‘Bad luck comes in threes and begins with a B’ is a variant on a popular old adage that could have been copyrighted by Kevin Keegan during his playing days. Bicycles, Bremner and Belgrade: the Liverpool and England forward endured a personal hat-trick of misadventures during the mid-1970s in which he was the unwitting and unfortunate victim in three very different, very painful incidents.
In 1976 the perpetrator was a particularly wobbly bike during a guest appearance on BBC’s ‘Superstars’ programme. Never seeming in control as he pedalled down a track for 100 yards or so, Kevin’s precarious battle against gravity was finally lost and he crashed to the ground suffering severe cuts and grazes to his arm, shoulder and back. Two years earlier he had been on the wrong end of a physical battering from Leeds United in the Charity Shield at Wembley. Johnny Giles was to the fore in the victimisation of the Liverpool man and when he whacked Keegan from behind at a corner, the forward’s considerable patience finally snapped. When Keegan turned round Giles had disappeared, so he assumed that Billy Bremner was responsible as he was the closest Leeds player in attendance. A punch-up ensued and both players were red carded, tearing off their shirts as they left the pitch in protest at the decision. There was wide scale condemnation and a lengthy ban for Keegan, but precious little comment about the lack of protection he had received from the match officials.
The first incident chronologically in this unholy triumvirate of misfortune was the most sinister of all and took place on national duty with England. At the end of the 1973-74 season England undertook a three-game tour of Eastern Europe under caretaker manager Joe Mercer. The last game of the trip was against Yugoslavia and the England party flew directly to Belgrade after their 1-0 win over Bulgaria in Sofia. As the casually dressed squad arrived in the Yugoslav capital, Kevin Keegan happened to be the first player through passport control and he sat on the edge of the conveyor belt in the baggage hall waiting for his teammates.
He was tired despite sleeping for the duration of the flight, unlike some of his teammates who were in much livelier spirits following a session of moderate drinking on the flight. A particularly ebullient Alec Lindsay started jumping around on the baggage conveyor belt until an airport official rushed over and pushed him off. Three other airport officials marched over and grabbed the unfortunate Keegan who was still sitting quietly on the edge of the belt. Trying to protest as he was pulled to his feet, one of the officials clamped his arm around the Englishman’s throat leaving him barely able to breathe.
As the hapless and innocent international was dragged away, the bags of Bulgarian pottery he had bought as presents for his family dropped and smashed on the ground. Instinctively continuing his efforts to try to free himself, Kevin was hit hard in the face by one of his assailants. With his nose bleeding heavily, the bewildered player was manhandled into an office and forced to kneel in a corner where he was subjected to a number of punches and kicks. This problem had arisen in part because of a mistake over the time difference by the travel agent who had forgotten that Sofia was an hour ahead of Belgrade. It meant there were no officials from the Yugoslav Federation at the airport to greet the party and, because the players were casually dressed, the airport security officers had not realised this boisterous and scruffy group of foreigners was actually the official English national football team party.
Keegan was separated from the main England party for half an hour during which time he was charged with assaulting a security guard and breach of the peace – the charge sheet detailed his ‘offensive manner’ and mentioned that ‘he stuck out his tongue, slapped the arm of the official and used offensive language’. More alarming still was an extra charge of sexual harassment. One of the flights stewardesses had complained she had been goosed during the flight, though had the authorities bothered to speak to witnesses before producing their trumped-up charges, every member of the party would have stated that Keegan had been asleep for the entire duration of the flight and could not be responsible.
Only after concerted attempts to explain by Mercer and the FA officials Ted Croker and Sir Andrew Stephen did the security officials eventually realise their captive was one of Europe’s top footballers. Keegan was made to wash his face but it did not hide the marks nor the blood on his trousers from his ill-treatment. He was released in tears and without apology. Geoffrey Green of The Times witnessed the incident and suggested the story’s headline should be changed from ‘The Keegan Affair’ to ‘The Importance Of Being An innocent Bystander.’
While it would have been an eminently reasonable reaction for him to withdraw from the game after his frightening airport encounter, it was testament to Keegan’s enormous strength of character that he was even more determined to play. Yugoslavia’s security officials had made their mark on him at the airport and now he made his mark on Yugoslavia’s defence with a gutsy performance and a headed equaliser to rescue a 2-2 draw for the visitors.