Newcastle out of toon - Keegan outburst sparked by missing out on £17m Modric

Last updated at 22:45 10 May 2008

It took the considerable powers of beloved Geordie knight Sir Bobby Robson to get Newcastle's two modern emperors, Kevin Keegan and Mike Ashley, sitting at the same table inside St James' Park on Friday night. Earlier in the day, the pair had spent four hours in London thrashing out their respective and differing visions for the club. Having gone through the emotional rollercoaster, they both then rushed back to the north-east to attend a

star-studded dinner hosted by Sir Bobby to raise money for cancer research.

Judging by some of the body language

between Ashley and Keegan, they would not

have chosen to spend social hours in such

close proximity to each other had the

cause and widespread affection for Sir

Bobby not been so strong.

Sitting opposite each other on the

top table, Ashley and Keegan had

more to say to the other guests

there — Alan Shearer, Gareth

Southgate, Middlesbrough

chairman Steve Gibson, former

England manager Steve

McClaren and Niall Quinn —

than to each other. Certainly the hottest football

topic in town — the future of Newcastle United —

was ignored.

When Ashley and his associates, including

chairman Chris Mort, descended from the fourthfloor

Bamburgh Suite behind the Milburn Stand,

the mood was bullish.

'The meeting was positive, everything was

positive, we're all here for next season,' was the

message from one of the entourage as they left

around midnight.

If only life was that simple for Newcastle

fans. Keegan and Ashley might need each

other at the moment — which means a parting

of the ways cannot happen immediately —

but what they want in the future is very


The Mail on Sunday can reveal that what

really prompted Keegan's amazing live television

outburst after the defeat against Chelsea

was the club's failure to land the brilliant £17 million

Croatia player Luca Modric, who could be

one of the stars of Euro 2008 before heading off

to Tottenham rather than Tyneside.

Having missed out on Jonathan Woodgate to

Spurs in January, this was even more galling. And

there is talk that a third, unnamed Keegan target

also prefers White Hart Lane — a

team not significantly ahead of Newcastle

in the Premier League table.

Modric was the young, energetic,

bright midfield playmaker Keegan

thought could spark new life into

Newcastle. Such is his reputation,

Chelsea manager Avram Grant travelled

to Macedonia earlier in the season

to check on Modric playing a

Euro 2008 qualifier there, before

being told by Roman Abramovich

that other areas of the team took

priority — notably strikers.

Keegan's sulky response to missing

out on Modric — 'We're a million

miles behind the top four' — was

regarded as unnecessarily downbeat

by Ashley, who knows this is the stage

of the season when clubs send out

letters asking supporters if they want

to renew season tickets.

Ashley is known to have a fearsome

temper but on this occasion he

decided that King Kev is worth keeping

on the inside. For his part, the

Newcastle manager, who surely

appreciates the financial implications

of walking out on a job, has had to

accept that there will be a limited

budget to work with this summer.

Those restrictions also apply to

players' wages, as demonstrated by

the board's attitude towards £120,000-

a-week forward Michael Owen.

Although it was Keegan's Monday

outburst which led to Friday's showdown

talks, the manager's previous

public assertion that Owen would

definitely be staying at the club and

would be offered a new deal was

badly received in the boardroom.

Dennis Wise, who enjoys a director

of football-style role at the club,

believes Owen is no longer in the first rank of strikers —

an opinion apparently

shared by the Premier

League's Big Four, who

all passed on him when he

left Real Madrid. Newcastle

would be prepared to

sell Owen for as little as

£3m if the former European

Footballer of the

Year's pride prevents

him accepting the

£40,000 pay cut

which is reportedly

a condition

of extending a contract with one year

to run.

Keegan may even have to reduce his

staff, with McClaren's former No 2

Steve Round under threat. Round

may end up at Everton

where there is a vacancy

for a good right-hand man

to David Moyes.

Even with so many

famous names among the

600 guests at the charity

dinner in aid of the Sir

Bobby Robson Foundation

— Italia 90 stars

Terry Butcher, Bryan

Robson and Stuart

Pearce among them —

all eyes were on Ashley

and Keegan to see if

anything could be gleaned from their


At one stage, as they walked

between tables, the extrovert Ashley,

in an open-necked shirt and black jacket, did attempt to crack a joke with the more downcast Keegan. But when the applause rang out for the Newcastle manager when his name

was read out from the stage, Ashley

was not one of the cheerleaders.

"A fragile peace" is the best way

Toon fans could describe the relationship.

For now, Keegan has been forgiven

for his undiplomatic outburst

although he has been told in no uncertain

terms not to do it again. Chairman

Mort and executive director (football)

Wise will continue to have better

access to the owner than Keegan.

Former chairman Freddy Shepherd,

who went to Spain after finding out

the club's hierarchy would not make

him welcome at St James' Park even

Sir Bobby Robson's Foundation dinner, doubts whether the truce between manager and owner can be maintained.

"Kevin is behaving like he

always has done. He needs things to

be done his way," said Shepherd.

Where that leaves the Newcastle

players is anyone's guess. Their one

genuine homegrown talent in recent

years, Steven Taylor, has just opened

contract talks with the club but the

Under-21 international will want proof

of Newcastle's ambitions before he


Even more worryingly, there must

be serious doubt whether messiah-inwaiting

Alan Shearer would actually

want the job if he had to report to

Wise and his cohort Tony Jimenez.

It will be interesting to see if Keegan's

name is chanted as loudly by

Newcastle fans at Everton today as

Manchester City fans sang for their

under-fire boss Sven Goran Eriksson

last weekend.

Significantly, the single biggest

cheer at Friday night's dinner came

when Sir Bobby Robson stepped on

stage and passionately declared: "We

have three Geordies in this room

tonight who had great careers in football

— Sir Bobby Charlton, Bryan

Robson and myself — and yet none of

us played for Newcastle. That has to

stop. Newcastle United in the future

have to pick up the best young players

in the north-east."

Before that can happen, Keegan and

Ashley have to join forces — without

requiring a charitable cause to do so.

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