegan has to buy well if he is not to prove an endearing anachronism.


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