There was nowhere to go but the toilet cubicle. The place where Kevin Keegan confirmed his decision to quit as England manager, 20 years ago on Wednesday, has always seemed to capture the desperation of a man with nowhere to run, though it was far more prosaic than that. All other options were cut off.
‘There were reporters massing outside in the corridor,’ says David Davies, the Football Association executive director who was desperately looking for a place to reason with Keegan in the emotional aftermath of the desultory, rain-sodden 1-0 loss to Germany in England’s last game at the old Wembley.
‘The dressing room was steamed up and full of players. There was the bath area, but players were starting to jump in. So it was that very small cubicle. There was only just about room for the two of us in there, but the least I could do was try to talk him around.’
Kevin Keegan quit as England manager 20 years ago after being booed off in the final game at the Old Wembley. Sportsmail columnist Martin Keown (right) knew his mind was made up
Dietmar Hamann’s goal separated the sides and an emotional Keegan resigned in the toilets
Martin Keown knew Davies was wasting his breath. The defender — England’s best player out on the pitch — had heard the boos for Keegan which the FA’s ‘goodbye Wembley’ firework display failed to drown out, as they walked to the tunnel where rainwater pooled in the walkways.
The first voice Keown heard as he stepped through the dressing-room door was that of Keegan’s mentor and lieutenant Arthur Cox, pleading: ‘Kevin. Think about it.’
And Keegan’s reply. ‘I’m not. I’m going. They don’t want me.’
It was clear from the very start of Keegan’s benighted 18-month England reign that it might all end in tears and the toilet.
When Davies first approached him about the job on Valentine’s night 1999 — Keegan’s 48th birthday — the then Fulham manager was willing to meet the following day at his home on the Wynyard Estate, Co Durham. But after Davies and the FA blazers gathered at Darlington and went to see him, he told them he would only do the job for four games.
‘Perhaps it was a sign that he didn’t believe he could do the job,’ says Davies. But after a wobble over money was resolved — Keegan wanted £1 million a year, substantially more than predecessor Glenn Hoddle — and three moderately successful games, he took the job permanently and squeezed England into the 2000 European Championship play-offs.
It all began brightly enough because Keegan was a players’ manager. ‘I’ve never known one with quite such a presence as him,’ says Keown.
Keegan asked Keown where he was heading on one occasion, as the young defender ventured to the snooker table at England’s Burnham Beeches base.
‘I’ll join you,’ he said. Rarely would an England gathering occur after that without Keegan telling Keown to ‘set the balls up’ and they would play. ‘He was my boyhood hero,’ says Keown. ‘And here I was playing snooker with him. Incredible.’
Tony Adams (left) was one of the players who tried to talk Keegan round following the defeat
Keown did harbour a few doubts when a golf day went so well before the Euro 2000 play-off first leg in Scotland that Keegan decided to stage another the following day. ‘I thought, ‘When are we going to start doing some tactics?’ But the mood was so good when the match came and we won 2-0.’
Those concerns were not without foundation. Journalist Ian Ridley, with The Observer during Euro 2000, relates in his book, Kevin Keegan, how the seeds of these doubts lay in the manager’s pre-tournament training sessions, where he had the first team training against a reserve side playing in the formation employed by first opponents Portugal.
‘Kieron Dyer was destroying us and someone needed to get hold of him,’ Tony Adams says in Ridley’s book. ‘I said, ‘Hold on Kevin, what’s going on?’ Kevin stood there with his arms folded. Some would say he was confused and didn’t know what to do. It looked to me like he just didn’t know how to deal with the situation.’
Adams was so worried before the Portugal game that he told one confidante he feared England would be ‘caned’. A 3-2 defeat in that game, a narrow win over a poor Germany and a 3-2 loss to Romania saw England eliminated.
After a conversation for one of a series of ghost-written articles at the tournament, Keown was reported as saying that Keegan had been tactically naive, though he was devastated to find this had gone into print.
‘I’m not sure that I’ve ever had the chance to apologise properly but I regret that happened,’ Keown says now. ‘It was never my intention.’
David Beckham (right) was said to have been close to tears as he pleaded with Keegan that day
ENGLAND (4-1-3-2): Seaman; G Neville (Barry 46min), Adams, Keown, Le Saux (Dyer 77); Southgate; Beckham (Parlour 82), Scholes, Barmby; A Cole, Owen
Subs not used: Martyn, Dyer, Wise, Heskey, Phillips
Booked: A Cole
GERMANY (3-5-1-1): Kahn; Rehmer, Linke, Nowotny; Deisler, Ramelow, Ballack, Hamann, Bode (Ziege 86); Scholl; Bierhoff
Subs not used: Lehmann, Rink, Beinlich, Wosz, Baumann, Neuville
Booked: Nowotny, Ballack
Referee: Stefano Braschi (It)
Walking away from the job was clearly already in the highly-strung Keegan’s mind at this stage but by the time of the Wembley match against Germany, the first 2002 World Cup qualifier, he was broken. His beloved mother, Doris, died 10 days before the game, which meant he missed the press conference convened to announce his squad. His frayed relationship with the media had also plunged to apparently irretrievable depths.
Keegan announced on the Thursday afternoon that Steven Gerrard would face the Germans in the 3pm Saturday kick-off, only for the 20-year-old to sustain a minor injury at a private training session an hour or so later.
Friday morning’s newspapers were packed with stories of Keegan eulogising about a player who would not play and that day’s press conference became a bearpit for him. Keegan left the room incandescent.
Hours after the press conference, Keegan’s controversial decision to play Gareth Southgate in midfield against Germany was leaked, leaving him in a febrile state. He was at Burnham Beeches watching TV coverage of England’s Under 21 match against Germany that evening — a 1-1 draw at Pride Park — when news seeped out.
When he switched over to watch the Friday night Sky TV show Hold the Back Page, he found journalist guests openly debating — and questioning — the merits of that decision. Davies recalls Keegan calling him in his room.
‘Are you watching? It’s disgraceful. They’ve just told the Germans my team.’
The manager was still talking about this when he walked in for breakfast the following morning — unshaven and looking unwell. ‘I left to drive into London,’ Davies says. ‘The omens were terrible.’
The game was, indeed, wretched; a 1-0 Germany victory secured with a Dietmar Hamann free-kick that skidded on the rain-drenched turf and evaded David Seaman.
It was a less-than-impressive encounter before Hamann struck low and hard to win in the rain
The England supporters were left aghast at the defeat and made Keegan know their feelings
Yet none of the reporters gathered in the St John Ambulance medical area which served as a press conference room had an inkling of the drama playing out in the dressing room. Adams and David Beckham had already tried to talk Keegan out of quitting when Davies walked in. Adams, fired up as always, took the firm approach. Beckham, some remember, was possibly close to tears. Keown, in his changing-room seat, did not try to remonstrate.
‘Keegan always did things on feeling,’ he says. ‘He needed love and felt he wasn’t getting it. I could see he wasn’t for changing his mind.’
Adams and Beckham told Davies to ‘have a word’ with Keegan. ‘But I didn’t know what I was supposed to be telling him not to do,’ Davies relates. It became clear soon enough, though, with Keegan impatient to get into the corridor and tell the press.
Davies envisaged the FA chiefs, in front of television screens with their tea and sandwiches in the banqueting suite, hearing this news from a live interview. It was then that he desperately looked around for some seclusion and marched Keegan into one of the three toilet cubicles.
‘I can’t recall which of us shut the door,’ Davies says. ‘I knew it was a losing battle in there but I appealed to his patriotism and his loyalty to the players.’
Eventually, Keegan moved towards the cubicle door. Davies pulled him back and managed at least to convince him the FA must be the first to know.
Boos rang around the Old Wembley and even a fireworks display by the FA could not mask it
He rang from the changing room to the banqueting suite on Wembley’s internal system and asked for chief executive Adam Crozier to be brought to the phone.
Crozier and Noel White, another board member, then spent 20 minutes in the dressing room with Keegan, to no avail. The striking part of Keegan’s interview with Sky’s Clare Tomlinson when he finally emerged from the dressing room was his calmness.
‘They’ve given me a fair run,’ he says. ‘I’ve nobody to blame but myself. Kevin Keegan has given it his best shot.’
Keown feels that Keegan could have found a way to prosper with England, had he only persisted. ‘He was a manager of feeling and emotion and he felt unrest building and couldn’t be a part of that,’ he reflects.
Davies simply recalls the remarkable aura of calm in Keegan when he’d made his decision. ‘There was a sense of relief above all for him,’ he says. ‘He just didn’t enjoy the job.’