Man-marker becomes a marked man

The once-maligned Martin Keown's England recall owes much to the change of regime at Arsenal, he tells Glenn Moore
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In the dark days at Highbury, when the only light illuminating the dreary fare was that glinting off the trophies, Martin Keown was, by his own admission, "chief spoiler". Now he is proud to regard himself as a "footballer".

His flowering, from a man-marker associated with the most destructive elements of George Graham's Arsenal, to the ball-playing defender of Arsene Wenger's Gunners, has also led to an England recall. Today, nearly four years after winning his 11th cap against Germany in Detroit, the 30-year- old is likely to be playing for England against Mexico at Wembley.

"I never gave up hope of coming back," Keown said at England's Bisham Abbey training camp yesterday, "but the longer it goes, the more you begin to wonder."

Keown's return follows two excellent seasons. He was Arsenal's player of the year last season and has been a key figure in this season's unexpected championship challenge. As with Tony Adams, the change in regime at Highbury has allowed him to create as well as destroy.

Under Graham, Keown became noted as a man-marker, excelling in Europe where he suffocated a series of opponents. The reputation has stuck, yet he points out: "I've not man-marked anyone for 18 months - the last person was Matt Le Tissier. I don't see myself as purely a man-to-man marker but under George [Graham] I did mark people, especially in Europe, and became pigeon-holed.

"When you start off everyone wants to be a centre-forward but some of us end up having to defend. Then you have to man-mark as well. You can get satisfaction out of it. The better the player the bigger the challenge and it is very satisfying to shut quality players out of the game. It is still more enjoyable to play football."

Keown came through the ranks at Arsenal, being one of the graduates of the famed youth system which produced Adams, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson, David Rocastle, Niall Quinn and Martin Hayes. A contract dispute led him to move to Aston Villa where he came under the wing of Graham Taylor. "When I was at Villa the emphasis was to play balls into the channels. I was very young then and, having learned to play that way at a young age, I carried it through."

Graham brought him back to Arsenal - after an interlude at Everton - in February 1993. The pounds 2m fee was 20 times the price he had sold him for seven years earlier. By now he was an England international, Taylor having him capped him in the run-up to the 1992 European Championships. Terry Venables never selected him in an England squad and Keown admits: "It's nice to be picked by another manager."

He attributes his call-up by Glenn Hoddle to a variety of factors. "We play three at the back at club level and that is the way England have played up to now; of late I've been encouraged to go forward and be involved; I've also tried to improve my passing, which had been a criticism of my game. I don't feel bringing me in is a backward step. I am 30, there are players who are quite a bit older than me. I am moving with the times, I am improving all the time and there is room for more."

"He has come on as a player," Hoddle said. "He is much more comfortable on the ball. Like Tony Adams it shows players can change if they are encouraged to pass."

"In my younger days I was intent on winning the ball and stopping people playing," Keown adds. "I was forgetting that to finish the routine you then need to pass the ball to one of your own players. Now, once I win possession, I am far more relaxed. It comes from the environment we have at the club.

"Under George the emphasis was to win the ball back, press as a team, deny the opposition space and have lots of offsides. You have probably been at Highbury many times when you did not enjoy it but wrote `it was an efficient and effective performance from Arsenal and a 1-0 win'. Now we are playing football with the emphasis on attack.

"We perhaps give away more at the back but it is certainly far more enjoyable for the players. Whether we will win as much remains to be seen."

This is a key point. Graham, when the style of his teams is criticised, has only to point to the trophy cabinet. Keown himself adds: "The players were not bored; no one is bored with winning. Utopia is to play attractive football and win."

Even so, the old way may not be the winning way now. Keown says: "The game has evolved, become more open."

Under Bruce Rioch and Wenger, Arsenal have caught up with the new mood. "Bruce began by introducing the passing game. When we were playing small games in training the emphasis was to `pass the ball, pass the ball'. We would work on keeping the ball. With George we worked on winning it back.

"Under George we played more of a spoiling game and I was chief spoiler. It is far more enjoyable now. I played in midfield for Bruce and at no time was I asked to mark or defend, I was purely a midfield player. I played in midfield for six months and that really helped my passing. When I went back to central defence it made it much easier.

"Everyone was surprised when Bruce left: we had qualified for Europe and he was doing OK. But now Mr Wenger's here there is a feeling at the club that something special is going to happen next year. He is so professional, the attention to detail in things like diet and training is incredible."

It would appear that Keown's ability to expand his game proves you can teach an old dog new tricks. Or is it that, like Adams, the ability was always there, but it was restrained under Taylor and Graham's [often highly successful] vision of a winning style?

Does he ever wonder how good a player he could have been had he been encouraged to express himself earlier?

"It is hard to say," he replies, "but it must be great for the young players coming into the team now, being asked to play rather than kick it into Row Z. There are times when you still have to do that but it is much more enjoyable and satisfying to play your way out of trouble."

A philosophy straight out of the Glenn Hoddle playbook. We could find out this afternoon how far Keown can apply it in deed as well as thought.