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Vic Keeble : Buying an injured player that worked

John Simkin

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In the 1956-57 season West Ham finished in 8th place in the Second Division. The club had been trying to get promotion since getting relegated from the First Division in 1932. The problem was that the club did not get enough goals. That season they only scored 59 goals in 42 games. Ted Fenton had one promising striker in John Dick but he could not afford to buy a top class striker to go with him. For example, that season, Albert Quixall, was sold to Manchester United for £45,000. This sum was clearly out of Fenton's reach. He decided to take a gamble and buy a centre-forward who was suffering from a serious reoccurring injury. Fenton's choice was Vic Keeble, a player he managed at Colchester United. He had scored 23 goals in 46 games for Colchester United before Fenton sold him to Newcastle United for £15,000 in February 1952.

Keeble was only 22 years old and was bought as the eventual replacement for the great Jackie Milburn. However, Milburn remained in good form and he did not become a regular member of the team until the 1954-55 season when Milburn moved to outside-right and Keeble was given the number 9 shirt. Keeble was a magnificent header of the ball. A journalist once commented that Keeble "would even take a penalty with his head." Keeble scored 15 goals in 28 league and cup games in the 1954-55 season. However, his flick-ons, made plenty of chances for his fellow forwards. This included goals for Bobby Mitchell (23), Jackie Milburn (21), Len White (16) and George Hannah (13). Newcastle United also won the FA Cup in 1955. Keeble, who scored five goals in the earlier rounds, played an important role in this success.

Keeble was in great form in the 1954-55 season and ended up top scorer with 29 goals in 36 league and cup games. He developed a very good relationship with Milburn. He later recalled: "My partnership with Jackie was great. I'd nod them on and he could really move off the mark. Sides all look for balance and that is why we complemented each other. Jackie was a prolific striker, not great in the air, but had two terrific feet. Pace is everything and that made him very dangerous. He could really thump a ball. Even from 30 yards, the ball would go in like a rocket. Jackie would burst the ball today!" Milburn also praised Keeble: "Most players prefer to head either to the right or the left but Keeble could do it either way with equal effect. He scored so many goals with his nut that I swear he had studs in his forehead."

A serious injury meant that Keeble lost his place to Len White in the 1955-56 season. This meant he scored only 4 goals in 14 games that season. He remain good in the air but Keeble got a tough time from the fans and when he did play they chanted "Feeble Keeble the legless wonder."

In the 1956-57 season Keeble was playing in the reserves. Ted Fenton telephoned Keeble and said: "I'm coming up Saturday, I fancy you Vic, I could well put in a bid for you. I'll take a look at you, see how you do." Keeble scored two goals in the first 45 minutes and at half-time Fenton knocked on the window of the dressing-room and said: "Vic, don't play too well in the second-half, they won't let you go." After the game Fenton bought Keeble for £10,000.

West Ham's full-back, John Bond, later pointed out: "We got something like nine points in 11 games in 1957-58, and then Ted Fenton bought Vic Keeble from Newcastle because he thought he could be good in the air, which he was. But what he didn't recognise was what a good target man Vic was. We could play balls from defence into Vic Keeble and he would hold them in to himself or knock them off. He brought Jackie Dick into the play a lot more... and made more use of the wingers in terms of crosses. And from there we lost three of the next 31 games."

As Keeble himself explained: "I partnered John Dick and we clicked instantly, scoring 40 goals between us. I was really enjoying my football and grabbed a hat-trick in a 5-0 win against West Ham, two in 6-1 wins over Lincoln and Bristol Rovers, and further braces in a 6-2 victory over Swansea and 8-0 thumping of Rotherham United."

By the end of the season Keeble had scored 23 goals in 32 league and cup games. Keeble's brilliant play was one of the main factors in West Ham United winning the Second Division title that year. They had been promoted to the First Division after a period of 26 years in the second tier. Malcolm Pyke, a West Ham teammate, commented: "Jack Dick was a great goalscorer, but when Vic Keeble came he turned us around - it was his goals that got us up."

Some critics questioned whether Keeble and Dick would be able to score goals in the First Division. West Ham finished in 6th place that season. John Dick was top scorer with 27 goals but Keeble also did well with 20 in 32. However, Keeble was still having trouble with his back and in January 1960 decided that he would have to retire from professional football. He was only 29 years old. He had the amazing record of scoring 49 goals in 80 games for West Ham. He was Fenton's most important signing. He had bought an injured player and it worked. The question is: Which one of Curbishley's injured buys will turn into his "Vic Keeble"?


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