A part-time Mighty Mouse is better than a full-time boss
It was a misty autumn afternoon and the shouts and oaths echoed eerily as the players finished their second training session of the day. About 100 spectators, mainly children, who had been watching quietly and politely, followed at a respectful distance as the players trooped down a tree-lined lane to the dressing room, their boots clip-clopping, their bodies steaming like thorough-bred horses, another workout completed.
Someone spotted the smallest player, the one they had mostly come to gape at, and a cry immediately went up: "Machtig Maus!" They swarmed around him with their autograph books till all that could be seen was the top of his permed hair. He signed patiently for every fan, as the other players went ahead. Then when he had finished, he continued down the lane, a diminutive Pied Piper, leading the children of Hamburg.
The perm gives it away. And Hamburg. Yes, it was Kevin Keegan, 20 years ago. I spent the rest of that day and evening with him, during which two things impressed me most.
He'd had a bad start at Hamburg, walking into an internal row between the manager and the club. Players wouldn't pass the ball to him, jealous of the salary Hamburg had to pay to get him from Liverpool. Then he'd been sent off in a friendly and was suspended for eight weeks.
But now, towards the end of his first year, by sheer determination, he had clearly won over all the players and fans. Hamburg went on to win the German league that season, and Keegan became European Footballer of the Year.
That week, one of his goals had been made goal of the month on German television, and he'd done a TV interview - in German. I went with him to meet some club sponsors and heard him gabbling away in German - pigeon German, with little grammar, but absolutely understandable. Jean, his wife, had sat A-level German back in Doncaster, but Kevin, who had arrived without a word, was now more fluent than she was.
So those were the two things that impressed me - surviving obstacles as a footballer, by determination and will-power, and also as a person, able to adapt to a foreign environment.
On Saturday, in his first game as England manager, will he prove himself again? Not only that he is up to the job, but that the job can be done part-time? For that is also in doubt. In fact, most people think it should not, cannot, be a part-time situation.
Personally, I don't see the problem. What has an England manager got to do anyway? Unlike a club manager, he doesn't have to drag to Carlisle or Cardiff for midweek matches, or trek to Costa Rica or Croatia just to check out someone his scouts have spotted. He doesn't have 40 players, half of them young, raw and rough, who need constant coaching and attention. He often has two or three months between matches, with very little to do, except watch Premiership games, all of which are on the telly, and suck his pencil.
His only real job is to pick the team, decide on tactics, then motivate, motivate, motivate. Wilkinson totally failed to motivate. He looked like a stunned rabbit, caught in the headlights, during that stuffing by France, unable either to inspire or even think of any changes. Whatever happens against Poland, Keegan will certainly be motivating.
When managing England, or any country, is done full-time, the work expands to fill the time, so they end up, like Don Revie did, with dopey dossiers, fact sheets and flow charts which just confuse the players, or themselves. The danger is that they can go potty, as Hoddle did, or paranoid, like Graham Taylor. Doing it full-time, without another job to think about, means they worry about press criticism and ridicule, which makes them chippy and defensive.
We've actually largely forgotten about Keegan since he was appointed. He has had other things on his mind, which is all to the good. It's lucky, in a way, that it's Fulham. Managing a Premier club, while managing England, now I agree that would be more awkward. It could lead to accusations of favouritism or spite.
Whether England do well against Poland or play crap, we won't actually know if having a part-time manager had much to do with it either way. We'll just know, or think we know, whether Keegan appears to be a good or a useless England manager. Part-time-ness shouldn't come into it, but of course it will, if we get stuffed. I'd like both Keegan and part-time-ness to triumph.
One of the things that has happened in the past five years is the lessening in importance of national managers and international games. It's only at World Cup time that we truly get excited - and I'm sure that's partly why Fifa wants it changed to every two years, to keep the idea of internationals alive.
We are all now aware that the Big Clubs, and the managers of Big Clubs, have most of the power, prestige, muscle, glory and money in world football today - not the international sides. The manager of a top club is continually in the spotlight, always under pressure. He couldn't possibly do that part-time.
But managing a national team can technically be done part-time - and if it works, or appears to work, then the pool of people willing to do the job will expand. As it is, managing England is proving less attractive all the time. So many said no to the job and Kevin had to be begged, and all his various conditions agreed to.
If the FA couldn't find a permanent manager when they appointed Keegan, what chance have they in the summer, when Kevin packs it up, as he says he will, with the FA in even more of a shambles and a bigger laughing stock than before? No, the future is part-time. Let's hope the Mighty Mouse proves it.