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Kevin Keegan – Liverpool’s Greatest Ever Player?

How do we decide what is ‘greatness’? Is it simply the best or most skilful of players who have this title bestowed upon them, or is it more complicated than that?

Take a poll of Liverpool supporters of who they consider to be Liverpool’s Greatest Ever Player and the odds are there will be an almost even split between Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard.

But could the case be made that the title of Liverpool’s Greatest Ever Player actually be bestowed upon Kenny’s immediate predecessor at Anfield, Kevin Keegan? Well, let us have a closer look at the relevant criteria before we decide. If we are looking at pure raw talent only, then most would indeed be reluctant to look beyond Dalglish, although John Barnes, and perhaps even Luis Suarez, might get a look-in, too.

There is no doubting that King Kenny was a phenomenal player, with exquisite skill levels rarely, if ever, surpassed in a British player. He had almost everything: vision, touch, passing prowess, supreme finishing, the bravery of a lion, and he also possessed the ability to bring the best out of all around him.

His lasting legacy in football circles has maybe been ever so slightly diluted by his perceived prickliness during his management career and beyond. Because of this, perhaps it might be true that his playing career doesn’t quite get the credit one would otherwise expect, but nevertheless he is rightly considered a giant of the modern era.

A Commendable Work Ethic

Kevin Keegan, though, is not held in the same esteem as a player. He is considered to have had a very good career and been of very high quality, but fails to make it into many people’s ‘best ever’ teams when it comes to either England or Liverpool. He has frequently been described as a player who ‘gave it his all’ and as someone who made it to the very top due to his incredible work ethic rather than any abundance of God-given talent.

Indeed, this is a view that the man himself has subscribed to on many an occasion in the past.

Kevin Keegan started his career at Scunthorpe, making his debut in 1967 before moving to Liverpool in May 1971, the week of Liverpool’s FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal. Signed originally with an apprenticeship in the reserves in mind, Keegan impressed in his first pre-season at Anfield and thus found himself in the team on the opening day of the season at home to Nottingham Forest. Scoring the first goal in a 3-1 victory, Keegan took his chance with both hands and his career took off.

Six years passed and Kevin Keegan moved onto to SV Hamburg in West Germany for a British record transfer fee of half a million quid. Those are the bare stats, but the story behind them is somewhat more compelling.

When Keegan joined Liverpool they were a team just coming out of a transitional period. The last trophy won had been the league title five years earlier, and the old guard of the mid-1960’s that had won two league titles and the FA Cup in a three-year spell was being shaped up and shipped out. Legendary manager, Bill Shankly, was building a team for the future, and Keegan fitted right into it.

Liverpool missed out on the 1971-72 league title by a hair’s breadth, but mopped up with a League – UEFA Cup double the next season, with Keegan firmly entrenched in the side. The FA Cup was won the next year, 1974, and the League – UEFA Cup achievement repeated in 1975-76.

In the summer of 1976, Real Madrid reportedly offered Liverpool more than 600,000 pounds for Keegan’s services, and the player himself was keen to go to Spain. However, Liverpool wouldn’t sell, and so Kevin thrashed out a compromise: he would stay for one more season on the understanding that he would be allowed to leave the next summer for a transfer fee capped at half a million pounds. This would put Keegan in a better bargaining position when it came to negotiating personal terms with potential new suitors.

Moving On

Liverpool agreed, and so the 1976-77 season commenced. Up until this time Keegan had been pretty much idolised on the Kop, but now his popularity took a bit of a dive. Certain sections of Liverpool’s support didn’t take kindly to the perceived slight of a player, whoever they were, expressing a desire to move on, for whatever the stated reasons. As a result, Keegan’s last season with Liverpool at times saw rather a strained relationship between player and crowd.

Over the years there have been stories that the fans’ frustrations were shared by certain Liverpool teammates who were also thought to have felt let down by Keegan’s public declaration of his intentions. For more than 35 years an urban myth circulated that at the end of that season, with the league title already won, Jimmy Case had taken exception to Keegan’s poor performance in the 1977 FA Cup Final and had given Keegan a black eye. The story went that Case had allegedly accused Keegan of saving himself for the European Cup Final in Rome a few days later where the little man put in a man-of-the-match performance. Finally, this tale was debunked by both men when Keegan wrote the foreword to Jimmy Case’s 2014 autobiography and Keegan’s shiner explained as a swimming pool prank gone wrong.

Nevertheless, it can be seen that despite the awkwardness of his departure, Kevin Keegan was a qualified success at Liverpool. In the six years of his tenure, Liverpool had been champions three times, runners-up twice, and finished in an agonising third place, once. An FA Cup, two UEFA Cups, and the club’s first ever European Cup were added to the roll of honour, and within half-a-dozen years Keegan had moulded himself into the footballing superstar of the 1970’s.

Dalglish: Inheritance of a Dynasty?

Liverpool, similarly, had been transformed. From being a decent but not particularly special side in 1971, here they were now in 1977 reigning English and European champions. The Liverpool that Kenny Dalglish walked into in August 1977 as Keegan’s direct replacement was significantly different to the one Keegan had encountered on his own Anfield arrival six years earlier.

That Liverpool had morphed so in six years was no little thanks to Kevin Keegan. His presence, work rate, skill, and determination had not just dragged himself to the very peaks of the game, but also his club too.

If ever there was one man whose talent transformed a club, it was Kevin Keegan’s, and the fallacy that KK achieved what he did in football purely because of his work ethic, is just that: a fallacy.

Although he did undoubtedly work very hard at improving himself, Kevin Keegan was an immensely talented player with an abundance of skill and ability. No player, no matter how hard he works or how many hours he puts in on the training field, can ever achieve a quarter of what Keegan did as a player without being supremely skilled also.

When Keegan left for West Germany, Kenny Dalglish took over the mantle of King of the Kop, and Liverpool went from strength to strength. Indeed, Dalglish’s nine years or so as a player could be said to have been even more successful than Keegan’s time had been, but the scaffolding and foundations were well and truly in place by 1977. Dalglish stepped into a dynasty and then helped to reinforce it, but it was Keegan who was instrumental in creating it in the first place.

Thus, to come back to our original poser regarding the criteria for deciding on a club’s greatest ever player, I would contend that pure ability is not sufficient in itself. Further considerations should include: longevity, success, and influence on the field.

Although Keegan’s Liverpool career wasn’t as long as either Dalglish’s or Gerrard’s, overall his contribution in terms of lasting influence combined with his ability and the trophies he helped the club amass, mean he has a very strong claim to the title of ‘Liverpool’s Greatest Ever Player’. It is my contention that he just about pips Dalglish to it accordingly.