It was, in its way, Arsenal's own golden generation, and is likely to be the last localised group the club ever produces with such success, given the nature of modern recruiting from all over the world. Martin Keown, the one survivor in the first-team squad all these years later, can still name most of the team that did battle together in the South-East Counties' League, then the Football Combination, before winning, well, not their Spurs, but their Gun flashes: "There was me and Tony Adams at centre-half, Gus Caesar right-back and Michael Thomas left-back, David Rocastle and Martin Hayes in midfield, plus Niall Quinn and Paul Merson, who was still a schoolboy."
The boys of '66, they might even have been called, since most were born in that rarest of years for English football. These days they are scattered to the winds - Rocastle, tragically, not even of this earth - yet Keown, the warrior-defender, is still going strong at 37.
"Martin was never part of the gang," Adams has said, "but it paid off for him, because he was very dedicated and he made it, whereas some of the gang did not." Judging by the tales of all-nighters and three-day benders that decorate their respective life stories, the wonder is that Adams and Quinn lasted even half as long as they did. Keown eschewed the drinking culture prevalent at Highbury, and that strength of character explains why his name will be somewhere on the teamsheet at Old Trafford today.
Perhaps a stubborn streak came into it too; the sort of attitude that, according to Adams "led to a fight in training once a week" and then caused him to leave the club shortly before his 20th birthday, having just broken into the first team. Quinn, knowing which side his bread was buttered, settled for a new contract at the munificent rate of an extra £7 per week, but Keown was not having that and, 19 or not, was prepared to make his case forcibly in the manager's office.
"It was a difficult time for the club," he recalled in more emollient mood on Friday. "Don Howe had just resigned, George [Graham] had arrived and a lot of players were out of contract. I wasn't happy and kind of stormed out. But the rest signed up, so maybe I helped them."
A £200,000 transfer to Aston Villa was quickly arranged, which he regretted long before they were relegated that season. But, characteristically, he knuckled down under one of his favourite managers, Graham Taylor, chalking it up as a "growing-up experience", and did the same after moving on to Everton a couple of years later. There he flourished under Howard Kendall and was rewarded - belatedly, he felt - with the first of 43 England caps and a place at the 1992 European Championship finals.
Numerous encounters for both clubs against Arsenal offered opportunities to score a point or three verbally as well as on the pitch, but these were resisted: "I was offered a lot of money to rubbish the club but refused, partly because I felt that one day I might go back." And so it turned out, as early as 1993, when Graham had to pay Everton £2m, 10 times as much as Arsenal had received for him seven years earlier.
Ten years on, Keown is still there, having won two Doubles - which could easily have become three last season - as well as going to two World Cups without kicking a ball. As recently as this summer he was still in Sven Goran Eriksson's thoughts, and squad, and many feel he should have started more than one match for Arsenal this season.
"I played at Manchester City three weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but that seems a long time ago. To be honest, I expected not to play the other night [against Internazionale]. I got injured during the pre-season and that opened the door for other people, which to be fair is something I've benefited from in the past." So he sat in the Highbury dug-out, torn between sympathy for Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré and admiration for Inter.
"I didn't think the defence did an awful lot wrong," was his generous assessment. "It was one of those nights. I was one who witnessed the last time something like that happened, when Spartak Moscow came [in 1982, winning 5-2]. When two big heavyweights meet, that sort of thing can happen. Maybe it'll be a wake-up call for us." And so to Old Trafford and another heavyweight championship this afternoon.
Whether or not Campbell decides to play following his recent bereavement, and well as Touré has done in his first extended run, Keown deserves a chance to renew hostilities with Ruud van Nistelrooy (last December's cost him a £5,000 fine). But at 37 and on a one-year contract, even taking each game as it comes counts as forward planning these days: "I don't really look beyond each day. I have to look at it intelligently - the gaffer's planning for the future."
Experience and intelligence mark him out as coaching or management material, though in the current climate of bookmakers' sacking lists, it is easy to see why a quieter life would appeal to any sensible old pro who has looked after his money. "I don't really know. The nearer it comes, the more I'm undecided. If I'm free of pain and injury, I don't expect this to be my last season, but I'm going to take a breath and think carefully. You don't know if the game still wants you, or if you still want the game. And I might be kidding myself that I could still do a bit lower down [the divisions], give something back. People don't realise it's the long coach rides and overnight stays, among other things, that finish you in the end. And if I was to go into coaching or management, I'd want to do it with the same commitment as playing."
That would be one committed manager, as Van Nistelrooy and company might be reminded this afternoon.Reuse content