When Oscar Wilde was on his deathbed, he was meant to have said: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go." For Kevin Keegan, the renaissance man of nineties football, it was more a case of him or the toilet. On this day, precisely 16 years ago, Keegan made his decision to resign as England manager. He was resolved to do the honourable thing, just the moment he had emerged from the shitter.
More than any other incident in his career, his resignation as England boss epitomises Keegan as a manager. He was a noble soul, a decent man, but haunted by the looming spectre of comical bathos wherever he went. So, in the latter stages of the 1995/96 season, when his Newcastle team were the closest challengers to a rampant Manchester United, he went on his rollicking, righteous, ridiculous "I WILL LOVE IT" rant, hence succumbing to Alex Ferguson's mind games and condemning his team to an inevitable second-placed finish. Some would mark that out as his crowning moment but, in reality, it was a mere precursor to packing in the England job from the honking bogs of the England dressing room.
Keegan was, in his heyday, an excellent manager, and his teams undeniably played some fantastic football. His Newcastle side were famously branded 'The Entertainers' in the Sky Sports studio, and his swashbuckling attacking philosophy won him plenty of admirers beyond Tyneside. That said, his sides sometimes struggled defensively, with Newcastle's classic 4-3 loss to Liverpool perhaps the complete Kevin Keegan performance; emotional, entertaining, end-to-end stuff, finished off with a touch of naiveté and a little bit too much guilelessness to succeed.
When Keegan was named as the new England boss in February 1999, his appointment was a popular one. He arrived at a grim time for the England team, with Glenn Hoddle just sacked for claiming that disabled people had sinned in a former life. If that, as well as Hoddle's obsession with spiritualism and mystics, had left something of a shroud hanging over the England dressing room, Keegan set about brightening the place up with his infectious grin and boyish enthusiasm. Initially, things went swimmingly, and he presided over an unbeaten run lasting from a win against Poland in his first game in charge to a narrow defeat to Scotland in mid November.
Though England lost the second leg of their Euro 2000 play-off by a single goal, they got past the Scots thanks to a 2-0 advantage from the earlier game at Hampden Park. That saw them qualify for the tournament, having looked long odds to make it during the last months of Hoddle's reign. Keegan had successfully reignited England's qualification campaign, and steered them to the finals of the European Championships. His national acclaim was at its apex but, much like his charge to the top of the Premier League with Newcastle, things could only go downhill from there.
England's showing at Euro 2000 did not live up to expectations, and any attacking elan they displayed was offset by their defensive ineptitude. This was a team that included such greats as Gary Neville, Sol Campbell, Tony Adams and Martin Keown, so it clearly wasn't the personnel that were the problem. England barrelled forward in their first match against Portugal, only to lose 3-2 to a side marshalled by the rampant Luis Figo, and which also included the mercurial talents of João Pinto and Nuno Gomes (all of whom scored). Keegan's men did at least manage to beat a sorry Germany side 1-0 in Charleroi, but were dumped out at the group stage when they succumbed to another 3-2 defeat, this time to a less-than-spectacular Romania.
With that, the people began to turn on Keegan. There was a feeling that he was a bit too ingenuous to be England manager, a bit too bloody nice. His happy-go-lucky attitude and commitment to riotous attacking football were charming enough when he took over, but began to wear thin when results went south. Four months after the Euros, in their first World Cup qualifier, England lost to Germany in the last ever game at the old Wembley Stadium. It was 7 October 2000, and Kevin Keegan was ready to throw in the towel.
What happened next has gone down in the great annals of football folklore, the dusty tome of England team embarrassments. Keegan, tired and emotional after the defeat, told the dressing room that he was going to resign. David Davies, then executive director of the FA, stepped in, wanting to convince Keegan to stay on in the job. The press were everywhere, the players were downcast, and he desperately needed to speak to the manager in private. Somehow, in a perfect twist of fate, they ended up speaking in the changing room loos.
This was the old Wembley, and the toilets had seen their fair share of action in the 80 or so years since it first hosted a football match. Imagine the smell of shit, the smell of fresh piss, that was wafting through the air as Kevin Keegan made the weightiest decision of his career. Here was Kevin Keegan, doing the honourable thing, falling on his sword, choosing the hill upon which he might die. Unfortunately, the sword was actually a toilet brush, and the hill a small mound of excrement left to languish by one of the squad.
This was a fitting end for Keegan, even if it was a mildly undignified one. He was a manager defined by his unerring earnestness, even when he was being cornered by a senior footballing administrator in the khazi. To a fanfare of flushes, an orchestra of parps, he declared that he could no longer get the best out of the England team. He acted with unflinching honesty and left with his head held high, even if it was partly to distance his nose from the nearest bowl.
Piss taking aside, it is hard not to look back on the Kevin Keegan era with a profound sense of fondness. He was far from the greatest England manager but, in his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good, he was a man of rare integrity in a sport otherwise dominated by the cold and the ruthless. Now, after several years of tedious football under Roy Hodgson, and the ignominious manner of Sam Allardyce's departure as England manager, the national team needs a new Keegan more than ever. England are crying out for a manager who is good, principled and entirely uncynical, a coach who wants to entertain the people and, most important of all, a man with enough character to do the right thing and, when the time comes, say "fuck this for a laugh" and resign in the bogs.