IT’S Kevin Keegan’s birthday today. He’s 64. A quick question for you: What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you hear the name, Kevin Keegan?

I’m guessing that, for some, the first image springing to mind is of a rain-lashed England manager holed up in a Wembley toilet throwing in the towel after defeat to Germany in the dilapidated old stadium’s final game. To others, it might be the mad-eyed, finger-jabbing headcase daring to confront Ferguson in an outburst that made ‘Rafa’s Rant’ look as impetuous as an Alan Shearer monologue. Some might remember the squandered chance in the 1982 World Cup that hastened his country’s exit or the ‘Superstars’ bike crash that tore the flesh from his back. Or maybe the perm. Definitely the perm.

It’s a sad fact but, these days, there’s not too many people around who still associate Kevin Keegan with the Liverpool shirt. Sad because, for six seasons, Keegan was Liverpool’s talisman, its focal point and its heartbeat.

It’s a sobering thought, but unless you are well in to your 40s you won’t have seen Keegan performing in red at the peak of his powers. And even if you did, and have chosen to accept the accompanying sense of creeping mortality, it’s likely that your opinion of the man, if not the player, was soured by the manner of his departure from Anfield in the summer of 1977. As a result, Keegan’s name is now often overlooked in any discussion of the club’s finest ever servants. And that, given his colossal contribution to the cause, is something that shouldn’t go unchallenged.

By the start of the ‘70s, Liverpool were a team in transition. Shankly had come to accept that some of the mainstays of the previous decade were now nearing the end of their careers and, however reluctant he may have been to jettison his favourite sons, the need for an injection of fresh legs could no longer be postponed. After all, no trophy had found its way back to Anfield since the 1966 league title.

So we saw the likes of Clemence, Hughes, Heighway, Evans, Lindsay, Lloyd and Toshack come in. We saw the reshaped team reach the 1971 FA Cup Final, where it fell foul of the heat and Charlie George’s lank-haired insouciance. And, most significantly of all, we saw the arrival of a stocky, self-assured 20 year old who would shape the club’s future and take it to levels previously unimagined.

Because Kevin Keegan really was that good.

From the scuffed goal in front of the Kop, 12 minutes into his debut, to the forceful thrust from deep in Rome six years later that left Berti Vogts little option but to upend him, Keegan never stopped working, never stopped trying to improve both himself and his team. In the process he became the embodiment of everything Shankly looked for in a player; he was, in a real sense, the great man’s representative on the pitch.

Liverpool with Keegan were far from a one-man team. There was too much quality, too much strength in all areas of the pitch for that. But without Keegan, they wouldn’t have made the step up from perennial challengers for domestic honours to a team capable of dominating across the continent.

It has been said by some that Keegan was a self-made player, someone who compensated for a lack of the natural, instinctive genius of a Dalglish through a combination of commitment, dynamism and a ferocious will to win. While it’s certainly true that he possessed these traits by the bucket-load, such a reading fails to do justice to the range of his talents. Simply put, Keegan was more than the sum of his parts. He allied boundless energy and enthusiasm with uncommon bravery, positional nous and inspirational leadership. He had an unerring ability to pinpoint and exploit the opposition’s weaknesses. Crucially, he made his teammates play better, by setting such a high performance standard and by dragging others up to his level, in a way that only a handful of Liverpool players (Dalglish, Souness, Gerrard, Suarez) have ever equalled.

Close my eyes and I can still picture Keegan dropping off to demand an early ball to feet, spinning away from his marker and accelerating into the heart of a retreating defence. With a centre of gravity seemingly located somewhere near his shinpads and thighs like concrete blocks, he was almost impossible to subdue.

Keegan was the spark for an assault on the game’s major silverware that was unprecedented in the history of the club. His six seasons at Anfield brought three league titles, two UEFA Cups, a European Cup and an FA Cup. The bigger the occasion, the more he thrived. There were goals in cup finals, semi-finals, vital European ties, championship deciders. Clinical finishes, volleys teeming with power and technique, exquisite lobs, flicks, perfectly timed neck-twisting headers. Other players may have had more tricks or scored more goals, but few had as many strings to their bow.

Even after Shankly’s premature retirement (an event which affected Keegan more than most), he was the catalyst for the subtle changes that made European glory the default achievement for a Liverpool team. Whereas previously, the attacking emphasis had largely centred on his uncannily productive partnership with John Toshack, under Paisley Keegan was asked to develop a more rounded game, linking with midfield, darting into the channels, allowing the likes of Kennedy and McDermott to drift into the space his perpetual movement created. It was an approach which emphasised Paisley’s quiet genius and laid the foundations for sustained European success, success which continued long after Keegan’s departure.

For all that Keegan was worshipped by the Liverpool crowd, who saw in him all the qualities that Shankly treasured, there was an uneasiness in some quarters at his ever-expanding profile and popularity. Liverpool supporters demand that their heroes’ only loyalty is to the badge on their shirt. Anything else is, at best, an inconvenience, at worst a pernicious distraction. Keegan became the first Liverpool player who was, ostensibly, national property. As his England career and his fame developed, it was clear that here was the first footballer since George Best to transcend the game and, in the process, he became part of the nation’s cultural landscape. He guested on Saturday evening light entertainment programmes, starred in adverts, penned magazine columns. All standard behaviour for today’s players but a source of suspicion in the ‘brown ale and Woodbines’ world of the 1970s.

Keegan embraced his role with the same enthusiasm he showed every time he took to the pitch. And in doing so, we began to realise, with painful inevitability, that he didn’t need Liverpool Football Club anymore.

Keegan announced that the 1976/77 season would be his last in the red shirt. To the legions of Reds who revered his every step, this was a kick in the teeth no-one had dared contemplate. It wasn’t meant to be like this. Liverpool players didn’t leave unless the club decided they were no longer required. Then they were thanked for their service and hastily sent on their way, the pain from their overworked joints offset by a holdall full of medals, to the nearest third division team or the after dinner circuit or a welcoming stool at the bar of their Cheshire local. As the game’s values have changed, we have become used to our best players deciding that the grass is greener and more lucrative elsewhere. McManaman, Owen, Alonso, Mascherano, Torres and Suarez all chose to follow a career path that led them away from Anfield. But in the monochrome world of 1970s football, players didn’t leave Liverpool while they were still at their peak. Why would they?

Of course, the accusations flew that Keegan was going for the money. After all Hamburg SV weren’t exactly noted as one of the continent’s prestige teams. And when he did come back to Anfield just a couple of months after leaving, for a one-sided Super Cup match that saw his new team unceremoniously spanked by his former colleagues, he was left in no doubt that his stock had fallen in the eyes of those who previously adored him. By then we had Kenny, you see. The bond with Keegan was broken.

Call me a naïve old fool but, with hindsight, I don’t think Kevin Keegan was ever motivated solely by financial reward. His subsequent career reveals a character with a thirst for new challenges and fresh environments. When he claimed that staying at Liverpool would cause his stagnation as a player, you can, at a push, see the rationality of his argument given that there was nothing left to achieve in a red shirt. And, as he went on to become European Player of the Year twice with Hamburg, establishing himself as one of the continent’s most glittering and marketable stars, you’d struggle to make a case for it being the wrong decision.

From our perspective, once the initial hurt subsided and we realised that his successor in the number 7 shirt was a practitioner of even rarer gifts, Keegan’s contribution to our success became little more than a footnote. With the passing of time his name has faded from our roll-call of legends. Perhaps it’s because he went on to forge an equally close relationship with another club (Newcastle). Perhaps because, like Michael Owen, he made no secret of his loyalty to the Three Lions and his pride in representing the national team.

But it should be remembered that Kenny, a genius unmatched in our history, slotted into a team already established as European champions. Keegan took a team which had gone six years without a trophy and within two seasons helped make them the most formidable in the land.

It should also be remembered that the man who created the Liverpool dynasty, the most important figure in the history of the club, regarded Keegan as his finest ever signing. When you look at his impact, his influence and his importance to that Liverpool team, it’s easy to see why.

For all his celebrity, for all his single-minded careerism, that’s how I see Kevin Keegan. As an irrepressible force, a winner, and one of our finest servants. Strip away the other stuff, the stuff that doesn’t matter now, and that’s all that really counts.

Pic: PA Images

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