Kevin Keegan and the limits of charisma

January 19, 2008

kevin-keegan-green-cross.jpgKevin Keegan’s triumphal return to Newcastle United Football Club demonstrates the power of charisma. But will it also indicate its limitations?

On Wednesday January, 2007, a major sports story broke in England. Unlike some stories, this one began big, but the after- shocks of the first story were even bigger.

The football story of January had been the sacking of Sam Allardyce from his post as chief coach at Newcastle United. This was sporting news, but hardly surprising. The only element of certainty about Sam, in face of a cluster of difficulties on and off the field, was the timing of his sacking.
The end was mercifully swift, but that too was unexpected, as Sam was on his way to a press conference.

The consensus view that had developed outside the club was that the culture had held unreasonable expectations, and that Sam’s days were numbered, even if his team were to improve on a modest start to the season.

An unhelpful culture, and a new ownership regime were local factors assumed to add to problems including a stack of injuries to key players, such as striker Michael Owen.

Our people need a saviour

Part of the culture seems to be a deep emotional need for a saviour. The conditions for acceptance of a charismatic leader seem to be particularly favourable. Opinion polls (backed up by betting patterns) indicated how strong was the yearning for such a person.

At first, the front-runner was not Kevin Keegan, but the more recent figure of Alan Shearer. Even as he was reaching the end of his playing career, Alan Shearer was being mentioned as a future manager of the club.

This is the sentiment generated by a great on-the-pitch leader. At Manchester United, I can (just about) remember the terrace talk around ‘Captain Marvel’, Bryan Robson as future leader off the field. Robson made the transition to manager with some struggle. There seemed to be rather less talk a few years later around Mark Hughes, or even Roy Keene, each of iconic status at the club, and who were to make more promising starts to subsequent management careers.

Shearer the once and future saviour at Newcastle

During his time as England captain, Shearer was widely regarded as a thoroughly uncharismatic character when he appeared before the media. He often appeared truculent and sulky. Hardly the characteristics associated with the charismatic leader. On the field he exercised the selfishness of the individual goal scorer in the van Nistelrooy or Gary Lineker mould,

This aspect of Shearer’s public persona is rarely mentioned now by fans or commentators. Nor did it seem to matter to the clamouring fans last week that Shearer has no experience in football management. The symbolic power of the Shearer myth was sweeping all before it.

Except for one little point

Shearer quickly indicated he had not been approached by the club, and felt he was too inexperienced for the vacancy. Shearer was replaced as front-runner, but Keegan did not become the front-runner. In quick succession other names came and went. There was Harry Rednapp who seemed to me to tick as few boxes as Allardyce for the bare-breasted brigade of Newcastle fans.

After Harry’s Andy Warhol moment there was Jurgen Klinsmann .
The German FA had turned to Klinsmann in desperation and the national team did better than the fearful host nation expected. Klinsmann also is more of an identifit figure of a charismatic personality on the field, and closer to the articulate end of the spectrum off the field. Klinsman’s name also reappeared briefly in media stories after Shearer appeared to be a non-runner.

Maybe its Keegan and Shearer

After denials by Klinsmann, another rumour, that a deal had been struck with the dream-team of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer who would share managerial responsibilities.

The Messiah returns

Then the bombshell. The last rumour was partly correct. Kevin Keegan had agreed to become the new manager at Newcastle. He is to return from self-imposed exile (as do many charismatic leaders from religious and political mythology).

Note to any readers from cultures distant from that of England: Football is often spoken of in religious terms. This is sometimes unconscious, but often tinged with irony. These are deep matters indeed, and you will have to do some ethnographic research, perhaps starting at Shearer’s Bar in Newcastle, to make more sense of it than I have been able to.

What happened next?

Many strange things happened. They are all extensively recorded. Crowds came to bear witness. They did not wave palm leaves, but did have banners saying The Messiah is Coming. Others said Kev the King. I particularly liked more secular Super-K ones, made from family-size Kellogg’s packs. Now there’s a thought. Kelloggs to take over as sponsor of NUFC from Northern Rock?

Thousands of extra fans flocked to the holy of holies, St James Park, for a FA replay against Stoke City, where re-enthused players scored a convincing win, witnessed too by Super-K.

The Press Conference

Keegan’s first press conference was another early indication of the charismatic leader in action.

Keegan had the necessary air of confidence in himself as the special one destined to do a special job. The video clip will make excellent and instructional viewing for leaders and students of leadership.

The charismatic performance

I have watched many performances (for that is what they are) by leaders and would-be leaders over the years. This one was up there with the old classics and newer examples of the inspirational style.

In British sport, there were the unrivalled performances by Jose Mourinho.

In business, there have been various appearances of Richard Branson as super-leader, and the recently mourned John Harvey-Jones.

In national politics, there were the two conference speeches by David Cameron, each considered to be high-voltage and influential in confirming his leadership credentials and style. There was the even more emotionally-charged adieu from Tony Blair recently, and (for me) many years earlier, Neil Kinnock’s finest oratory, when he successfully confronted the growing influence of the militant wing of his party in an electrifying conference speech.

Kevin’s magical moment

Keegan’s performance was up there with these magical moments.

By coincidence, it took place on a day when a new and glamorous national hero had been acclaimed after a near-disaster crash of a Boeing 777 arriving at Heathrow. Captain Peter Burkill had been claimed an iconic figure of Hollywood proportions, although the near- perfect story was slightly blurred as it emerged that the in crucial last minutes, it was first officer John Coward who had responsibility for taking over from the automatic landing system as the engines failed to respond to orders.

Leadership musings before the first match

Whatever happens, the first match played in the time of King Kev was going to be high-voltage, high drama, big box-office.

But whatever happens in that match, the drama is still early into its first act.

Update: After the first league game [Saturday 19th January 2008]

The first game was as emotional at the start as expected. But according to the BBC

Kevin Keegan’s return as Newcastle boss turned into a damp squib with a desperately poor goalless draw against Bolton at St James’ Park.

So we can conclude one thing. The new-leader bounce did not take place. These players did not have hidden reserves that could be called forth, either from fear for their futures,. or from those mysterious motivational forces triggered by encounter with a charismatic leader.


Northern Rock taken over by Manchester United: Official

October 27, 2007



The post was intended as a light-hearted comment on the bizarre worlds of football and high-finance. Later, during the European Championships, [June 2008] the traffic attracted to the post suggested the news may have taken on the authority of a football rumour. The original post follows…

What’s the difference between Manchester United and Newcastle United? Football supporters have their own answers to the question. What about this answer? Newcastle United Football Club are not (yet) financially connected with AIG

Leaders we deserve is not a site at which you might expect to find sensationalist stories. I am in awe of the creativity of headline writers. I could never compete with the genius who produced the all-time classic Freddie Starr ate my hampster.

Recently I have been inspired by the creative headlines and blogs of the BBC’s Robert Peston. He has outscooped, outwritten, and outheadlined all other financial journalists on the Northern Rock affair. Respect. In homage to such great headline makers and writers, here is my modest contribution to the Andy Warhol headline of the hour award:

Northern Rock taken over by Manchester United: Official

It’s such a liberating feeling to write something like that.

Creative headlines have the same relationship to literal accuracy as reality shows have to a Mills and Boon romance. So what am I getting at? Here’s the case as it was reported in more sober terms. And what could be more sober than parts of the BBC not yet inspired by the Peston putzvah?

Last week, Northern Rock said it was continuing to negotiate its position with a number of “potentially interested” suitors. They include the Virgin-led consortium, also featuring US insurance company AIG, which has offered to buy a majority stake in the bank and inject “hundreds of millions of pounds” of money in exchange for taking control and rebranding the business as Virgin Money.

AIG. Remember them? That vast American financial operation whose initials are now on our TV screens every time a Manchester United player runs on to a pitch, or stands in front of an advertizing hoarding in a post-match interview. AIG is as close to Manchester United Football Club as are its American bosses the Glazer family.

In some contrast, Northern Rock is culturally committed to the North East of England, to Newcastle, and Newcastle United sport. It is a key supporter of Newcastle United Football Club.

Or as The Guardian put it recently

The last decade has seen Northern Rock donate £175m to a range of charities and community ventures in the north east of England including youth football teams in Newcastle, opera in Leeds and local homeless projects … Northern Rock is also the main sponsor of Premier League football team Newcastle United in a deal that runs until 2010.

Fantasy Football

In the world of fantasy football I see the following scenario. Cast as the evil empire, Manchester United is bent on global domination. The unsuspecting Americans have been dragged into the plans of super-villain Sir Alec (Darth Vader) Ferguson. Jedi Knight Richard Branson is an innocent pawn in the game. Aided by his puppets AIG, Northern Rock will be captured.
At a crucial time, Michael (Luke Skywalker) Owen will be brought back to Manchester and forced into playing for Manchester United.

So when these events come to pass …Just remember where you heard about them first.

Will Sam the man match Magpie dreams?

May 12, 2007

150px-newcastle_united_crest.pngThe great expectations of a historic football club have been thwarted for over thirty years. Newcastle United chairman Freddy Shepherd thinks he’s found the answer to his dreams in Sam Allardyce. Sam seems willing. Will he return the club to its former glory?

I have followed the fortunes of Newcastle United football club for years. Not long enough to recall the glory days. Long enough to learn of the legendary figures and their exploits passed down to a generation of fans still waiting for a return to former fortunes. Ten years ago, I began using the story as a case study of leadership and governance. As frustrating and baffling as it might seem to the town’s army of fans (the self-styled Toon army), the history follows a rather predictable course.


Newcastle’s board in recent years have shown a consistent preference for heroic managers. This preference goes back beyond the days of current long-standing chairman Freddy Shepherd, but it is under his governance that the preference can be seen most clearly.

The pattern seems to confirm a simple model of social identity, within which each leadership choice is made against a prototypic ideal leader. This figure would be a big name for a big club. He would ‘one of us’ (in-group v out-group important). In a strong local culture, the ideal one-of-us would be a famous player, a Geordie, a former club-player.

There is a near-perfect home-grown candidate at present in Alan Shearer, but the former club captain has no coaching experience (yet). While managerial track-record might be expected to be important, the club was more likely to chose ‘one-of-us’, with reputation as a player rather than manager.

If we look carefully at the appointments and subsequent disappointments at the club over the last thirty years, the pattern is clear:
Jackie Charlton was an England player and brother of Sir Bobbie Charlton. No great Managerial track-record, but born in nearby Ashington, Northumberland, and cousin of one of The Toon’s all-time greats, ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn’. Another football figure knighted for his services to the game was Sir Bobbie Robson: He also fitted the prototype, as childhood fan of the club, and a distinguished international for England. Robson, however, also had a strong managerial track-record.
Kevin Keegan almost fitted the bill. He was one of the most celebrated of post-war England internationals, who had become a Newcastle icon in his playing career, and an adapted Geordie. He returned as manager, and near-failure in winning the premier league, but retired another local hero.

But local heroes are not always available. Then the club has tended to prefer at least Northern (let’s say, non-Southern) heroes, scots like Kennie Dalglish and more recently Graeme Souness, who could claim considerable playing and managerial credentials. From time to time, the urge for celebrity has taken the club further afield, with the appointments of Ossie Ardiles of Argentina, and Ruud Gullit of Holland. These were exotic exceptions to the ideal prototype.

And so to Sam

Sam Allardyce, at the time of writing, is the hot favorite to take over from Glenn Roeder. Sam had considerable success at Bolton working with limited resources, and had been short-listed as England manager after Sven’s demise. Allerdyce had recently conveniently resigned as manager of Bolton. Shortly afterwards, Roeder conveniently resigned from Newcastle. Odds of Sam to take over shortened significantly.

Allardyce met the Newcastle chairman in a well-publicized way at Claridges’ on Friday 11th May 2007, after which Freddy Shepherd made a very revealing statement. According to the BBC, (and an extended version in Reuters) Shepherd reportedly told his associates at the restaurant:

“We want Sam’s determination, enthusiasm and ability to lift the club… The club needs a lift and Sam is the nearest I’ve seen to a replica of Joe Harvey”

Joe Harvey?

Joe was the last manager of NUFC to win the club a trophy, the last to date (Inter Cities Fairs Cup). That was over thirty years ago. His credentials fit our identikit: young player, Northern origins, club-player at a time when the club was still in its glory days, winning two cup finals. He returned as manager.

On Replicas and reality

So Freddy thinks Sam is ‘just the man’ for Newcastle. A lot of football fans and pundits agree, judging from the papers and blogs I’ve seen. But I’m not convinced of the case made by the chairman. It seems he has been stalking Allardyce for a while. His comments suggest he believes in the trait view of leadership, as something possessed by a few exceptional individuals. Great determination, enthusiasm, and whatever it takes to lift a club.

Nor am I particularly impressed by his prototype. Joe Harvey may be revered in Newcastle, but there is little evidence that he made much of a difference in his time as manager at the club. His track record was on the moderate side. With the benefit of selective hindsight, Freddy may now not recall the unresolved mini-scandal which involved Joe Harvey with the illegal sale of cup-final tickets. This has a curious echo in the murky story of bungs that cropped up this year, concerning Premier managers including Big Sam.

Good luck Newcastle. Part of the club’s mystique is the obsessive fan base willing them to retain the future they believe is their due. But the culture remains stubbornly traditional in the yardsticks in use as leaders are made and unmade. The leaders they deserve? I rest my case.


Things are rarely as simple as a pet theory might suggest. The local newspaper suggested that

One of the things that has impressed Shepherd about the way Allardyce has worked at the Reebok Stadium is the lack of injuries Bolton have had in recent seasons … Indeed, while United players have lost over 400 hours of playing time this season because of injuries, Bolton only lost 70. And this was because Allardyce and his backroom staff came up with a formula to prevent injuries before they happen.

The earlier post was also revised to correct the spelling of Mr Shepherd’s name. Sorry, Freddy.