Keegan upstages England's big stage

 

The walk into the past is long and irreversible. On Saturday, England expected one national institution to make it. After 77 years Wembley stadium was bowing out, heading for the history books. As well as an atmospheric grey rain, there was a heavy sense of finality in the air. It was time to say farewell. Wembley no more.

It was a measure of the scale of the drama that unfolded that Wembley's last, faint hurrah was all but forgotten. Unknown, and unforeseen to most, another English national institution had also decided to call it a day. Not for the first time, but definitely for the last, Kevin Keegan had upstaged England's grandest stage.

Keegan, too, made a long, irreversible walk, from Wembley's touchline to its tunnel where he was engulfed by chants of "What a load of rubbish," from England's sodden fans. For Keegan, an emotional, impulsive individual already full of self-doubt about his international managerial ability, the fans' verdict was the last piece of evidence he needed. He had to go.

Ten minutes later, his disconsolate players grouped around him in the dressing-room, Keegan delivered his resignation. Next the blazers were informed, and though the Football Association's chief executive, Adam Crozier, said he spent some minutes trying to dissuade Keegan from his chosen path, Keegan knew he could not go back.

Another few minutes and Keegan walked, head down, into the press room. It is tempting to say the place was electrified, but in truth it was as depressed as Wembley. The majority of reporters thought Keegan should resign or be sacked, but there was little pleasure in their vindication. Keegan does that to people: he inspires affection even in his critics.

He was about to do so again. Speaking quietly, Keegan deconstructed himself in a way that was almost painful to watch. It is scarcely imaginable what Keegan was feeling, but for anyone in any sphere to feel compelled to reveal publicly that they are "inadequate" can only be hurtful and humiliating. "I think at this level I fall a little short," he said. Not in terms of his stature as a man, we thought.

But in terms of his coaching, Keegan's revelation that he knew "Something was wrong in the first half but I didn't know what to do about it," was as damning as any shout from the crowd. It confirmed the long-held fear that when Keegan observed the goings-on of play, his perception of their nature was limited. Management is partly about being able to see clearly and act quickly, but while it seemed like the most obvious tactic in the world to change England's formation to 3-52 about 15 minutes into their Euro 2000 game with Portugal, Keegan just could not see it. That might have been the time for him to speak up about his limitations.

In the eighth minute on Saturday Tony Adams held out his hands in exasperation at the lack of alternatives he was being offered. Andy Cole and Michael Owen were the targets of his questioning. Neither forward did much but run about and get caught offside. The first touch from each in the game took the ball into touch. Later, Owen showed this failing again when released by David Beckham. Cole faded, too. Keegan's hope that Owen and Cole would complement each other was just a hope.

His hope that Gareth Southgate would somehow add stability to midfield while Paul Scholes roamed forward was another one. Southgate was out of position and out of his depth. Mehmet Scholl, meanwhile, supporting the lone striker Oliver Bierhoff, ran around at will. To use a Keeganism, Scholl was "dropping the grenades" Scholes should have been.

But Scholes, like Southgate, Owen and Cole, was hamstrung by virtue of not knowing exactly his role and by Germany's greater numbers in the middle. Scholes' defensive duties caused him to make the tackle that led to Dietmar "Didi" Hamann's winner. It was not a foul, but it was given as one by the referee.

Thirteen minutes had gone. The ball was 30 yards out, the England players were reacting slowly and Hamann thought why not? His direct shot skidded off the slippery surface and beat David Seaman comfortably. There had been no wall - which is a goalkeeper's responsibility - but then there was no roof, nor any foundations.

Shortly after half-time Seaman did make a save - from Scholl - and the Germans could have scored more through Jens Nowotny and Sebastien Deisler as England chased the draw in the second half.

Keegan had made one interval change, bringing on Kieron Dyer for Gary Neville, thus altering England's shape. But though Beckham went close from long range, England never put Germany under sustained pressure. With every misplaced pass Keegan must have felt the disappointment swelling. Everyone else did.

Beckham ended up on the bench and will miss Wednesday in Helsinki. Hamann ended up not just having the final say, but having the final touch at Wembley's final match. Didi had beaten the diddy men. England ended up six points behind Germany.

Wembley ended up playing World In Motion with John Barnes rapping about England's "masterplan". But there wasn't one, never had been. That's why Kevin Keegan ended up, like Wembley stadium, a part of England's past.

England: Seaman, G Neville (Dyer 46), Le Saux (Barry 77), Southgate, Adams, Keown, Beckham (Parlour 83), Scholes, Cole, Owen, Barmby. Subs Not Used: Martyn, Heskey, Wise, Phillips. Booked: Cole.

Germany: Kahn, Rehmer, Linke, Ramelow, Nowotny, Ballack, Scholl, Deisler, Bierhoff, Hamann, Bode (Ziege 87). Subs Not Used: Lehmann, Rink, Beinlich, Wosz, Baumann, Neuville. Booked: Ballack, Nowotny. Goals: Hamann 14. Attendance: 76,377.

Referee: S Braschi (Prato).