Every Friday, I sit down, rattle through my notes and ponder which Newcastle United player to look back on this week. It can be a tricky business, but not this week. Following the sad news of the passing of former Toon forward Vic Keeble, there could be only one candidate this week. When people look back on the history of Newcastle United and West Ham, Keeble rarely gets close to top billing, but his goals – and the importance of those goals – suggest that his name ought to live long in the memory.
Keeble was born in Colchester in 1930, and it was with the Essex-club that he first signed amateur forms as a 17-year-old. During his early days at Colchester Royal Grammar School, Keeble had been a promising rugby player, and he suspected that his future may lie in the contact team sport as a youngster. It soon became clear that the teenager excelled in a couple of sports though, and his love affair with football began at King George V Boys Club in Colchester.
He spent time at Arsenal as a junior, as well as turning out for Colchester Casuals, before eventually joining Colchester United in 1947. Keeble might only have been 17, but physically, he was well-capable of playing against men. He proved that on his debut by bagging a 16 minute hat-trick for the U’s against Bedford. At that time, Colchester were playing in the Southern League, a competitive non-league level.
Keeble joined a very talented non-league frontline, featuring club legends like Bobby Curry and Arthur Turner. The 1948-49 season was his first with Colchester, and he ended the campaign with 9 goals in 15 games. The following season, he was Colchester’s leading scorer, with 43 league goals and 46 goals in all competitions. The U’s finished second that season, which was their last in the Southern League, as the club were elected as members of the Football League, which was expanding from 88 to 92 teams.
Now into his 20’s, Keeble missed much of the 1950-51 season through injury, but was Colchester’s top scorer once more in the Third Division South in 1951-52. That was his last season for the club, as Newcastle United forked out £15,000 to bring him to St. James’ Park. It was an extraordinary amount of money for an unproven third tier footballer, and Newcastle were taking a real punt on the youngster.
In his first season, Keeble bobbed in and out of the first team, facing fierce competition for a starting berth from the likes of George Robledo and Jack Milburn. Robledo left the club in 1953 though, and Keeble’s impressive form soon saw Milburn moved to inside-forward. It was then that he really began to flourish, and he had two outstanding seasons in 1954-55 and 1955-56.
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The 1954-55 campaign ended in FA Cup glory for Newcastle United, their third triumph in the illustrious competition in only five years. Keeble played a huge part, scoring five goals en-route to the final, but was unable to get on the scoresheet at Wembley as Newcastle overcame Manchester City by three goals to one. The following season brought less collective glory for the Geordies, but it was a magnificent campaign for their centre-forward from Essex. He scored 29 goals, only four fewer than the First Division’s top scorer Nat Lofthouse.
In 1957, Keeble left Newcastle for West Ham for a fee of £10,000, having scored 56 goals in 104 games for the Magpies. Ted Fenton was the West Ham manager at that time, having taken the reins at Upton Park following four years at Colchester United. So he was a man who knew Keeble and his talents well, having originally brought him to Layer Road as a 17-year-old. Fenton wanted Keeble to spearhead the Hammers push for promotion from the Second Division, and in his first season at the Boleyn Ground, they did just that.
He made his debut against Doncaster Rovers, scoring West Ham’s only goal of the game in a 1-1. A couple of months later, he scored his first hat-trick in a 5-0 thrashing of Stoke City, and later that season in the return fixture against Doncaster, he bagged four goals in a staggering 8-0 win. Keeble ended the campaign with 24 goals in 33 games in all competitions. as West Ham lifted the Second Division title.
His First Division West Ham debut brought another goal, and he ended that season with 21 goals to his name, as the Hammers achieved a highly creditable sixth-placed finish, in their first season in the top flight in more than a quarter of a century. When he played his final game for West Ham against Leeds United in January 1960, Keeble had scored 51 goals in 84 games for the Hammers.
A back injury forced him into a premature retirement from football, aged only 30. Keeble scored a grand total of 172 goals in 269 games, a fantastic rate of scoring, made all the more exceptional by the fact that he wasn’t merely a goal scorer. In many respects, Keeble was a target man. He was big, strong and tremendous in the air. He loved to bring others into the game and was a tireless runner for his teammates. For such a team player to have had a better game to goal ratio than the likes of Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker, is quite extraordinary.
Unfortunately for Keeble, he played in an era at Newcastle that is so defined by the presence of Jackie Milburn, that his contribution are perhaps somewhat overlooked. It was arguably a similar story at West Ham, as his time with the club overlapped with John Dick’s finest form, the great Scottish inside-left who spent nine years at West Ham, scoring 153 goals in 326 games.
After being forced into hanging up his boots at 30, Keeble moved back to north Essex, where he rejoined Colchester United as a commercial manager in 1968. In between jobs, he wrote a sports column and sold advertising for a Colchester newspaper. Keeble eventually left Colchester for a similar role at Chelmsford City, where he spent eleven years. An unsung and unselfish star of the game, who brought out the best in others and scored prolifically himself, Keeble passed away on January 30th 2018, at age of 87. As well as being a tremendous footballer, all personal accounts suggest that he was also a terrific person.
The thoughts of everyone at Geordie Boot Boys are with Vic’s family at what is undoubtedly a very sad time.
Vic Keeble. June 25th 1930 – January 30th 2018.