“When we travelled back to Newcastle from London, we often had five or six hours to kill on the coach. On the way Steve Watson used to bring videos and Viz comics. Even if we didn’t understand everything, Kevin and the whole team were always laughing. On the way back, before we got on the motorway, Kevin used to stop the coach at a petrol station, go and buy some drinks out of his own pocket and bring them back for the team: red wine, white wine, lager, water, soft drinks. Then, when we passed a certain place on the M1, he would buy us all fish and chips.”
Philippe Albert loved Kevin Keegan and not just because of the chips. As we talk around his kitchen table at his house near Charleroi, Belgium, Albert remains enchanted by the Englishman’s warmth and optimism, just as he was in 1994, when Keegan sold the central defender the dream of playing for Newcastle United.
“Keegan was a big part of why every player came to Newcastle,” Albert says. “When you speak to him, you just want one thing: to join the club. You don’t need to talk about money; he was just so charismatic. As a kid, I would watch him on television playing for Liverpool or Hamburg and a few years later I was playing under him. Keegan was a world star. Even if I had played just six months under him, that would have been the best time of my life. When I met him, I knew straight away.”
A graceful, goalscoring centre-back with a moustache, Albert quickly became a cult hero on Tyneside, fitting perfectly into the side that would become known as The Entertainers. He joined Newcastle for £2.6m on his 27th birthday (nabbing the No 27 shirt) after some brilliant performances at the 1994 World Cup, in which he helped Belgium to the knockout stages with goals against the Netherlands and Germany. Keegan, moonlighting as a BBC pundit at the tournament, was particularly impressed and a meeting in Leeds – “to avoid the press” – was arranged. It took 15 minutes to convince Albert to sign.
We talk a lot about Kevin. Even certain English words that Albert uses here, first learned during those early days in Newcastle – “tremendous” and “wow factor” – are straight out of Keegan’s lexicon: close your eyes and you can hear the Englishman say them. The stories come pouring out of Albert, small anecdotal ones that might not define Keegan’s tenure as Newcastle manager but show how he cared and the lengths to which he went.
“We used to have three or four thousand fans watching first-team training,” remembers Albert. “The people were tremendous. Kevin was always the last one in to take a shower. If he had to sign 800 autographs, he would do it. No names but I remember two players wanted to leave straight after training. I remember Keegan grabbed them by the neck and told them: ‘You go back. Sign for those people – they are paying your wages.’ That’s Kevin.
If that was a pleasant surprise, Albert was shocked to learn that Newcastle needed to report to St James’ Park only 90 minutes before a home game and, apart from an attacking philosophy, there “wasn’t much tactical instruction. We were told to keep the ball, and the players up front did the rest.
“Les [Ferdinand] was the best header of the ball I’ve seen. Better than Alan Shearer. He would jump and just stay in the air, floating. Tino [Asprilla] was also a great player. When he wanted to play, he could win a game by himself. But when he didn’t want to play, it was like playing with 10 men. That’s difficult in the Premier League. He was a funny guy: he might not wake up for training, be 40 minutes late and then two days later would score a hat-trick against Barcelona in the Champions League. He was different.”
Keegan put a premium on togetherness. “Once a month, normally on a Monday night, we would go out for a meal, even the reserves. Afterwards some players would go home, some would go out, mingle with the fans maybe. Personally I always liked Martha’s Bar.”
Newcastle was a perfect fit for Albert. The relaxed atmosphere and climate in the north-east suited him – he had turned down offers from Juventus and Fiorentina on account of Italy being too hot and the pre-season too long – and his own working-class upbringing seemed to endear him to the locals.
“Day in, day out I would regularly just go out in the streets, shopping with my wife,” says Albert. “I would talk to people – that’s just how I was raised. People liked that, I think.
“I think this is why I settled very well in Newcastle. I came from the same kind of world. My dad worked for 36 years in a metal factory, from 14 until 50 years of age. We had everything we wanted to be happy but not a lot of money. We didn’t go on holidays, because it was impossible financially, but I had no problem with this. It was a normal life.”
This is something Albert has tried to continue. In 2001, shortly after finishing his football career at Fulham (with Keegan) and then Charleroi, he took up work as a greengrocer at a fruit and vegetable company, where he would work until 2012.
“I would prepare the produce for customers. I did it for 11 years and didn’t touch the money I earned in my football career. Up early, finishing late, that’s what I wanted: a normal life. I’m very proud of it. Otherwise when you stop football, you do nothing. You have no life.”
These days, alongside some TV punditry work in Belgium, he keeps busy by mucking out horses and preparing the stables for his wife’s equestrian business. He seems happy and fulfilled.
Albert’s house near Charleroi, coincidentally where Keegan’s England side played during Euro 2000, is full of Newcastle memorabilia: an aerial shot of St James’ Park is the centrepiece of his living room, a small figurine of him wearing the black and white kit stands alongside family photos in the hall. There are plenty of winner’s medals on show, though none from his time with Newcastle. One defeat, the 4-0 defeat by Manchester United in the 1996 Charity Shield, sticks out for Albert.
“We were outplayed, hammered,” he admits. “We had come back from Thailand and Japan in pre-season and honestly we were very tired. Some of their players like Roy Keane were professional and said nothing but some of the younger ones, they were taking the mickey, ridiculing us.
In the dressing room afterwards Keegan said nothing. But when they came to St James’ Park later that year, Kevin just gave out the team sheet and said: ‘Remember Wembley.’ That was enough: we went out there and won 5-0.”
That result, and particularly Albert’s audacious dink over Peter Schmeichel for Newcastle’s fifth goal, remains arguably the best single moment of that era for Newcastle fans. And moments like that matter, especially if there is no trophy to celebrate.
“It was a good goal,” says Albert, smiling. “After the match Keegan went around the dressing room shaking hands with everybody. He was delighted. We were given the next day off.”