The suit is woollen, tartan twill, the shoes immaculate black leather and the once-permed hair silver, though very much intact.
It’s more than 40 years since Kevin Keegan was the face of Brut, Pirelli slippers, Smith’s crisps and the Green Cross Code and possessed the most famous autograph in football, but he wears it well, just like he always did.
He’s in Manchester, remembering how he would sometimes drive here, up the East Lancs Road in his green Ford Capri, after a Liverpool home match to visit the Slack Alice nightclub owned by George Best — a man who wore it even better.
Kevin Keegan has told Sportsmail exclusively how he became the face of English football
Keegan benefited from taking over George Best’s boot deal and newspaper column
Bill Shankly. A couple of training sessions and he told me I’d play for England. I lost something at Liverpool when he went in 1974. Bob Paisley was superb but it was never the same again for me there.
It’s one that was chalked off! My overhead kick for Southampton against Manchester United in 1981. They said David Armstrong was offside. These days they’d tell you he wasn’t interfering with play!
Bobby Moore leading me out for England with Alf Ramsey as manager, on my debut against Wales in 1972. I’d seen them in the World Cup. Afterwards, Bobby Moore took eight or 10 of us into London in his big red Jaguar. All of us in one Jag!
Manager I’d most like to play for
Jurgen Klopp. It’s a close one between him and Pep Guardiola, but I love Klopp’s passion. Sometimes when the ball goes near his dug-out you think he’s going to take the throw-in.
Graham Taylor’s dad, Tom Taylor, local sportswriter on the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph. He wrote under the name ‘The Poacher’ and would go to games on the bus with us. I loved Tom.
George Best. I just loved him. You have to remember I was up against him at a time when Man United were not a force. But what a player he was. I didn’t have anything for him but maximum respect.
Keegan was following Best along the path to superstardom at the time, though any hope of advice was a forlorn one. ‘Besty never gave anyone any advice!’ Keegan relates. ‘We would talk about football. It was never serious.’
There were times when such encounters did not even extend to conversation. Deciding on a Saturday night out in London, having headed south after a game, Keegan arrived with friends at Annabel’s club in Mayfair. ‘George was at the next table. Fast asleep,’ says one of those who was with him on that occasion.
By then, Keegan had become the new Best, though he was the one of the pair who knew his own value and was clear-minded enough to make something of it.
His new autobiography, My Life in Football, relates the story of how he was getting so much mail by the early 1970s that he set up an office in the back room of a junk shop on Liverpool’s Prescot Road and used it as ‘the headquarters for my limited company, Nageek Enterprises.’ (Keegan spelt backwards.)
Best was doing a moonlit flit to Marbella around that time, his playing days vanishing off the edge of a cliff, while Keegan picked up the loose ends.
‘I benefited from Besty more than anybody,’ he reflects. ‘I got his boot contract, Stylo Matchmakers.’ Best’s ghost-written column with the Daily Express also went Keegan’s way. ‘Besty’d had it for three or four years and they wrote it for him, really. It wasn’t even a conversation!’
When Keegan took over the column, he arranged to drive up each week to the paper’s offices in Manchester and meet Express sportswriter John Roberts, who had also been Best’s amanuensis.
‘I said, “I’ll meet you at two o’clock” and just turned up at the building,’ Keegan recalls. ‘They couldn’t believe it. They said, “We never saw Besty!”’
Keegan explains to Sportsmail how he found it difficult to turn commercial opportunities down
Keegan admitted that he didn’t want to spend lengthy periods at clubs and wanted to move on
Keegan says he had the benefit of being older. ‘I was 20. I wasn’t 16 like him. He was the first and it’s always hard to be the pioneer.’
And wiser. There was a hunger borne of knowing what rejection looked like, that Best never knew. Keegan was at Scunthorpe United for three long years and had been told by Doncaster Boys that they preferred a kid one year younger than him. ‘He was a good player — Kevin Johnson — good player but that hurts you,’ Keegan relates.
The biggest challenge seemed to be how to turn commercial appearances down. The book relates the story of how, having famously crashed his bike on a cinder track in the BBC Superstars final in the summer of 1976, he collapsed with exhaustion at Newport Pagnell services on the M1 on the way back north.
He had racked up thousands of miles in the previous few weeks, on a promotional trip to the Isle of Man, studio analysis for TV coverage of the Czechoslovakia v West Germany European Championship final, an all-star match against Brazil in Paris and the opening of a fete in Rhyl.
The former Liverpool and Newcastle player recalls his decision to retire aged just 32
It required the intervention of Keegan’s wife, Jean, to moderate the madness. ‘I was invited to an international Superstars heat in Florida and fancied my chances,’ Keegan writes. ‘Jean, the sensible one, put her foot down.’
He recovered to complete what he considers his finest season at Liverpool, helping the club to their first European Cup as man-of-the-match against Borussia Monchengladbach in 1977.
Yet it is an abiding curiosity that Keegan would lift only one more piece of silverware — the 1979 Bundesliga title with Hamburg. He was always moving on — and, with the exception of the England manager’s job which he considers his one great mistake — never up. His six playing years at Liverpool, which delivered three league titles, two European trophies and an FA Cup, was by far as long-term and successful as it got.
‘I think I’m a five-year person,’ he says of this pattern. ‘Wherever I’ve been, I’ve never stayed. I wouldn’t say I get bored but I think I’m much better at building things. I don’t see the point of sticking around when you’re not going anywhere. The minute (you’re) not…going forward, what’s the point in sticking around? Reinvent yourself. Control your destiny. Try to move on.’
Yet there seems to be something more to it than that. It is hard to avoid the sense doubt has always resided at the core of this most complicated soul.
Keegan had a spell in Germany with Hamburg, with whom he won the Bundesliga title
In 1977 Keegan was part of the Liverpool side that famously won the European Cup in Rome
It’s not simply self-deprecation which leads him to state, after reciting a list of European Footballer of the Year winners, that he still can’t believe he won the prize twice (1978, 1979). This feels like the grafter’s insecurity. When he took over that Stylo boot deal, one critic described him as ‘not fit to lace Best’s drinks’.
And then there is the book’s extraordinary telling of the moment Keegan, aged only 32, concluded that his playing days were over on the basis of a single missed goalscoring opportunity at Liverpool in the FA Cup third round for then Second Division Newcastle in 1984.
He was closing in on Bruce Grobbelaar at the Anfield Road end, had picked his spot and in his head the net was bulging when Mark Lawrenson took the ball off his toe.
Candidly, Keegan admits he would have been sacked had he continued as England manager
‘The truth hit me like a mallet,’ he writes. ‘I was on the slippery slope, no matter how many times people in Newcastle hailed me as their king.’
This seems like an extraordinary level of doubt, given any other striker would have known that same outcome against Lawrenson’s pace, and Liverpool were on their way to a third consecutive league title at the time.
‘Yeah, but when you play at the level we are playing at, top players, really top players…they know the game inside out,’ Keegan insists. ‘I just knew that was it.’
Emotional, intense, insecure and sometimes slightly thin-skinned: these characteristics are all component parts of Keegan and go some way to explaining why he left European Cup finalists Hamburg for Southampton, who had finished eighth in the previous season’s First Division, rather than the Italian clubs who were interested at the time. And then left the south coast for Newcastle, who were looking to improve on ninth in the Second Division.
It is revealing Keegan considers his footballing soulmate to have been Alan Ball, a team-mate only briefly at Southampton, but a nomad just like him and another individual who sometimes cared too much.
Keegan felt that Newcastle’s flotation brought a fundamental immorality to the club
‘Bally is the nearest thing to myself I ever saw on the football field, in that he really cared, passionately,’ Keegan says. ‘I didn’t cry like Bally. Bally would cry but he cared about everything. He cared about people. He loved the game. Bally (was most) like me.’
Keegan’s return to management for Sir John Hall at Newcastle, after a two-year retirement in Marbella, brought out some extraordinary emotion — from the ‘I’d love it’ TV interview which Sir Alex Ferguson lured him into in 1996, to promotion and deification on Tyneside. Yet financial challenges created uncertainties which meant he kept moving on.
Keegan felt Newcastle’s flotation brought a fundamental immorality to the club. ‘I had to go,’ he says. Manchester City were bust, so incapable of advancing after he had won promotion to the Premier League — and kept them there — that they had to ask him for 12 months’ grace before paying him off. ‘I was OK with that,’ he says.
His 20 torrid months managing England had already come and gone by then. It was so typical of the man that the fateful 1-0 defeat by Germany in the first qualifier for the 2002 World Cup was enough to subsume him with so much self-doubt that he had to leave. ‘I would have been sacked. I’d already been told by the FA that results had to improve,’ he insists.
In his book Keegan reveals that George Best was the greatest player that he ever faced
And then came the Wild West world of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle — a nest of vipers in which Tony Jimenez, a former Chelsea match-day steward, was somehow given the power to decide who Keegan should buy.
The story of how Jimenez insisted Luka Modric was ‘too lightweight’ for Newcastle and had never heard of Per Mertesacker was only the start. The decision, sanctioned by so-called ‘director of football’ Dennis Wise, to sign the incapable Xisco and Ignacio Gonzalez as a favour to an agent presaged the end of it.
Keegan’s book confirms what an utterly grubby and sordid place Ashley’s Newcastle is and how far removed from those golden, simpler days when he scored for Liverpool through sheer force of will. There are no regrets, he says, though what he wouldn’t have given for some of the heaven-sent talent of the individual into whose boots he literally stepped.
‘Oh, I wanted so much to have his ability and his skills,’ he says of Best. ‘People ask me, “Who’s the best player you played against?” I played against Beckenbauer, he’s good. Cruyff, unbelievable. Maradona when he was 19, but I have to say Besty was the one.
‘I know he loved his life but he never left anything behind. He did all the things he wanted to do.’
Kevin Keegan: My Life in Football, Pan Macmillan. Published October 4, £20.