Keown's England call-up rewards strong character

Arsenal's veteran defender reaches fresh peaks following see-saw international career
Click to follow
The Independent Football

A sense of timing worthy of one of his smoothest tackles, Martin Keown will celebrate a League and Cup double and a call-up to the England squad by playing his 400th match for Arsenal against Everton tomorrow. Not a bad week, all in all, at an age – two months short of 36 – when most players are considering whether they can possibly squeeze another game out of ageing limbs.

Arsenal defenders, of course, are not subject to the same natural laws as other footballers. It was a story in itself when the club's manager, Arsène Wenger, first did the unthinkable and fielded a team without Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Keown or Nigel Winterburn. Had Keown not moved elsewhere for seven years, he would now be rivalling his exact contemporary Adams – 1966 was a good year for English football, in many different ways – in their number of games for the club. Remarkably, despite that long absence from Highbury, he will still be entitled to a testimonial next February from his second spell there.

Letting the 6ft 1in defender move to Aston Villa in 1986, a year after his League debut as a 19-year-old, proved an expensive mistake. The fee received was a modest £200,000 and seven years on, by which time he was at Everton and a full international, it cost 10 times as much to get him back. On a matter of principle, the new Arsenal manager, George Graham, turned down Keown's request for a pay increase, reported to have been £50 per week, on the basis that he not seen enough of him to justify a rise.

The player dug in with characteristic firmness – or stubbornness – and said that he would move on, which he regretted almost immediately. Too late. Three seasons at Villa Park, then three and a half at Goodison followed (Arsenal winning two championships in the meantime) before player and manager swallowed their pride and effected a £2m reconciliation in February 1993.

There was a certain irony in the fact that, having paid that much for an England international defender, Graham found him ignored by his country for four years. Having won a first cap the previous year, and played throughout England's ill-fated European Championship campaign in Sweden, Keown was passed over by Terry Venables and not summoned again until March 1997, by Glenn Hoddle. In 1998 he went to the World Cup without getting a game, but was more prominent at Euro 2000 under Kevin Keegan, turning in a notable performance in a physical confrontation with Germany.

Captain of England against Finland in the away match immediately after Keegan's resignation, he has subsequently suffered sporadic periods of injury and seemed to have been written out of this summer's script when initially left out of the squad to play Paraguay last month. Hamstring strains to Sol Campbell and Ugo Ehiogu in Arsenal's FA Cup semi-final with Middlesbrough at Old Trafford meant a late call-up, however, and another excellent performance on the same ground against Manchester United on Wednesday confirmed his place.

After that game, he said: "I was very unfortunate in breaking my leg this season, but I think I've done well to come back from that. Maybe I'm due some luck."

The England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, insisted yesterday that he had admired Keown for many years "standing there blocking shots and cancelling out the centre-forward, always doing a good job – and 10 years on there's no difference. He can take out an opponent if you need that during a game or during a tournament. I don't mean by kicking him, but by marking him out of a game. You need players like that in your squad."