Keown the rock in a harder place

Keegan's steely-eyed defender, playing the best football of his career, intends to prove it against old enemy
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The Independent Online

In a football world seemingly teeming with teenage prodigies all asserting their international qualities, and in which the approach of 30 is associated with decrepitude, it is somehow reassuring to study the sheer energy contained within the robust frame of Martin Keown. Older even than his central defensive partner Tony Adams, the Arsenal and England man has joined a select group containing Tina Turner, Adam Faith and Helen Mirren. Advancing years do not so much weary them as enhance their appearance and ability.

In a football world seemingly teeming with teenage prodigies all asserting their international qualities, and in which the approach of 30 is associated with decrepitude, it is somehow reassuring to study the sheer energy contained within the robust frame of Martin Keown. Older even than his central defensive partner Tony Adams, the Arsenal and England man has joined a select group containing Tina Turner, Adam Faith and Helen Mirren. Advancing years do not so much weary them as enhance their appearance and ability.

The question of Keown's age - he was 34 in July - had been provoked by his manager Arsÿne Wenger's concern about how much you can actually demand of a player. "Sometimes I have to make them miss a game," Wenger had said of Keown and Adams. "If they were to play every match in a successful season, and for England as well, that would mean them playing 65 games and that's not possible. The club has to make a sacrifice."

Adams, of course, does not actually suffer from that problem these days. His injury-prone body is nature's own version of a vehicle speedlimiter. Not so, Keown. In nine out of the last 15 seasons, he has played more than 30 League games alone. "If I was a young player now, they'd probably be resting me, saying I'm playing too many games," he says, a faintly embarrassed smile illuminating those rough, angular features. "No, I enjoy playing. I'm one of those players who benefit from regular football. I'd prefer to be in the groove of playing matches. But it's very demanding, all the travelling on top of the playing."

Hence, England's double-header with Germany at Wembley on Saturday and Finland four days later in Helsinki is not exactly relished by the steely-eyed character, who was born and still lives in Oxford with his wife and two sons. "Back to back is tough, but we just have to do it. The Premiership is so high class these days that these two games shouldn't be any different. Internationals drain you a little more emotionally, but we've got enough about us to be able to cope."

He adds: "Ever since the Champions' League started, we've had very big games every few days. I would expect to be in top condition, coming out of games against Lazio and Man Utd."

When Keown says that he gets bored with people (i.e. the media) suggesting that he is playing his best football ever, it is uttered in genuine modesty, not disrespectfully. Certainly, since turning 30 he has emerged as a player possessing the elusive amalgam of pace and power. Mentally, he also appears at peace with himself after an initial period on his return to Arsenal when he could never be certain of a place in the side.

George Graham, who had sold Keown as a 19-year-old to Aston Villa, subsequently bought him back from Everton for £2m. It was not immediately a conspicuous success. In the dressing-room culture, Keown was not part of the Adams drinking fraternity (he does drink wine, but only at Christmas and during the close season) and was regarded as somewhat aloof.

Neither did he endear himself to the North Bank faithful, whose preference was for Adams and Steve Bould. By the time Bruce Rioch became manager, Keown also hadcompetition from yet another defender, Andy Linighan.

However, he prospered under Rioch, becoming captain in Adams' absence and developing into a crowd favourite. He also became the players' PFA representative and came to be regarded as a responsible and articulate post-match speaker. The advent of Wenger further advanced his career, the Frenchman regarding Keown and Adams as the most secure defensive unit since Chubb designed his safe. The former has encouraged recognition asone of the most diligent man-markers in the English game, as Trevor Brooking presumably had in mind when he once unfortunately opined on Match of the Day: "Martin Keown's up everyone's backside".

Both Arsenal and England have benefited from that intuitive understanding, which first developed when Keown and Adams joined the club as 14-year-old trainees in 1982. "For the first three years we were very much a partnership. At that point, there was only room for one of us to go into the first team, and it then became a rivalry." Adams became Arsenal captain.

Keown honed his talents at Villa and Goodison, before returning to Highbury in February 1993. "During the last three or four years, I have been able to read Tony's game so well," says Keown. "He's an outstanding player and there's a special link there because our partnership goes back so far."

Candour about one's own, and a team's, deficiencies in football is such a rare phenomenon that it is apt to make headlines. Keown achieved that unwittingly, after Euro 2000, in which he was one of the few England defenders to emerge with reputation intact. In his first-person, "ghosted" column for a broadsheet newspaper, the word "inept" crept in to his description of England's tactics. "It's a word I have never, ever used about the team. I would not have gone that far," he says. "I expressed my apologies to the boss."

Keown adds: "These days, you have to have an opinion, otherwise it looks like you've got nothing to say, when we've actually got plenty to say. But there are times to say things, and perhaps the timing was unfortunate." In fact, ineptitude just about summed up the manner of England's defeats at the hands of Romania and Portugal. Victory over Germany may have bought national rejoicing 34 years after England's last triumph in competition over that particular enemy, but it was the most slender of victories by one poor side over another.

Both nations have apparently undergone a renaissance since, Germany defeating Spain (in a friendly) and Greece in their first World Cup qualifier, England far from outclassed by France at the Stade de France. "The game against France gave everybody a great lift," Keown said. "It was a very encouraging performance. The Germans, hopefully, will have looked at the video."

So what has made the difference? Keown doesn't intend to tumble into that trap again, although the inference is clear. "That's really for the manager," he says. "It's about tactics. The manager made changes and we played a different system completely. It showed that we learnt from the championship and it's important that we did. We seemed to be able to retain the ball and find better possession. We looked like a football team."

He adds: "They [the coaching staff] had a good look at the French and played a system to counteract that. I'm sure we'll do the same against the Germans. That was only one match, but we showed that things are getting better."

The victory over Germany at Charleroi also succeeded in exorcising many phantoms where England's principal World Cup qualification rivals are concerned. "Although we didn't play especially well, it will help that we've got that one out of the way. That [failure to beat the Germans] went on for far too long. It was quite incredible and you began to wonder if it would ever happen, particularly when they knocked us out of major competitions against the odds in two semi-finals. That's out of the way now, and we can just get on with the job. But the Germans are very competitive and need to be respected. We know it's going to be very tough."

Whether Keown contributes to the national cause in the Japan-South Korea finals at the age of nearly 36 must be debatable. However, he insists: "You just go from game to game, day to day. If mentally you're focused and ready, you hope the body will come with you. Perhaps I'm being optimistic in thinking that I will still be around for the next World Cup, but while I'm still playing at the top of my game, and fit, I'm hoping to be in the team."

If recent progress is anything to go by, he should have just about attained his maximum powers by then.

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