I meet Martin Keown at the Oxford Union just a few hours after Arsenal’s drab, goalless draw against Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium. I wonder how long it will take for the uncompromising centre-half’s old club to dominate conversation.
The answer is straight away, as the former Gunner is keen to offer his two cents on Arsenal’s title credentials, perhaps relieved to be able to talk about the subject seriously for a change this season.
“It seemed like Arsenal [against Man United] were just managing their energy levels. You’ve got to go for it, commit more players forward. There’s no reason why Arsenal can’t win the title but when they’ve gone to Old Trafford, when they’ve gone to the Etihad, they’ve not played with a great deal of confidence. You’ve got to be arrogant, you’ve got to have it in your body language, and then it comes out in the manner of your play. And that’s the thing that worries me most – I just feel that they need to believe in themselves more.”
Gunners fans need no reminding that the last time Arsenal lifted any form of silverware was back in 2005 when they won the FA Cup in Cardiff.
Keown, on the other hand, played a key part in the most successful period in the club’s history. After joining as a youth player in 1980, he left the club in 1986 only to return 7 years later. The arrival of Arsène Wenger as manager in 1996 saw Keown become a multiple Premier League and FA Cup winner; indeed, his last season at the club was an historic one, as Arse- nal went through an entire league campaign unbeaten, earning the nickname ‘The Invincibles’.
So what is the root cause of Arsenal’s nine- year trophy drought? For Keown, it ultimately boils down to money. “We’ve got to go back a long way. You’ve got to talk it through those eight or nine years. You look at when Arsenal used to wrestle dominance away from Man Utd, and then Chelsea came in with a lot of money to spend. Money made a difference. Arsenal had to compete with that. With the expenditure on the new stadium, they weren’t able to invest in quality players who were the finished article. They had to go for a policy centred on youth. In a way, it’s been enough to keep Arsenal in the picture, to keep them in the Champions League, but we’re now waiting for the trophies to come.”
However, the former defender does see a brighter future ahead for the club, with patience ultimately being the key. “I think the Özil signing was a major move, a change of direction, a bit like the Bergkamp signing, both in monetary terms and the ability he brings to the table. But that’s just the start.
“We don’t want to be losing Arsène Wenger – we’ve seen what’s happened with Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United. It’s about building towards the future. We’re asking the Arsenal fans to be patient, maybe for another couple of years.”
By mentioning Arsenal’s northern rivals, Keown is of course referring to Manchester United’s disastrous start under new manager David Moyes. The Scot left Everton after ten years to take up the daunting challenge of becoming Ferguson’s successor, and the Merseyside club particularly interests Keown given that he played for them for four years. Though the Toffees have arguably improved since Roberto Martinez was brought in to replace Moyes in the summer, Keown insists that Moyes must earn some credit for the club’s rude health. “I think over ten years, he brought real stability to Everton. They were compact, difficult to beat. They then started to play with expression, with the full-backs starting to get forward. This has now been developed by Martinez where the wingers are attacking with much more freedom and imagination. Perhaps he needs that at Old Trafford. But you’ve got to say that the reason that Everton are so strong and solid at the back and the way that they play as a team is down to the previous manager. Ultimately it’s a combination of the two managers.”
With the World Cup in Brazil fast approaching, much has been made of whether England manager Roy Hodgson takes a gamble by selecting a squad which favours young, talented, yet ultimately inexperienced players – of which there are many in the Premier League – or whether he sticks to the experienced players who have competed in previous international tournaments, yet who have failed to deliver.
Keown insists that if England are to be successful in Brazil, equilibrium is crucial. “There’s a balancing act to be had. I think Roy will name an extended squad which will involve youth and experience. The likes of Ashley Cole will be gauged in training since he’s not playing much for Chelsea at the moment so he’s not getting the levels of fitness. Lampard also isn’t playing the amount of football he would have done in the past so there’s a possible question mark in that area. Do you take the likes of Ross Barkley along? Does Henderson come in? Does Sterling play a part?
“We haven’t seen Andros Townsend since the Montenegro and Poland matches, he’s hardly featured. But he got us there. So there’s all those decisions to be made, and I think Roy Hodgson is experienced enough to make them.”
Following his retirement from the game in 2005, Keown is now performing a balancing act of his own – he can be regularly seen offering his expert analysis as a pundit on BBC’s Match of the Day, whilst commuting to London Colney in order to coach Arsenal on a part-time basis. However, his principal area of focus currently lies closer to home. “At the moment, my son plays for the Reading Under-21 team – I need to be able to watch him and help him. If I was in a full-time role as a coach at one club and based in one place only that could be difficult, but I probably would like to get back into it in some capacity. We’ll see what happens.”
Many Oxford students may very well be aware of the fact that Keown – born and bred in the city – once coached the Oxford Blues football team. Looking back fondly on his experience, Keown indicates that he could be tempted to return to the role in the future. “I wouldn’t be averse to doing it at all. In fact, this year I did consider it. I did it for a whole year and really enjoyed it. I put players into positions that they didn’t necessarily want to play in, but by the end of the season I think they realised that they were getting games in the first team. The most important thing is that we won the league, which hadn’t been done for a while. As for the Varsity match, I don’t think the Cambridge fans enjoyed me being there! But it was a great experience and we tried to take it seriously.”
Before his talk at the Union, Keown still has time to offer his predictions on one of the most unpredictable Premier League seasons in recent years.
“I went with Chelsea at the start of the season and said Man Utd would come second so that’s not going to happen! So I’ll still back Chelsea, followed by Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool. If you asked me who was going to go down, I think Fulham look pretty well doomed. Hull could be in a spot of bother too; Steve Bruce has got previous of almost capitulating after Christmas. Cardiff don’t look good either. Sunderland are interesting because they’ve done incredibly well since Poyet joined but have gone back into the bottom three and they’ve got to dig deep again, and that can be difficult. There’s a long way to go.”
As for his thoughts on the World Cup, Keown can only see one winner. “It’s got to be Brazil.”