Whatever unfolds under the Old Trafford floodlights tomorrow, whether it is Manchester United or Arsenal who claim a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, or whether their fifth-round tie lives on to be settled in north London, there is a history of confrontation between these two great clubs worthy of the Earp brothers and the Clanton gang.
And that is what has brought me, on a glorious spring-like morning, to a plush house at the end of a long private drive in the Oxfordshire countryside, the home of Martin Keown, whose screaming abdabs in the face of Ruud van Nistelrooy – after the Dutchman had missed a penalty, awarded against Keown, at the end of a Premiership game on 21 September 2003 – remain almost as evocative of the enmity between Arsenal and United as an aerodynamic slice of pizza just over a year later.
Watch Martin Keown's infamous taunting of Ruud van Nistelrooy
Such histrionics are hard to believe of the amiable fellow – the coach of the Oxford University football team, no less – making me a coffee. Keown sometimes finds them hard to believe of himself. "But I don't regret anything in my career," says the man who played a neat 333 times for Arsenal in two spells at the club, from 1984 to 1986, and more significantly, following spells at Aston Villa and Everton, from 1993 to 2004.
"You react as you see fit every day of your life," he continues, "and it's the same on the football field. We'd contained the game until [Patrick] Vieira was sent off with about 10 minutes to go, and then it was like the Alamo. We felt that Van Nistelrooy played a huge part in that sending-off, and we felt cheated. We felt further cheated because we didn't think it was a penalty. So, yes, my behaviour was not acceptable from an Arsenal point of view, but you can't take that back. I rang my wife after the game, and she's usually very supportive, but she said 'I think you've gone and done it now'. It was the first time she'd ever said anything like that."
Keown takes a slurp of coffee and watches with a kind of horrified amusement as two ramblers walk across his land, along a footpath he is hoping to have re-directed. "After that I tried to stay in hiding, to be honest. There was a lot of media attention I didn't want, but thankfully it didn't detract from the focus of the team. We didn't get beaten for the rest of that season and we won the League. The manager was very, very supportive towards me, as were all the players, and I think I rewarded them for that support, even though I picked up an injury and played only a handful of games."
Even before the penalty incident, he adds, there was already some bad blood between him and the United striker. "Yeah, I'd paid a few fines to the FA on behalf of Mr Van Nistelrooy. I remember once he stamped all over me, and I pushed him away. That cost me £10,000. He suggested I'd punched him in the face. Unfortunately, the camera didn't show him standing on my foot as I was pushing him away."
A pause, and a half-smile. "Listen, we played Man United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup not that long afterwards, and I sought him out to shake his hand. Everyone who knows me off the pitch, knows I used to turn into something quite different on the pitch. I was able to separate the two and wanted everyone else to do the same. Obviously, Van Nistelrooy is an outstanding player. He's still doing well at Real Madrid, and he's someone who plays the rules to the limit. At the time I didn't quite see it that way."
More than four years have passed since the penalty imbroglio, and Keown has retired, but memories stay sharp in football. "I don't feel particularly comfortable among United fans even now," he says. "Most of them are fine, but there have been a few ... situations. I don't think I'd go to Old Trafford to watch a game."
Instead, like most of us, he will be watching on telly tomorrow. How will he feel, I ask him, if in the build-up to the game the BBC use various striking images from previous Manchester United v Arsenal encounters, and one of them is his war dance around Van Nistelrooy?
"I hope they don't," he says, with a slight grimace. "I've been reluctant to talk about it in the past because I'd like people to concentrate on the football both teams are capable of playing. I think there'll be goals tomorrow, maybe 2-2, and I think it will be a great game. Just look at the players on view, although I think Arsenal will make changes. The FA Cup more than any other competition has affected their performances in Europe in recent years, because the FA Cup semi-final is around the time of the Champions League quarter-final. When Chelsea put us out of the Champions League [in 2004], we'd played United in the Cup the previous Saturday. It throws another big game into the mix. Which isn't to say they're not desperate to win tomorrow, but I think he might rest certain personnel."
He, of course, is Arsène Wenger, and it is a temptation even in the middle of a sentence to capitalise the "H", such is the reverence with which his former players speak of the Arsenal manager. Keown is no different. The 2003-04 season was his last as a player at Arsenal, but Wenger invited him to stay on, mentoring the younger players and being mentored in turn by Wenger and his assistant Boro Primorac.
"It gave me time to understand how they did things. I can't give you too much detail, but it's fantastic how they find ways to simulate what they're looking for on a Saturday, which is the key to good training. There's a lot of work done with mannequins, trying to give people pictures of what they'll be up against, and, let's put it this way, how they play together is no accident. It's astonishing how Adebayor in particular has improved, and it's all down to that environment."
In Sir Alex Ferguson, though, Wenger has an equally shrewd opposite number, with an even greater body of achievement. What does Keown, an astute character himself, think are the similarities and differences between them? "They both have incredible vision. Between them they've let go of a lot of great players over the years, telling them their time is over, then adjusting the team to make it even better. That's a hell of an operation. The differences might be mainly in their half-time team talks. With Ferguson you do hear about the hairdryer thing, whereas Wenger is remarkably calm."
At the same time as coaching Oxford University, Keown is studying for his Uefa A-licence coaching exams. Though he is coy about his ambitions, the 41-year-old doubtless entertains the odd fantasy which has him delivering the half-time team talk to Arsenal teams at Old Trafford. In which hypothetical case, how much will he try to emulate Wenger?
"Well, you can only be true to your own character. George Graham was very different, so was Graham Taylor and Don Howe, and even watching my university side I sometimes find it hard to keep calm. Wenger keeps all that in check. He knows that when managers rant and rave, it's not for the players, it's for themselves. I've tried to learn from that.
"Also, he doesn't tell you what you're not doing, he reminds you of how good you are. Imagine if I were to tell you now that the first half of this interview has been lousy, that the questions you're asking me are ridiculous, that from now on you really need to make your questions more imaginative. Right, now let's start the second half of the interview. That's taken a chunk out of you, hasn't it? You're thinking, 'he wants me to be good, but he's just told me I'm crap'. It's the same on a football pitch. Confidence can be a brittle thing. You have to show your players you believe in them even when they're not performing, and work very hard on what's going to help them, not what's going to help you."
Arsenal's success this season – five points clear at the top of the Premier League – has surprised many people, especially in the wake of Thierry Henry's departure, but not Keown. "I'd seen what's been happening there, although I am surprised by how much Adebayor has taken up Henry's mantle. Hleb as well, he was outstanding the other night against Blackburn. And there aren't two better full-backs in Europe than [Gaël] Clichy and [Bacary] Sagna. [William] Gallas is relishing the captaincy, too. That was a masterstroke from Wenger, throwing the armband to Gallas when people thought Gilberto was the natural captain."
And not a single Englishman among them, I venture. Does that disappoint a proud patriot who played 43 times for his country? "Not really, no. The best English players are very expensive, and Arsenal are not far away from competing for them now, but he's had so much success from the foreign players. Also, I've seen [Cesc] Fabregas from such a young age, he seems pretty much English. It was the same with Vieira. On his day off he would eat a full English breakfast at an English caff. He adopted those traits, and I'd like to think that being around English players was one of the reasons France won the World Cup in 1998. They took on board some of our qualities, that fighting spirit. Just as they helped us, I like to think we helped them."
Speaking of fighting spirit, another tenacious, former adversary of Keown's, Roy Keane, recently said that, as a United player, it was fixtures against Arsenal that psyched him up more than any other. Does Keown concur?
"No. I didn't need psyching up, because it's those games, first against second, that you're in football for. I would say that there was a period when United's game got overly physical, though. Around the time [Jose] Reyes came in, they tried to identify people they could maybe bully. I remember playing them in 2002 when we won the Double. I remember thinking that I'd never seen a Man United team that physical, and I honestly think they realised they couldn't match us, playing-wise.
"It's certainly been a hell of a rivalry over the years. In 1999 they dominated the whole of Europe, but we felt like their equals, and if Dennis Bergkamp had put that penalty away [in the FA Cup semi-final replay] they wouldn't have won the Treble, would they? Actually, I think it helped them in Europe that they had such strong competition with us in their own back garden." I file away the exciting theory that really it was Wenger who won the European Cup for Manchester United, and ask Keown whether he was pleased to see it happen?
A telling pause. "I think it underlined to us how good we were. They only won the League by a point, and we made it very difficult for them." I try again; was he pleased when they won it? "I was more stunned by the manner in which they won it. But of course, you have to hold your hand up and be respectful. It was an outstanding achievement."
Which of course is no kind of note on which to end this interview, so let me just throw a slice of pizza into the conversation. "Yeah, I was with the club then [in October 2004, when some argy-bargy in the Old Trafford tunnel ended with Sir Alex Ferguson copping a cheese-and-tomato thin-crust in the face] but I didn't travel with the team. You hear the stories, don't you?" Keown grins. "Whoever threw it had a very good technique, I can't say any more than that."
Martin Keown, who played 43 times between 1992 and 2002 for England, believes that Fabio Capello is the perfect choice as manager.
“You can tell that there's a real buzz around the England team even if they did look in the team photo as if they'd had all their Playstations stolen from them,” says the former Arsenal centre-half. “English players need to know their jobs, and there were times under Steve McClaren, against Croatia in particular when they played three at the back, when they didn't know what their roles were. Against Switzerland last week Capello had four at the back, with one in front, and made three blocks of substitutions. The players had been well schooled, you could see that. Some of them were asked to play two different roles within the same system - Rooney up front and on the wing, Bentley on the wing and in midfield - but you could see that no-one was looking round thinking 'where do I go now?'
“It wasn't a great performance by any means, but Capello seems to have got his message across quickly. They looked solid defensively, and now the handbrake needs to come off; they need to go and play, that's the next lesson. It might sound strange to talk about lessons but the England camp should be a place of learning.”
Under Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal camp certainly was. “He created that learning environment, and he changed our emphasis, from a team which used to concentrate on winning the ball back, to a team more concerned with what we were going to do with it when we had it. He taught us to switch, from being like an animal trying to get the ball back, to being soft and creative in possession. Sometimes you have to be both at the same time, when half of you is trying to hold off an opposing player. It's all about getting that balance, between aggression and calm, out of possession and in possession. (As coach of Oxford University) I'm trying to get my players to do that.”
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