Football legend Kevin Keegan has paid tribute to the hard work of modern groundstaff and the investment in the grassroots at all levels of the game.
Speaking exclusively to Turf Pro magazine at the Soccerex European Forum in Manchester, the former England manager and player said the surfaces now seen in the Premier League were a million miles away from what he used to perform on at the top level with Liverpool, Southampton and Newcastle.
“We didn’t really know how bad the surfaces were back then,” he said. “The improvement has been incredible.
“I was talking to John Barnes at Spurs last Sunday and the pitch there in April was better than anything we ever played on at the start of any season.”
Keegan, now 62, retired from playing almost 30 years ago at the age of 33 and said: “It’s a different world nowadays, with top class groundsmen and proper investment in the surfaces.
“The better the pitch, the better the chance the players have of being able to show their skills.
“It’s a great time to be playing football – not just for the monetary reward but also for the surfaces they get to play on.”
For Keegan and the stars of the 1970s, the quality of the pitches was in many cases abysmal, with Derby County’s notorious Baseball Ground regularly mud-bound.
“We just had to play on whatever was put in front of us,” he said. “Pre-season and early season it was fine but then we’d get the mud triangles with the only grass being on the wings.
“Having said that, some of my best games were in the mud!”
Keegan’s playing career saw him rattle up more than 300 goals in almost 900 appearances, while as manager of England, Newcastle, Fulham and Manchester City, he was in charge of another 500 top-class games until five years ago. He won a plethora of top honours, including the League title three times, the FA Cup, European Cup and four prestigious player of the year awards.
His career started when he was spotted by Scunthorpe United, playing for his works side Pegler in his native Doncaster.
The pitches were rough but Keegan said: “We were well prepared. My early football was in the street, playing off the kerbs on asphalt.
“I was lucky and never had to play with tin cans but regularly had only a tennis ball to use and that helped my skills incredibly.
“I’d recommend it for any ambitious kids nowadays. We’d spend hours playing against a wall.”
And that basic skills training tool has led to Keegan’s latest business, the Sokka interactive wall.
His project is touring schools to get kids involved in the game without the need for large spaces.
It improves skills by the simple exercise of kicking a ball against targets illuminated on the wall against an opponent, with scores being registered digitally.
So, is this the end of Keegan in the pro game? Probably.
“I don’t miss it at all,” he admitted. “There’s more to life than professional football.”
This feature appeared in Turf Pro magazine