SO many times, in football it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time. You can have all the ability, heart, and desire to succeed but if you don’t fit in to someone’s plans, or be too short, it’s just not meant to be. Then again, you could be Joseph Kevin Keegan and go on to prove everyone wrong.
Born in February 1951, to parents of Irish descent, Keegan was spotted at by scouts from Coventry City, and then managed by Jimmy Hill. After having his trial, he was kept on along with a handful of other lads but eventually released. After another trial period at Doncaster Rovers he failed to secure a contract.
Despite the setbacks, Keegan wasn’t about to stop playing, some others do let these knocks get the better of them and fall to the side. It was while playing for his employer’s team, Pegler, that he was scouted by fourth tier Scunthorpe United. Making his debut in 1968, the 17-year-old settled in very quickly, but it was the 1969/70 season that Keegan made a positive impact under the guidance of manager Ron Ashman, playing in a central midfield role, he scored 9 goals in 54 appearances, following this up with an 11-goal season in 70/71.
It was this form that had others looking with interest from around the country. Esteemed scout Geoff Twentyman was helping Bill Shankly build his team at Liverpool when he was alerted to Keegan’s strong displays at Scunthorpe. Happy with what he saw he went back to Shankly with his report. A fee of £35.000 was agreed in the summer of 1971, a transfer that the outspoken boss called “robbery with violence.” Now, aged 20, Keegan had made the jump from amateur leagues to the first division in less than three years.
With a view to replacing Ian Callaghan, Keegan had a strong pre-season, and put himself at the front of the queue of the midfield line-up that included Callaghan, Steve Heighway, and Ian St. John. His debut for the Reds on 14th August was boys own stuff, scoring after just 12 minutes against Nottingham Forest. His strike rate from midfield prompted Shankly to move Keegan up front to play alongside John Toshack, a move that was a stroke of genius as it not only made Keegan a better player, but the new strike duo would prove to be one of the best in the league.
Despite a first season where trophies eluded the team, Keegan was a huge influence in them finishing third in the league scoring 11 times in 42 games. The third-place finish sent Liverpool into the UEFA Cup and it was the 1972/73 season that proved to be a landmark one in Keegan’s career, playing a career high 64 times, matching that with a best of 22 goals, he helped his side to their first honours since 1966. They claimed the title by three points from Arsenal, and won the UEFA Cup, beating Borussia Monchengladbach 3-2 on aggregate. They played the home leg first, and after an abandoned game due to heavy rain, Keegan scored twice in a 3-0 romp in what was arguably his best game to date in a Liverpool shirt. He benefited from Toshack’s superb aerial dominance as the German side wilted under the Anfield lights. The return leg saw the lead cut, but Liverpool saw out the game to become the first English side in history to win the league title and European honours in the same season.
The next two seasons Liverpool finished second in the league, missing out to Leeds United and Derby County, but they saw more silverware in the domestic cups. In one of those quirky twists of fate Keegan faced off against the team that gave him his break. Scunthorpe held Liverpool to a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup, Keegan getting both the goals to avoid a shock defeat. After winning the replay they went all the way through to the final and a fine attacking performance saw Liverpool win the FA Cup for the first time in 9 years. Newcastle United were outplayed and Keegan netted another two goals, the second was a real highlight as he started and finished a wonderful move that flowed right across the pitch and back, Tommy Smith drilling over a low cross that Keegan tapped home.
A few months later Keegan was back at Wembley but this time he wasn’t to leave on a happy note. Leeds were champions and they took no prisoners in their approach, led by the feisty Billy Bremner. Liverpool were leading 1-0 on the hour mark when Keegan’s low point in a red shirt came. After being the victim of a Johnny Giles right hook earlier in the game, Bremner then got heavy handed with Keegan, causing a reaction and the two squared off. The referee sent both players off and, in his frustration, Keegan pulled off his shirt as he marched to the tunnel. Liverpool did go on to win the game, 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in 90 minutes.
Back to winning ways in the 1975/76 campaign, Keegan led the line again with Toshack, the Welshman just outscoring him, but the partnership garnered 42 goals between them as they claimed the title by a single point from Queens Park Rangers, three late goals against Wolves on the final day on the season saw them over the line. They also won the UEFA Cup again in a thrilling 4-3 aggregate win. Keegan scored a late penalty in the first leg at home to win 3-2, and then scored a vital away goal in Belgium to sink Club Brugge. His drive and passion led to him being named FWA Player of the Year for 1976.
Liverpool were now one of the most feared teams across Europe and Keegan was one of the elite players in the continent. 1976/77 was to be his year. The title was retained, again a narrow one-point margin, this time from Manchester City and despite only picking up three points from their last four games. Having won the Charity Shield early in the season, they missed out on another trophy when they lost 2-1 to arch rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup Final. Just four days later they travelled to Rome and faced Monchengladbach again, this time to be crowned champions of Europe. Keegan didn’t get on the scoresheet in their 3-1 victory but his part throughout the competition, scoring four times, was enough to see him subject to transfer talk.
Kevin Keegan played 323 times for Liverpool and scored exactly 100 goals for them. During this time, he saw himself, and his team rise to the pinnacle of the game. He secured a British transfer record fee of £500,000 from SV Hamburg and left the English game to challenge himself further. He is a Liverpool legend and although you could argue about who was the best player to pull on the famous number seven shirt, he was the original.