Keown on his Albion spell and progress under Potter

Martin Keown is as uncompromising these days as a pundit and summariser as he was as a centre-half for Arsenal, Aston Villa, Everton and England. And he is especially critical when the Gunners, our opponents at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday, fall short of his exacting defensive standards – which, in fairness, has been quite often in recent seasons.

By Nick Szczepanik • 04 December 2019

By Paul Hazlewood
Martin Keown

But talk to him about Brighton & Hove Albion and you will experience a far sunnier side of his character. For, as Albion fans of a certain age will remember, the 18-year-old Martin Keown gained his first experience of senior football in Albion colours during two loan spells at the Goldstone Ground in 1985, and he has only good memories of his time in Sussex.

“I feel eternally grateful to the club for launching my football career,” he says. “Going to Brighton and Hove Albion was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved it there. It was a great place to live and a great place to play football, which I’m sure is what the current players are experiencing.”

By The Argus
Chris Cattlin.

Chris Cattlin was the Brighton manager who arranged the loan from Arsenal. “I was competing with Tony Adams to try to break into the Arsenal first team,” Martin says. “But I had a bout of peritonitis that sidelined me for six months then I ruptured a thigh muscle. It was proving very difficult to get my career off the ground, so going out on loan was seen as a good way of helping me catch up and I grabbed it with both hands.

“I believe at that time Brighton used to keep a close eye on some of the London clubs and watch their reserve games quite closely. Chris later said within my hearing that my performances had been proof that they should carry on doing it.

“I think it was George Aitken who spotted me first. Then I spoke to George Petchey, the assistant manager, who was very keen to get me and he knew everything I had done playing-wise, which surprised and impressed me. I think they moved at the right time because I later found out that other clubs had been interested, although Don Howe hadn’t been feeding me the information.

“George Aitken picked me up at Hove Station and ferried me around. I stayed at the Courtlands and Langford’s hotels. The Goldstone was a great ground to play at and I enjoyed living in the city.

By The Argus
Martin Keown played with Jimmy Case during his time with Albion.

“But when I first arrived, what surprised me was the calibre of the players I was suddenly rubbing shoulders with. It was almost a Who’s Who of former top division players. Jimmy Case, for instance, and Frank Worthington, who just oozed class. They had both slowed down a little bit but they knew the game inside out.

“Dennis Mortimer came on loan later, Graham Moseley was in goal, Steve Gatting was around. Danny Wilson hadn’t played in the top division at that point but I remember after the first training session I thought: ‘How on Earth is he not playing at a higher level?’ And he went on to prove me right.”

On February 23rd 1985, Martin stepped out at Maine Road to make his league debut in Albion’s 2-0 defeat against Manchester City, and he was ever-present for the rest of the season as the team missed out on promotion on the final day of the campaign.

He settled in quickly and was voted the second division’s young player of the month in March. “I think it was the Robinson’s Barley Water Young Player of the Month. I’m still waiting for that consignment of Robinson’s Barley Water. So I did hear about that but I never actually received anything for it!”

“Initially I played at right back because although I had been playing at centre half at Arsenal, Brighton had Eric Young and Gary O’Reilly there. I actually think that people thought that Gary O’Reilly was me half the time, because his marks out of ten went right through the roof!

“We had a really good side and had there been a play-off system, I think we might have made it. We missed out on the last day of the season because Manchester City won their game so we couldn’t catch them, but we had such momentum, and such good experience in the team.”

He came back at the beginning of the following season and returned to Arsenal for good in November having made 27 Albion appearances in total and scored three goals.

“When I look back, I realise what a good eye Chris Cattlin had for a player, and I’m not just bigging myself up when I say that. Dean Saunders was there, Ian Wright had been on trial, but they already had some unbelievable forwards. Unfortunately they all got injured at once, which was when I ended up as a striker.”

By The Argus
Martin Keown played upfront with Dean Saunders.

Yes, you read that correctly. “I actually played up front with Dean Saunders in the second season,” he recalls. “I played two or three games there because there were injury problems with Alan Biley, Mike Ferguson, Terry Connor and Justin Fashanu.”

That may seem strange to those who remember Martin only as a member of the Arsenal and England back fours, but as a youngster growing up in Oxford, versatility had been a feature of his game. “I’d played up front for my Sunday League team, in midfield for my school and at the back for Oxford Boys.

“Playing in all those positions helped me a great deal, and I was offered a choice of different apprenticeships – by Oxford United and Swindon Town as a centre forward and Aston Villa and Arsenal as a centre half. That’s bizarre, isn’t it? Maybe Villa and Arsenal knew their business better, but at least the dream of playing up front did come true at Brighton!”

He scored three times during his second spell, in a 5-2 League Cup victory over Bradford City, in a 3-5 home defeat at the hands of Charlton Athletic in the league, and against none other than Crystal Palace in a Full Members Cup match at Selhurst Park that Albion won 3-1.

“I suppose I still had the muscle memory of being a goalscorer as a kid. I scored a few for Villa too, but at Arsenal it always seemed that if I went to the near post, the ball went to the far post and vice versa. I was so unlucky, I could never quite work out where in the opponents’ box to be – but defensively I seemed to have the knack of getting in its way, which I suppose was more important.”

It was his defensive prowess that brought him three league championship and three FA Cup winner’s medals, all at Arsenal, for whom he played over 400 games. He has been unsparing in his assessment of their recent performances, and as a professional observer of the Premier League from the gantry, gives Graham Potter’s men a chance at The Emirates.

By Paul Hazlewood
Martin Keown praised the job which Graham Potter has done at the club.

He says: “Although Brighton are sixteenth after the weekend, your manager seems to be doing a very good job and has signed a new deal while Arsenal showed theirs the door. Arsenal are particularly vulnerable at the moment so it is a good game for you. You could go within a point of Arsenal if you win.

“I think Brighton could be about to take off as a team. I have been stunned by the way some of the Brighton players are playing. They pass the ball far more and take fewer touches and the players look as if they have been transformed by a simple message and a change of tactics. I don’t want to take anything away from Chris Hughton, but some of them almost look like different players.

“I lived through something very similar with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Before he arrived, I was more or less told to win the ball and then give it to someone who could play. When Wenger came, he told me that I could play just as well as anybody else. He’d seen it in training and was convinced that everyone was able to do what he wanted.

“Sometimes that message has to come from the manager before you see it in yourself. It is simple encouragement. I have experienced it so I know that it can work and I can certainly see that at Brighton.”

Christmas cracker at the Amex!