When Southampton signed the two-time Ballon d’Or winner Kevin Keegan – and no-one knew about it

When Southampton signed the two-time Ballon d’Or winner Kevin Keegan – and no-one knew about it

Reporters flocked to the Potters Heron hotel in Romsey. Bemused, they spoke amongst themselves, questioning the purpose of the gathering, which had been unexpectedly arranged by legendary Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy on Monday, 11 February 1980.

The journalists were somewhat reluctant to attend the spontaneous press conference, called by McMenemy on the back of a thumping 5–1 win over Brighton just two days before. Monday was the day off for many, and although a sense of intrigue developed in the small room at the Potters Heron, few were enthused by the prospect of sitting through what appeared likely to be merely a brief update from the manager – the topic, however, was unclear.

McMenemy would not take no for an answer. He called retired journalist Alan Montgomery and was insistent that he and his colleagues within the industry headed to Romsey. The Saints manager, who led the club to their first and only major honour in 1976 as they lifted the FA Cup, was tight-lipped, and only disclosed that the meeting would revolve around “someone who was going to play a big part in Southampton’s future”.

The room settled and McMenemy prepared to reveal just why he had summoned the media in such a peculiarly hurried manner. Not one member of the press was aware of what would unfold before their eyes. “I’ve got a bit of a surprise for you, lads,” the manager recalls telling them.

Sure enough, the reporters were left stunned when the reigning two-time European Footballer of the Year, Kevin Keegan, strolled through the door, with a wide smile greeting the dumbfounded onlookers and not a hair of his iconic perm out of place. He wore a full suit and was accompanied by his wife, Jean, and their newborn daughter, Laura.

The press let out a collective gasp, pausing for a moment in a futile attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. McMenemy didn’t need to say a word – it soon became obvious. Southampton had signed the current holder of the Ballon d’Or award, nearly 29 and at the peak of his powers, and no-one knew about it. Reporters recovered from the initial shock to swiftly rise to their feet, showering Keegan with adulation while he nonchalantly made his way over and shook his manager’s hand, with every person in the Potters Heron room joined in a standing ovation.

Transfers of such privacy are seldom observed in today’s game, but they were hardly prominent during the 1980s, either. A coup of logarithmic proportions was taking place underneath everyone in football’s noses, and not a single soul suspected that Keegan would be leaving HSV to come to lowly Southampton. The first –  and only – sniff that there would even be a remote possibility of the England international plying his trade at The Dell for the foreseeable future came on that historic Monday afternoon, in which shockwaves were sent through the footballing world.

Midway through the 1979/80 season, Keegan had decided that it was time to seek pastures new. The gruelling training methods of HSV coach Branko Zebec, though often effective, were taking their toll on him physically, and he informed his boss that if he did not seek a move elsewhere, there was a strong chance that he would burn himself out by the time he had reached 30.

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Keegan was fiercely competitive and boasted an indubitable determination to win. He had achieved as much throughout his career hitherto, clinching titles with Liverpool and then in Hamburg, but a new challenge elsewhere whetted his appetite. The European Footballer of the Year wanted to keep on winning games of football, but he was equally desperate to be the catalyst for his next club’s success. Therefore, he plumped not for a footballing heavyweight but Southampton, who provided a platform at which he felt he would enjoy his football more, alongside close friends Mick Channon and Alan Ball.

His relationship with some of the Saints’ senior heads was only one of the reasons why he opted to make the switch, which was baffling to many at the time but perfectly sensible to Keegan. He had always been fond of what Hampshire had to offer and enjoyed the New Forest, but more significantly saw Southampton as a place at which he could achieve stability for his new family.

At one point during the 1979/80 season, it looked as though Keegan could have been headed to Turin. Juventus were in advanced negotiations over a deal to recruit him, brokered by Italian agent Gigi Peronace, but the player pulled the plug at the last minute. After displaying an initial intrigue regarding a venture into Serie A, a sharp discussion with his wife swayed his decision. “You can go to Italy,” Jean, said. “But I’m going home to England.”

The fundamental reason behind her reluctance to follow her husband to Juve was based around safety concerns; news of kidnaps and targeted crime towards famous figures in Italy offered little reassurance that Turin would be the most appropriate place to usher their newborn baby Laura through her childhood.

Keegan made a u-turn and drew a line through Italy as one of his next possible destinations. His wife had made clear to him that a return to England was the favourable option following three years in Germany, but the forward would hardly be short of potential suitors abroad. It was a familiar tale in 1977, also, when he prepared to leave Liverpool and teams from across Europe queued up to offer him a route out of Anfield. Hamburg, who had finished sixth in the Bundesliga in the season before, piqued his interest.

He joined HSV for a fee worth £500,000 – the highest-ever sale in British football at the time and a figure that smashed the German transfer record – and although his time at the club was not all plain sailing, he overcame adversity to emerge as arguably the best player in the division after a testing introduction to life away from the home comforts of English football.

Keegan was not initially received warmly by his teammates, who had reservations about the club’s marquee signing and even avoided passing to him in early training sessions. The Englishman let himself down during a mid-season friendly, too, as he unnecessarily knocked out a VfB Lübeck player with a punch, which saw him receive an eight-week suspension from football.

Still, Keegan didn’t let the disappointment of a rocky start hinder him on his road to yet more silverware, as he netted 12 times in his maiden season at Hamburg, clinching the European Footballer of the Year award for the first time in his career. He also helped his team win the Bundesliga title, led by the authoritarian methods of Zebec, after a drought that lasted almost two decades. Again, Keegan was crowned as the continent’s most exceptional player in 1979.

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Speculation surrounded the future of the forward as he geared up for his third season on German soil, but Keegan, touched by the affection of the club’s supporters and driven by his ambitions of a second European Cup after his first at Liverpool, was committed to helping Hamburg conquer. His £400,000 transfer to Southampton may have been announced midway through the campaign but his focus remained on the task at hand. Fate determined that the fairytale ending would elude him in his last bow at Die Rothosen, however, as Nottingham Forest triumphed in the final.

Keegan had played his last game for Hamburg and proceeded to captain England at the European Championship in 1980 under Ron Greenwood. His next destination, then, was Southampton, who had only returned to the First Division two years previously, further reflecting the magnitude of what was a gargantuan signing for the club. Much of this was owed to McMenemy, who played the long game and laid on the charm offensive to lure the European Footballer of the Year to The Dell.

The genesis of Southampton’s ambitious pursuit was, in fact, nothing to do with football alone. McMenemy recalls that after moving into a new house in 1980, he was being helped by a friend, Norman Woodford, to perfect the interior design of his home. Woodford suggested to the Saints boss that a light should be fitted above the staircase on the landing, and proceeded to show McMenemy a picture of exactly what he was referring to. “What’s the problem?” asked the manager, in response to his friend’s sheepish tone. Woodford informed him that this particular light was only manufactured and sold in Germany – more specifically, in Hamburg.

McMenemy had read in newspapers since the turn of the year that Keegan was pondering his future in the Bundesliga, with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid ready to swoop. He was also aware that Liverpool would have the first refusal if they were interested in re-signing their former player because of a clause included in the agreement to sell him to Hamburg.

McMenemy got in touch with the Reds’ administrator Peter Robinson to subtly gauge the club’s stance. He was told, in no uncertain terms, that Keegan would not be returning to Liverpool, who had Kenny Dalglish and David Johnson firing. Ian Rush would also join the club in 1980 from Chester, rendering a move for another forward unnecessary.

One possible competitor in the race for Keegan’s signature – a race in which it would have seemed nigh-on impossible for a club of Southampton’s stature to reign supreme –  were not in the picture. McMenemy used his connections and proceeded to track down Keegan’s phone number.

Although it would become clear that the Saints manager had ulterior motives, he entered conversations with Keegan without even mentioning the small matter of football. The first phone call between the pair would amount to the player agreeing to bring McMenemy the light that Woodford had showed him from Hamburg, and nothing else. It was a simple favour and one that did not put the forward out too much, as he was scheduled to return to England for international duty in early February.

McMenemy spoke to Keegan again before he flew back to his homeland, and on this occasion, the player’s future at club level was the subject of interest. The 28-year-old conceded that he was looking to leave Hamburg, to which the Southampton manager brought up the rumours regarding a tug of war over his signature between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the summer.

McMenemy, half in jest and half hopefully, attempted to divert Keegan’s attention away from the allure of Spain’s footballing juggernauts, referencing his young daughter as a key consideration, insisting he would need to hire plenty of guards and minders to keep his family safe abroad given the clamour that came with his fame and prestige.

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The Dell hardly boasted the same appeal as the Camp Nou or Bernabéu, but McMenemy couldn’t help himself as he floated the idea of a shock switch to Southampton in his discussions with Keegan. It was not the most glamorous of prospects for the striker, nor was it one that promised silverware each season, but he was hesitant to rule out moving to the south coast over the phone. McMenemy was optimistic.

Keegan flew back to England ahead of the national team’s encounter against the Republic of Ireland and had arranged to meet the Southampton manager, for little other reason than to hand over the light that McMenemy had been after since Woodford’s suggestion. Secrecy was essential and identifying a destination for the pair to sit down and talk proved challenging –  after all, the face of the European Footballer of the Year was hardly mistakable – until McMenemy told Saints’ financial director, Guy Askham, about the proposed meeting.

Askham knew just the place and called upon a friend who lived in Kensington to host them. McMenemy made a point of opening the front door for Keegan on the day of the meeting, with the homeowner unbeknownst to the ground-breaking conversations that were occurring only in the other room.

Subtlety made way upon the pair’s first encounter with one another and McMenemy set out his stool. It was apparent that he was attempting to woo Keegan, outlining the benefits of a move to Southampton, with the prospect of playing alongside Channon and Ball emerging as a selling point. He insisted that he was in charge of a good club with a good team, but the forward already appeared to be convinced.

Then came the words that McMenemy had been desperate, but hardly expecting, to hear. “Have you got a contract?” Keegan asked, as the Saints boss, accompanied by Askham, sat shocked. Reflecting upon this memorable conversation, McMenemy admits that he nearly fell off his chair in surprise at the Hamburg man’s willingness to play for his club. Askham was on hand to provide Keegan with a blank contract and, after one face-to-face meeting, Southampton had agreed terms with the two-time European Footballer of the Year.

One insecurity was eating away at Keegan, however, as he sat before his new manager: he had forgotten to bring the light over from Germany. “To hell with the light,” McMenemy remembers telling his new man, as he tied up the most significant transfer in Southampton’s history.

Keegan’s future was sealed and Saints had clinched his signature courtesy of a masterclass in persuasion from McMenemy. The manager would proceed to attend at Wembley as England defeated Ireland 2–0. His new signing scored the two decisive goals – one of which was a beautifully executed lob over Gerry Peyton – and among more than 90,000 people in attendance, only he and Keegan knew that he would be a Southampton player in the 1980/81 season.

McMenemy kept his cards close to his chest remarkably well, and it would have required a great deal of restraint not to wax lyrical about the signing he had pulled off. Even Keegan’s agent, Harry Swales, was unaware until the manager informed his new striker’s representative of the deal, instructing him to head towards Southampton Airport on the Monday, where he would greet his client, Jean, baby Laura and Günter Netzer, Hamburg’s general manager, whom Keegan told about his impending move to The Dell after helping England beat Ireland.

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He did, however, nearly let slip that Keegan was a Southampton player on the evening before his unveiling. During a dinner party and over more than a couple of glasses of wine, McMenemy’s close friend and author, Leslie Thomas, sensed that a fresh face would be arriving at The Dell. The Saints boss, despite the temptation to spill the news, stood firm but did tease Thomas with a hint, whispering the letters ‘KK’ as the pair called it a night.

Keegan joked in his autobiography, My Life in Football, that perhaps the author had assumed Southampton were about to announce the signing of goalkeeper Kevin Keelan from Norwich City – this would have, in fairness, been far more conceivable than the reality of McMenemy’s big secret.

McMenemy had given his players the Monday off following their exploits at the weekend against Brighton, but Channon and Ball were instructed to attend at the Potters Heron hotel. The former declined, instead heading to the races – Channon would become a highly-regarded racehorse trainer – but the latter was in Romsey, watching on in anticipation. Ball, like everyone else, had no idea what was happening, and this was best summed up by the subsequent photographs of his baffled reaction when he first saw Keegan walk into the room.

The attacker later explained in more detail just why he decided to make the unusual switch to Southampton. “Once I started thinking about it properly,” Keegan wrote in his autobiography, “I surprised myself by how much I liked the idea.” Being a big fish in a small pond clearly appealed to the England captain, as well. “I also had a vision of leading an unfashionable, unheralded team to their first-ever league title, and I could imagine the satisfaction in those circumstances might far outweigh that of doing it at a club where it was almost second nature.”

Exciting times were ahead at The Dell, with Keegan enthused by the prospect of playing under McMenemy, whose charisma, man-management skills and emphasis on attacking football impressed him. The manager once deduced that the ideal balance within his teams comprised “seven road sweepers and four violinists”, and Keegan stated that, on his watch, “Southampton were not short of violinists.”

Saints fans were desperate to watch the Ballon d’Or winner take to the pitch in their colours for the first time, but they were forced to wait until 16 August after the announcement of his signing on 11 February. Keegan made his debut in a 2–0 win over Manchester City, in which McMenemy handed his new man the captaincy.

The sight of such a high-profile player gliding across the pitch while the club’s iconic kit, a thick white stripe sandwiched between a blocky red design, adorned him seemed almost too far-fetched to be anything other than a scene from a dream, but it was real. He was a Southampton player. “Every ground we went to that season had their biggest crowd to see Kevin Keegan,” recalled McMenemy.

The England star’s impact was immediate and the Saints continued to prove themselves as one of the First Division’s most exciting teams. Keegan’s arrival augmented the squad’s technical quality, provided by players like Ball, Channon and Charlie George, while also adding an experienced head, who would help shepherd the next generation of Southampton players, including the likes of Steve Williams and Steve Moran, into the senior game.

McMenemy’s first season in charge of Keegan was successful. Saints ended the campaign in sixth place – the club’s best-ever finish in the First Division – and scored 76 goals in the process, 11 more than they did in 1979/80 as they finished eighth. It was almost poetic, therefore, that Keegan netted on exactly 11 occasions in his maiden campaign with Southampton in the First Division.

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The forward might have been more proficient in front of goal during his first season at the club if he had not sustained a hamstring tear against Birmingham. The Saints were 3–1 up when Keegan felt his muscle restricting him, but having already used up his one allocated substitution, McMenemy ordered his star man to battle through the pain.

Matters were made worse when Keegan was forced to attend a mid-season trip to Morocco, organised by sponsors, and then play for 70 minutes in a generally meaningless friendly against Raja Casablanca. This was not originally the plan for the England man, who could, as he later recalled, “barely jog, let alone kick a ball” following his hamstring injury, but frenetic local fans had nearly caused a riot as they demanded to see Keegan in action. The trip was sold to the public on the premise that Morocco would host an appearance from the European Footballer of the Year, and he was irresponsibly pressured into playing with his leg strapped up.

Keegan would later bemoan this mismanagement from Southampton, but he was hardly averse to the physical nature of the training that McMenemy’s squad relished. The new arrival was initially unimpressed by the brutal practices carried out by his teammates, often found on Fridays, as they crowded the gym and proceeded to “kick the living daylights out of each other”, in his own words. Keegan complained about this approach to McMenemy, stating that it was the sort of thing he would expect from a pub team. Within a few weeks, the European Footballer of the Year had changed his tune, and basked in the camaraderie of the rough and tumble during training.

It was an entertaining, positive season for Southampton, but one that fell short of Keegan’s typically sizable ambitions. “Everyone at the club seemed pleased about how the year had gone,” he said. “Everyone except me, anyway. It might have been a successful season for Southampton, but I cannot pretend it was for me. My expectations were different.”

McMenemy led his team into the 1981/82 season and oversaw another strong campaign. The club exited the UEFA Cup in the second round after a two-legged defeat to Portuguese club Sporting but finished in seventh place on the First Division table. Keegan was marvellous and enjoyed his most prolific goalscoring campaign ever in the top flight. He plundered 26 goals in the First Division, earning him the top scorer award and was named the PFA Player of the Year, Southampton’s Player of the Year, and also received an OBE for his contributions to the sport.

However, the striker grew increasingly frustrated by the team’s shortcomings at the other end of the pitch. It was clear that McMenemy’s side could have finished far higher than the seventh place in which they eventually resided, but their defence leaked 67 goals over the course of the season. This cost them a clear run at the title, and despite sitting at the top of the First Division for a lengthy period – and for the first time ever in the club’s history – a run of only three wins from the final 14 games of the campaign saw Southampton slide down the table.

Keegan had scored the winning goal at the end of January in an away victory at Middlesbrough. Southampton kept a clean sheet, but he was still hungry for more and was only too aware of the team’s weaknesses in their own third. The win lifted them to the top of the league, and Keegan, eager to remain at the summit, encouraged McMenemy to make a move for Peter Shilton amid reports that he was on his way out of Nottingham Forest, opining that he would tighten the leaky back-line. The manager, however, was his own man, and rarely recruited players on the judgement of anyone other than himself. It was coincidental, though, that Shilton did arrive at The Dell in the summer of 1982, just as Keegan brought his tenure at Southampton to a close.

The team’s inability to shut games out and make Keegan’s ruthless goalscoring form count grated on the forward, whose relationship with McMenemy also soured in his second season at the club. According to the forward, the Southampton boss had launched a scathing attack on the team in the aftermath of a 3–0 loss against Aston Villa, even going as far as accusing them of cheating. “I had never been called a cheat in my life,” Keegan reflected in his autobiography. “And something broke for me that day.”

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By the time the summer had rolled around, everything pointed towards a move for the forward, who was now 31. Keegan had a year left on his contract at The Dell but informed McMenemy of his desire to leave after growing disillusioned by the direction in which the club was heading. He was desperate for fresh blood and was consequently aggrieved by Southampton’s business, or lack thereof, ahead of the 1982/83 campaign.

Keegan’s irritation reached breaking point as he prepared to jet off to Ireland for a pre-season tour. After expecting to be joined by new arrivals, he arrived at Heathrow to see a plethora of Saints’ youth team players waiting to board the plane, with McMenemy joining them the following day. “It was deflating,” Keegan recalled as he pushed for a move away from Southampton.

A mutual agreement was reached between the player and his manager that would see a £100,000 transfer to Newcastle materialise. The relationship between Keegan and McMenemy was unfortunately damaged beyond repair, but bridges have since been rebuilt over the years gone by, with the former England captain reminiscing on his time at The Dell fondly, describing his tenure at Southampton as “magical”.

McMenemy accepted that Keegan would leave the club immediately, but did not let him go without a fight. “The chairman and I pointed out it was a bad time to sell him with fans buying season tickets,” the 83-year-old said. Keegan’s timing wasn’t ideal, but such was his desire to depart, that he informed his manager that he would even cover any financial losses out of his own pocket if it meant that he got his wish and was allowed to leave.

“Kevin was adamant and made a statement saying ‘if I don’t go, I’ll hang my boots up’,” McMenemy recalled. “I know he meant it, so sadly we had no choice but to let him go to Newcastle. But as I often remind him, if he held on for a little longer, he would have been in the Southampton team that finished second top, three points behind Liverpool [in 1983/84].” Perhaps he would have led Saints to the First Division title, after all.

The curtain fell on Keegan’s time at Southampton under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, but it was an honour for anyone associated with the club to have seen the two-time European Footballer of the Year wearing their shirt. The remarkable backstory to the transfer; the stunning emergence of Keegan at the Potters Heron hotel; the best player in Europe opting for rags over riches. Such a transfer will surely never be topped.

The forward scored 37 times across his two years at Southampton, in which he made 68 appearances and brought plenty of joy to the club’s supporters, who idolised and adored one of the country’s finest ever footballers. What started as small talk between McMenemy and Keegan led to one of the game’s most bizarre, spectacular moves – and it was all prompted by Woodford’s suggestion to the manager as he set out his plans for the new house.

Keegan kept his word on the light, too. “I did bring it over from Hamburg for him anyway, and it illuminated the landing of his house for many years,” he confirmed. Just as he helped to light up McMenemy’s home, the European Footballer of the Year pulled on a Southampton shirt and shone brighter than ever before at The Dell.

By Luke Osman @lukeosman_

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