Football: Partners in prime for club and country

Nick Callow finds the rearguard Gunners ready to man England's defences
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The Independent Online
MARTIN KEOWN and Tony Adams have never played together as central defenders for England, but it is not impossible that the resolute Arsenal pair will do just that both against Switzerland this week and in the World Cup finals.

It is slightly harder to picture them as schoolboys when they first played together. Keown, the rock, and Adams, the colossus, are now the most identifiable factors behind Arsenal's challenge for the League and FA Cup double. They are willing to defend their country too.

Keown passionately adds the names of almost the entire Highbury squad when discussing the reasons for Arsenal's present run. It is perhaps only when looking from the outside that it seems so obvious just how vital the partnership has become. Keown recalled: "We were 12 or 13 and I was coming down from Oxford. There were different sessions for the London boys, but when we all came together, I noticed Tony straight away. He was a foot taller and a lot louder than the others. I know his strengths better than anybody and he knows my game inside out. Yes, I enjoy playing with him, and I would also say the same of Steve Bould. I'm sure Tony agrees.

"We remain as determined to win as ever. I have always been very determined, and that can only be good for the club and, hopefully, England. We are different players, with different strengths but we always know we can rely on each other. When Dennis [Bergkamp] was sent off against West Ham on Tuesday, Tony turned to me and said, `No problem, we've lost a player up front, but we are still the same at the back. We can win this.' From then on it was like an adventure."

Keown turned professional in February 1984, three days after Adams. But it was Keown who made the most decisive break-through and he had formed a strong partnership with David O'Leary by the summer of 1986. George Graham became manager soon after and Arsenal began their best run since they dominated football in the Thirties - without the proud, teenaged Keown. It could be said he made life easier for Tony at the beginning of his career by leaving when he did. It was not clear that Adams would be a regular Arsenal player at that stage because Keown had played so many games. He possibly helped O'Leary too because he got a new three- year contract the week after Keown left for Aston Villa.

Keown and Graham parted company on a well documented point of principle - pounds 50-a-week. With neither side willing to budge, and Aston Villa offering to double his earnings, Keown went to the Midlands. Villa were genuine title aspirants but, in an all too familiar fashion, failed to progress and were relegated. It was not an easy time for a young man used to the family atmosphere of Highbury.

"When you play for Arsenal you are protected in everything you do," Keown explained. "I didn't realise the extent of that until I left. I entered the real world for the first time when I joined Villa, where they did not have time to put their arms around a 1 9-year-old new boy."

Keown considered joining the mass Villa exodus which followed relegation but remained to help the club win back their top-flight status at the first attempt. But they struggled again back in the First Division, and a mentally tougher Keown moved to Everton, where he earned his first England caps. Then came the time for Graham to backtrack. Having sold Keown for a tribunal-set pounds 125,000 in 1986, he paid pounds 2m to bring him back to Arsenal in 1993.

Graham's successor, Bruce Rioch, used Keown largely as a man-marking midfielder and he credits that for much of his composure on the ball, even though he knew it was not his best position. Arsene Wenger has helped take him to a new playing level and a permanent return to the heart of defence has resulted in an England recall and an unprecedented level of devotion from the Arsenal fans. It was with the help of that support that he was able to come through the four months which followed the broken shoulder he sustained playing for England against Brazil last summer. "I feel fresh now and I think Tony feels the same as we have both missed a lot of the season," Keown said. "Not everybody is going to like you, but I have the confidence from being selected for Arsenal and England consistently. I feel comfortable with my football. I have always been able to defend, but I realised that to become a really top player I would have to do more with the ball when I was in possession."

Well, Keown is in possession now, for club and possibly country, and he seems determined not to give the ball away.