UNDERSTANDABLY, most of the publicity surrounding the release of Kevin Keegan’s new autobiography, “My Life In Football”, has focused on the collapse of his relationship with Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley.

Given the depth of the crisis currently engulfing St James’ Park, it is no surprise that Keegan’s damning views on Ashley’s stewardship have gained considerable traction.

It would be a crying shame, though, if Keegan’s acrimonious departure in 2008 was to come to define his relationship with Newcastle, the club that did so much to shape him, both as a player and manager. By devoting so much attention to court tribunals, unknown South Americans and promises that were subsequently broken, we risk missing the very essence of what Keegan should be remembered for on Tyneside. In his previous spells at St James’, ‘King Kev’ was a totem for hope and unbridled excitement rather than bitterness and spite.

My favourite line in his autobiography has nothing to do with Ashley. Instead, it relates to that tumultuous day when Keegan stood on the steps of St James’ Park, outside the Milburn Stand, attempting to explain his decision to sell Andy Cole to a band of disgruntled supporters.

Why sell Cole, Keegan was asked, when he had scored 68 goals in 84 games? And why to Manchester United, a club who were regarded as bitter rivals?

“‘Hold on a minute’,” Keegan replied. “‘When I came here three years ago, this club’s biggest rivals were Southend United and Cambridge United, not Manchester United’.” That, in essence, was the miracle that Keegan made real.

By quirk of fate, Newcastle head to Old Trafford tomorrow, just two days after Keegan’s autobiography was officially released. Manchester United are in a state of turmoil themselves, but tomorrow’s game will still be anything but a meeting of equals. Today, the two clubs are poles apart, but Keegan’s return to centre stage reminds us of a time when Newcastle were competing for the biggest honours in the land. Reading his reminiscences, it is hard not to become misty-eyed at the memories.

Keegan is fascinating on that 1995-96 season when the Magpies came within touching distance of the title. There is wonder in his words, but also a clear sense of frustration at some of the stories that have built up over the years and gradually become established as fact.

For a start, he tries to clear up some of the interpretations that have been levelled at his now infamous ‘Love it’ interview on Sky Sports.

“The modern narrative now appears to be that my television outburst is the principal reason why the championship trophy ended up at Old Trafford,” writes Keegan. “The popular view seems to be that ‘mind games’ were the decisive factor. In reality, the truth is much more mundane, bearing in mind Manchester United were already down to their final match when I had my ‘love it’ moment. The title race was virtually over.”

Similarly, Keegan is keen to dispel suggestions that his Newcastle side had a porous defence. That unforgettable 4-3 defeat at Liverpool has come to define the era of the ‘Entertainers’, but to be fair to Keegan, he is right to point out that it was an aberration. Keegan’s side won plenty of games to nil.

“It seems to be lost in history that we conceded only two more goals that season than then eventual champions and that, until the final week, our goals-against columns were dead level,” he writes.

Did a couple of mid-season signings upset the applecart? David Batty and Faustino Asprilla arrived shortly before Newcastle’s form began to wobble, but Keegan rejects suggestions their addition to the squad had a negative effect.

“Batty was blamed in some quarters for the team’s deterioration simply because his arrival coincided with the slump in results,” he writes. “Yet it was unfair to pin that on him. He reminded me in style of Billy Bremner.

“(Asprilla) was another one whose strengths outweighed his weaknesses and, similar to Batty, I never understood why so many people outside Newcastle wanted him to carry the can for us throwing away the league. Asprilla should never have been made the scapegoat.”

So what was the explanation? Why did Newcastle sacrifice a 12-point lead and toss away their best chance of winning a league title for more than half-a-century? Simple, according to Keegan, experience.

“In the end, it came down to the fact that Alex Ferguson’s team had all their championship-winning know-how, whereas this situation was very new to us,” he says. “We were naïve in many ways. It was part of our charm, and one of the reasons why so many people liked watching Newcastle, but ultimately it counted against us. Too many players were struggling with the tension and we were coming away empty-handed from key fixtures.”

The turning of the tide was encapsulated by a remarkable home game against Manchester United – the only home defeat suffered by Newcastle all season – that witnessed one of the all-time great goalkeeping performances from Peter Schmeichel. “You could have chucked a handful of rice at Peter Schmeichel and the big Dane would have kept out every grain,” writes Keegan.

There are a host of captivating vignettes in the book, from Keegan’s memories of trying to hide a hungover Robbie Elliott during a training session at Maiden Castle to his disbelief at Douglas Hall’s attempts to gate-crash Juventus in order to set up a deal for Robert Baggio or Dennis Bergkamp, and the abiding impression is of an era so completely detached from the joyless reality that passes for life at Newcastle under Ashley.

Perhaps that is why Keegan’s reminiscences feel like the closing of a chapter that will never be rewritten. Football has changed markedly since the halcyon days of Cole and Ferdinand, Lee and Ginola, and Newcastle have regressed to the point where it is now all-but-impossible to imagine them competing with Manchester United as equals again.

It will certainly feel that way at Old Trafford tomorrow, and as Keegan concludes, the blame has to fall squarely on Ashley’s shoulders. Even when you try to ignore him, you can’t help but eventually return your focus to the man who has run Newcastle into the ground.

* “My Life In Football” is available from Pan MacMillan, priced £20.