There’s Only One Keown – Ask Ruud van Nistlerooy about this Highbury Hero

This week’s trip down memory lane takes us back to the mid 1980’s, when a young centre back emerged at Arsenal. A man you’d always be thankful he was playing with you, rather than against you, my Highbury Hero this time is the magnificent Martin Keown.

Martin was a wonderful defender. He was as tough as old boots, uncompromising, always 100% committed, very strong in the tackle and ultra-competitive. He was also deceptively quick.

Keown clashes with Roy Keane

If the opposition wanted to mix it with Arsenal Keown would relish it. It must have been a comforting thought to the rest of the team, when they saw Martin Keown sitting in the same dressing room.

Keown goes to war with Duncan Ferguson

He had a great spring which enabled him to make the most of his 6 foot 1 inch in aerial challenges. Martin would give everything to the cause; such a wholehearted player who’d throw his body into the way of many a goal bound shot. Keown had a knack of being able to sense where the danger was coming from and react to the situation to stop the opposition’s attack in its tracks.

Another string to Keown’s bow was his ability to play as a man to man marker in midfield to negate the opponent’s danger man. He’d be all over them and Martin fully lived up to his nickname of “The Rash”.

One of Martin’s contemporaries at Arsenal was Tony Adams. I think sometimes Martin doesn’t get the acclaim he should have received and is a bit overshadowed by Adams, Tony seemed to get all the plaudits and there is no doubt that Adams was a fantastic player and captain for both club and country but Keown was also a great defender as well. In fact only last Week I heard Dean Saunders say that Martin Keown was the most difficult defender he played against and I’ve heard quite a few other strikers say the same about him.

Ian Wright says that in training if he could score against the likes of Keown and Adams, which was very difficult, he could score against anybody because they were the best in the business. There was a great rivalry between Keown and Adams, (who were only about three months apart in their ages) right from when they played in the same youth side at Arsenal. It was nothing personal between them, just that they were both young centre backs trying to break into the first team.

A young Keown and Adams and a few other familiar faces

Martin had a real will to win and was so focussed, but in training he could be very easily wound up and Ray Parlour was just the man to do it! One day at London Colney Ray got Keown right at it, when one day Keown turned up for training, there was a new face sitting there. “Who’s that” said Martin taking the bait. “That’s our new German centre half” replies Ray. “He’s brilliant” says Dennis Bergkamp joining in on the wind up. “I’m just going to take the new player for his medical” says Gary Lewin who’s also in on it. “I’m not having this” says Keown, who then storms off into Arsene Wenger’s office. What Martin didn’t know was that the new German centre back was really a delivery van driver! Martin came out of Arsene’s office red with rage and embarrassment, as he finally tumbled what had happened. Arsene walked out his office with a big smile on his face saying “Ray what have you been saying to Martin?”.

Martin also had quite a temper on him as well. One day he pinned one of Fleet Street’s finest up against the wall, because he written something derogatory about him and then snapped the hacks pencil in half!

Martin was born in Oxford on the 24th July 1966. He made his debut, when given his chance by Don Howe on the 24th November 1985, in a 0-0 draw with West Bromwich Albion, at the Hawthorns. Keown went on to make 27 appearances that season. I remember Keown’s home debut, which was also Niall Quinn’s debut and both of them were outstanding against Liverpool in a 2-0 victory, with Quinny and Charlie Nicholas scoring the goals.


In the summer of 1986 George Graham became manager and after talks about a contract extension didn’t go well Martin decided to go to Aston Villa for a £200,000 fee. Martin had three years at Villa. He had mixed fortunes at Villa Park. They were relegated in Keown’s first season, when Villa finished bottom of the table. But they won promotion at the first attempt.

Martin in his Aston Villa days

In August 1989 Keown moved to Everton for £750,000. While at Everton he got into the England squad, making his full debut in 1992. He had the choice to play for Ireland as his mother was from there, or Northern Ireland where his father came from but he choose the country of his birth England.

Keown as an Evertonian

He played under Graham Taylor in the 1992 European Championships. Terry Venables left him out of Euro 1996. But Glenn Hoddle took him to the World Cup in France in 1998. He also captained the side once under Kevin Keegan in a World Cup qualifier in 2000 against Finland. Martin ended up being capped 43 times by England.

Ray Parlour tells a great England story about Keown and Tim Sherwood

Keown on international duty with England

In February 1993 George Graham paid Everton £2,000,000, ten times what he originally sold him for, to bring Martin back to Highbury to become the first player since the war to resign for The Arsenal. As Martin was cup-tied he didn’t take part in the League Cup and FA Cup Double.

The following season injury ruled Martin out of the Final of the European Cup Winners Cup when Arsenal beat Parma. But he was in the side a year later, when Arsenal lost in the Final to that late goal from Real Zaragoza.

Martin talks about 1997-98 season

Over 12 years after making his Arsenal debut Martin finally got his hands on his first winners’ medals when Arsenal stormed to the Double in 1997-98. He was in the side that beat Newcastle United 2-0 in the FA Cup Final and played 18 times in the League after missing a big chunk of the season through injury.

Martin and the rest of the 1997-98 Double squad celebrate

Martin was again partnering Tony Adams at the heart of the Arsenal defence in both the UEFA Cup Final against Galatasaray, in 2000 and the FA Cup Final against Liverpool, in 2001, both of which we lost. That season 2000-01 I remember a great night at Highbury, when Martin was the unlikely goal scoring hero with two late goals, to beat Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2 in the Champions League.

Martin scores a brace against Shakhtar Donetsk 

Keown won another Double with Arsenal in 2001-02. Playing in the Title winning game up at Old Trafford and coming on as a substitute against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final to win another medal. That was Tony Adams swan song, but Martin went on for a couple of more seasons with The Arsenal.

Martin celebrates with his team mates after clinching the title at Old Trafford in 2002


In 2002-03 Martin still played 35 times in all competitions, including another Winners medal in the 2003 FA Cup Final against Southampton, at Cardiff, when Robert Pires got the winning goal.

The invincible season of 2003-04 was Martin’s last as an Arsenal player. By then he was 37 years old and no longer first choice. It was Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure but this was the season for the most controversial incident of his entire career, when he famously jumped up and whacked Rudd Van Nistelrooy on the head, after Van Nistelrooy missed a last minute penalty, at Old Trafford. Keown led a posse of Arsenal players over to Van Nistelrooy at the final whistle to tell him exactly what they thought about getting their skipper Patrick Vieira sent off.

The Van Nistelrooy incident 

Keown hitting a cowering Van Nistelrooy round the head is an image that will be remembered by all Arsenal fans who witnessed it. I absolutely loved the way Martin and the other Arsenal players Ray Parlour, Lauren and Ashley Cole showed such great team spirit by sticking together that day. None more so than the warrior that was Martin Keown.

That famous image

2003-04 was also the last season for the Romford Pele at Arsenal and there was just time for one last wind-up on his old mate Martin Keown. It was the last game of the season, which was against Leicester City at Highbury and they were both on the bench. Martin had nine appearances and needed to come on to claim a title winning medal. Ray Parlour knew he was desperate to play. Edu and Reyes had already come on and there was only one substitute to make. I’ll let Ray Parlour tell you the rest of the story from his book The Romford Pele.

Time was ticking away. Martin was getting a bit twitchy. With five minutes to go Martin turned to me and asked ‘Do you think the boss will put me on?’ He can be a bit forgetful Arsene, and Martin was worried. ‘Martin, go and warm up in front of him, make it obvious to him you need to get on,’ I suggested. ‘Ah all right then. Good idea.’

 So, off he goes. He takes his tracksuit bottoms down and warms up right in front of Arsene Wenger. The boss is going, ‘Get out of the way, Martin.’ He can’t see the game! So, Martin starts running up and down the line, they’re all singing his name in the North Bank, and I think: this will be the best wind-up I’ve ever done. It was really a little bit of fun but I knew what kind of reaction it would get from Martin. I took my tracksuit bottoms off and, as he was clapping the fans, I sprinted behind him. He looked at me with horror. ‘What are you doing, Ray?’

 ‘I’m going on Martin.’ ‘You can’t! They’ve put two subs on already!’ Replied Martin. Now he’s chasing me up and down the line, I thought he was going to kill me. I said, ‘It’s not my fault, the boss told me to warm up.’

 ‘You can’t! I need this for my medal!’ Anyway I go back towards the dugout and take off my jumper, so now I am in full kit as if I am going to go on. Arsene hasn’t got a clue what is happening. Martin bolts down the line – I have never seen him sprint so fast – and gets hold of Arsene. Martin virtually has him around the neck. I remember the boss saying, ‘Get off Martin!’

 I thought: I’ve gone too far with this one. Anyway Martin came on for Freddie Ljungberg with three minutes to go and Martin got his medal, so all’s well that ends well. He got his medal and he totally deserved it. It was his last season at the club so it was a very memorable way to draw the curtain on his Arsenal career.

 After the game Arsene pulled me over and said ‘What did you say to Martin? He tried to kill me on the side of the pitch.’ I told him and he thought it was hilarious. But Martin took it brilliantly in the end. ‘I knew you were winding me up,’ he said ‘Erm, but you had the manager round the neck…’

Martin with his tormentor in chief Ray Parlour

Martin then left to play for Leicester City and Reading before hanging his boots up at the end of the 2004-05 season.

Martin Keown played 448 times for Arsenal and scored 8 goals. Had he not left the club for 7 years he’d probably have challenged Tony Adams appearance total for Arsenal. My last memory of him at Highbury as an Arsenal player was getting on the microphone, on the pitch after his testimonial on the 17th May 2004 and belting out the fans song for him. “Keown there’s only one Keown, there’s only one Keown, there’s only one Keown”. All the Arsenal fans joined in with him and he’s right, there is only one Keown.

There is something called The Arsenal Way which Herbert Chapman introduced in the 1930’s and generations of Arsenal players have been taught it ever since; especially the home grown players who had it instilled in them. The Double squad in 1971 had in it players like George Armstrong, John Radford, Peter Storey, Jon Sammels, Peter Simpson and the younger ones like Ray Kennedy, Charlie George, Eddie Kelly and Pat Rice, who passed it on to the likes of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O’Leary, then Paul Davis. When George Graham became manager Tony Adams, Rocky Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Merson all had it drummed into them. The Arsenal way rubbed off on Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires.

But Martin Keown and Ray Parlour were the last of the old guard, the last of the George Graham era. I feel once they left, the club sadly lost that link and I doubt it’ll ever return.

Anyway as always thanks for reading. You won’t have to put up with me for the next couple of weeks as I’m taking a break from writing over Christmas. But Highbury Hero will return again in the New Year. Have a great Christmas everyone and a happy New Year.

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