The QT

Saturday 15 June 2024
15/06/2024

How to drive Kevin Keegan Batty

It’s 30 years since Simon Rushworth first dipped his toes into the world of media. As he lifts the lid on a life in journalism, The QT’s Associate Editor recounts a career-defining encounter with Kevin Keegan.

They say ‘never meet your heroes’. In truth, I’m not sure who says that or who ‘they’ really are? I’ve always loved meeting my heroes and intend to meet many, many more. Maybe a more appropriate nugget of advice would be ‘always meet your heroes — just limit your expectations’. It’s served me well down the years and more often than you might imagine.

Before I get to the hero in question, it’s important to note that this weekly column won’t be trading exclusively in big names and star-studded events. Journalism isn’t that glamorous. At least not for the most part. A friend of mine did, in all seriousness, suggest that I use the title ‘Namedroppers Anonymous’ when I floated the idea of a deep dive into my media career. I never realised I was so shallow. For those of you not obsessed with celebrity culture, rest assured there’ll be regular snapshots of unforgiving reality from the colourful coalface of regional journalism. 

The prized sticker in any collector’s Espana 82 Panini collection

But this is week one of The QT and we’re keen to make a big impression. So let’s start with a big name. And as far as a football fanatic born in 1974 is concerned, there are few bigger names than Kevin Keegan. I suppose my first striking memory of King Kev was during the 1982 World Cup — ironically the beginning of the end of his international career and the summer before he dived headlong into his well-documented love affair with Newcastle United. I was eight and a half and my mam let me stay up for most of the England games. I still have the Panini sticker album… although it’s missing Mr Keegan.

Two years later, for my 10th birthday, I’d asked for tickets to see Newcastle United at St James’s Park and on February 11, 1984 I witnessed KK in the flesh, from a fantastic seat slap bang in the middle of the Magpies’ posh East Stand. A lovely chap called Tony Toward, who I would go on to work with for several years, had spoken to my Grandma on the telephone and assured her he’d send out the best available tickets. Tony was as good as his word. What he couldn’t promise was a Newcastle victory and mean-spirited visitors Grimsby Town excelled in their role as the ultimate party poopers on the way to a soulless 1-0 win. Still, I’d seen Kevin Keegan in the flesh for the very first time and I remember it as a truly magical experience.

When Kevin Keegan released his life story in 1997, he explained ‘all his worst fears were realised’ after Newcastle United chose to produce the United! Magazine

Less enchanting was our meeting 12 years down the line. Come 1996 and KK was the Magpies’ manager, while I was a keen-as-mustard cub reporter writing for the official club magazine, United!. Aimed at an audience aged 12-20, the ‘offbeat weekly’ mixed lifestyle and humour with the day-to-day drama of Premier League football and Keegan hated it. He couldn’t stand the thing. He admitted as much in his 1997 bestseller — Kevin Keegan – My Autobiography. Newcastle’s manager felt his first team squad was already required to undertake far too many media duties and he was no fan of a wet-behind -the-ears, would-be John Gibson turning up at the club’s Maiden Castle training ground every day. He didn’t want me pressing Steve Howey for recipes, asking Robbie Elliott for dance music tips and quizzing Tino Asprilla on the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. Not when a Premier League title was at stake.

Nevertheless, if Keegan disliked United! with a passion then his players thought it was all a bit of harmless fun. Every Friday they’d wait for a pile of magazines to be dropped off near the Maiden Castle canteen and canny Geordies Lee Clark and Steve Watson would be the first in line to grab a copy, before ribbing their team-mates about the latest cover story or a cheesy photo shoot. That really irked Newcastle’s boss. Keegan expected his players to share his deep sense of loathing for the ‘club comic’. My ‘tongue-in-cheek’ column detailing David Ginola’s TV advert for Renault finally tipped KK over the edge.

I’d been at the staff Christmas party the night before and I could tell United!’s assistant editor had something on his mind. Fletch waited until I was three or four pints in to explain that an irate Keegan had called the office earlier that day demanding I be disciplined for daring to pen the latest ‘What A Rush…’ column. He said KK was outraged at my public ‘betrayal’ of Ginola and insisted I meet him at the club’s training ground the following day. Andy had promised to pass on the message but hadn’t wanted to put a dampener on the works’ night out.

Cub reporter Simon Rushworth believed the United! Magazine editor who told him it was perfectly acceptable to wear a woolly hat when posing for a picture by-line

Now Guinness has always emboldened me and, in my alcohol-fuelled state, I made it clear to Andy that I was more outraged than Keegan could ever be. Who was he to suggest what I could and couldn’t write? Did he not understand the concept of ‘reasonably held opinion’? I was determined to face him like a man the following week and demand an unequivocal apology — preferably in front of the entire first team squad. A few of the Duke Of Wellington regulars applauded my resolve. The rest clearly felt there’d only be one winner. A European Cup winner, no less. The most popular man in Newcastle.

The cold light of day proved to have a sobering effect on the previous night’s bravado. I snaked into the training ground, driving my mam’s white Nissan Micra, on a bitterly cold December morning, shaking with fear. At first, I sat tight. If there was one thing Keegan hated more than my magazine it was arriving at Maiden Castle after me — and seeing ‘that annoying kid’ deep in conversation with Les Ferdinand, Warren Barton et al. Maybe he thought I was some kind of arch conspirator, parachuted in by Sir Alex Ferguson on a mission to undermine the Magpies’ title ambitions. The truth of the matter is that I was a conscientious cub reporter who’d been told to wrap things up long before training. 

But on this occasion I bided my time before the expected b********g. Having waited for what seemed like an eternity, I sensibly entered Durham University’s sports centre by the back door and immediately bumped into Peter Beardsley, wearing nothing but a pair of grey briefs. We’d just started to chat when the manager arrived. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Keegan had fire in his eyes and mumbled something about me being ‘all over his club like a rash’ before telling me to wait upstairs in the canteen while he scuttled off to find Ginola. 

The canteen at Maiden Castle was a simple affair but it was where the first team squad massed every day before training in pursuit of a cup of tea, a slice of toast and a catch up. This was a time long before Newcastle had a training ground to call their own: United’s millionaire megastars shared a modest facility with Durham students and staff… as well as the thousands of fans who regularly watched the ‘Entertainers’ be put through their paces. Still shaking, I found a table at the top of the stairs away from the majority of the players. After a while Keegan strode up the stairs, sat across from me, and asked me to turn to the page in United! featuring the offending column. Paul Kitson and John Beresford peered across, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then Newcastle’s manager launched into a tirade questioning my credibility, loyalty and suitability for the role. I had loved this man. Now he was trying to make me cry.

“[The column] was based on David’s penchant for fast cars and was full of disparaging puns like ‘he has lost his drive’, ‘his engine seized up at Christmas’ and ‘he’s lost a gear’.” From Kevin Keegan, My Autobiography (Little Brown, 1997)

Just then, to save me from tears (Wham! were playing on the canteen radio), England hard man David Batty appeared. “Batts,” said Keegan. “Come over here. You know this kid? Have you seen what he’s written about David? Shocking. Sit down for a minute.” An uncomfortable situation became testicle-wrenchingly worse as, much to my horror, Keegan invited — or rather ordered — Batty to read out loud the ‘What A Rush…’ excerpt referencing Ginola. Admittedly, a succession of cheesy puns relating to engines, tyred-ness and worse sounded toe-curlingly childish delivered in a deadpan West Yorkshire accent. Batts is no orator and he did me no favours that day.

Keegan and Batty (who had no idea what was going on) agreed that the words I’d chosen were deeply unfair given that English was Ginola’s second language and that he couldn’t possibly understand how badly I’d ‘stitched him up’. Even by then, the French international was essentially bi-lingual so the argument held little sway. Ginola’s English was better than Batty’s! But Keegan went on to say that he’d spoken to my editor and everyone agreed — my days were numbered.

Now I’d only been in the job for six months and so when Kevin Keegan told me my career was on the line, I actually believed him. He wasn’t my boss. He wasn’t my editor. He wasn’t even a trained journalist. But he was two-time European Footballer Of The Year Kevin Keegan. And when it came to Newcastle United he had some clout. If my boyhood hero had asked for me to be removed from my dream job then who was going to stand in his way?

Kevin Keegan admits David Ginola struggled after Christmas following a stunning start to his Newcastle United career

When Keegan finally found Ginola — unlike me, the maverick winger was no stickler for punctuality — he led both of us through the deserted corridors of Maiden Castle and into an empty squash court. There was no light as the students and staff had already broken up for the holidays: this part of the sports centre was effectively closed for Christmas and the power long since switched off. It was immediately clear that David, like his namesake Batty, had no idea what was happening and certainly had no inkling whatsoever that I was there for a telling off. He shook my hand warmly and, with trademark Gallic charm, offered me the greetings of the season before sensing his boss was in no mood for pleasantries.

Keegan started the conversation by explaining to Ginola that I’d gone behind the midfielder’s back in a shameful bid to destroy his reputation. The former Paris St Germain man looked nonplussed. Ginola started to tell his manager that we had a strong working relationship built on trust and that any perceived mistake on my part was surely down to inexperience rather than anything more sinister. “Read it,” said Keegan and he thrust the copy of United! into my hands. Like Batty before me I was instructed to read out aloud the pun-laden copy and I couldn’t help but do so with a little more feeling than the former Leeds United enforcer. At one point Ginola chuckled and that was it. Keegan sent him out and barked ‘he’s French. He doesn’t understand’. 

David Ginola agreed to dress up as Santa Claus in December 1996 but was told to leave the United! magazine’s cub reporter off his Christmas list

Reinforcing the point that this would be the last time I set foot in Newcastle United’s training ground, the Magpies manager escorted me to the exit via his intrigued players and the assembled press pack — who’d been waiting patiently for their chance to quiz Keegan on the upcoming fixture at Anfield. As a journalist you never like being the story but there was no escaping those quizzical eyes.

Back in the Micra I burst into tears. My editor must be fuming. The P45 would be waiting. I’d only graduated from the training centre in May and yet here I was two days from Christmas — already cast aside on the media scrapheap. 

But it turns out that Kevin Keegan, the boyhood hero who broke my heart, wasn’t so powerful after all. He’d been given short shrift by my United! bosses and was told that I’d be turning up at the training ground the following week whether he liked it or not. I only saw Kevin Keegan at Chester-le-Street once more after that fateful meeting. Sixteen days later Newcastle United’s manager resigned. According to one of the players who’d been privy to my canteen dressing down, it was all my fault. I didn’t quit, so Keegan had to.

Next week… I have the Tyne of my life on a famous warship.

@SimonTheQT

Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum has more than 120 sets of pipes, including Northumbrian pipes, Northumberland being the only English country with its own musical instrument

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