'What on earth is going on at St. James's Park?'
The closing line of a Sky Sports News presenter as they went to a break just before 7:30pm tonight. It's the question anyone with half an eye on football will be asking as well. Forget Manchester City hijacking Chelsea's bid and subsequent pinching (for the meagre price of £32m) of Brazilian 'galactico' forward Robinho from Real Madrid less than 24 hours ago. Ignore Manchester United's bully boy acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov for a fee of similar weight.
It emerged, around 2pm today, that something very strange was developing on in the North East. After Saturday's result - a humbling 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, in which convicted criminal Joey Barton was roundly supported by Kevin Keegan against condemnation by pretty much everyone in football (for being a prick, mainly) - and confusion over who has actually been signing and selling players for Newcastle, 'King' Kevin Keegan and Mike Ashley have been in discussions most of today and yesterday. About what these discussion were was not clear, hence the BBC report earlier today touting that the pair were in talks over transfer policy. However, as interest grew and speculation mounted, BBC's point of view - and Sky Sports News's, according to forums online today - moved to suggest that Keegan's future as Newcastle manager was in doubt. It seemed suddenly that issues arising from the past two days' meetings were more than problematic; enough for a manager to walk out less than a year into a job at a club he loves and at which he is beloved and held in the highest of esteem by fans.
Suddenly, the media frenzy peaked, and 'sources confirming' stories saw BBC, Sky and numerous other news outlets reporting, as fact, that Kevin Keegan had left Newcastle. Eyebrows, if they had been raised, positively receded beyond hairlines. What could possibly force Keegan into such a position that he had no choice but to leave? Could Mike Ashley - laddish chairman of Newcastle pictured downing a pint during Newcastle's defeat at the Emirates - really be stupid and strong-minded enough to force his will onto a man whose dismissal would turn Geordie fans against him to a man?
Indeed, the long-suffering Geordies - who have put up with nine managers in just over a decade, and declare themselves a top four club every time they're asked, despite not having finished anywhere near for at least three seasons - gathered immediately outside the ground to protest at this news. Ashley, if he was aware of this, would surely have realised through the haze that it wouldn't only be Keegan gone if the fans turned against him. The football world scratched their heads in bemusement: why had Kevin Keegan been sacked?
Yet the obituaries had barely been inked - although BBC ran (and still are running) 'Keegan's coaching career in photos' - and the fans' pitchforks raised in anger than Newcastle finally produced a statement: Keegan had not, in actual fact, been sacked. That was around two hours ago; little has changed, except BBC rewriting its story to say Keegan's future was unclear.
And it still is; KK might not have been sacked, but that does that mean he hasn't walked? Who is making decisions at Newcastle? Why was Milner sold? Who sanctioned the signings of Ignacio Gonzalez and Xisco? Has Dennis Wise's position got anything to do with it? Questions that need answering for Kevin Keegan, never mind the fans and media.
But what concerns [me] most at this point in time, though, is the media's handling of it. Keegan was purported to have told those around him he was leaving, or had been sacked. That is information, from unofficial sources. It is not a press conference or statement. Phrases like 'sources close to' and 'we understand' are not enough to base factual journalism on.
However, it is the nature of today's media, where news is instant and global, reaction is real-time, and fans are angry mobs, that neccesitates this need for knowledge - although not neccessarily facts, which seem of secondary importance. Audiences don't just consume, they participate in the news, indeed constitute a substantial amount of detail in internet reporting with citizen journalism, blogging, eye-witness texts and videos. They expect in return a news supply which conforms to a similar time-frame. But facts aren't quite like that: just look at the Foster story where, it has now transpired a week after taking place, father and husband Christopher Foster murdered his family, before setting fire to his million-pound mansion and committing suicide.
It's true that the sporting arena is one of extraordinary passion, under a constant spotlight, with football dominating all year round. It requires an equal in its reporting. But it seems that following yesterday evening's incredible events, a one-off day of madness in football news, in a race to confirm and 'break' a sensational story today in that same sport, the truth may have got left behind.