The famous Arsenal back 5 is renowned for being perhaps the finest exponent of defending hailing from these shores in the modern generation.
Spanning two decades, David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Lee Dixon were assembled by then Arsenal boss in the late eighties, and were hewn into the offside-trap using, tough-tackling, impregnable unit we know, and Arsene Wenger then went on to prolong their careers with his modern dietary methods and free-thinking that was a breath of fresh air – and revitalised them.
They won league titles and cups, and the greatest strikers of that era cite them as the most difficult they faced in their time – and rightfully so.
Martin Keown is not mentioned in the same breath, although in terms of defensive merits, he more than held his own.
Keown is one of the club’s legends, after his two spells at the club and 332 appearances and being the last member of the ‘old guard’ to represent the club – and earning a place in the ‘Invincibles’ side in the process.
His first spell at the club only lasted two years and 22 matches, before going to Aston Villa and Everton. Keown returned to the club in 1993, and while Bould and Adams were still the first choice pairing, Keown’s instincts and backline nous were an important part of the squad.
Keown was one of the best examples of a specialist man-marker, earning him the nickname of ‘The Rash’ as strikers couldn’t get rid of him. In an interview with the Telegraph in the past, Keown admitted that he hated man-marking, but being so good at it meant he could never escape the task.
Because the Back 5 were a unit, Keown may not eat at the top table of Arsenal legends, but if anyone deserves to be there, it is the man who bullied Ruud Van Nistelrooy. That moment, one that the media chose to beat us with, is actually embraced within the club and our fanbase, we hold it up as an example of our fierce will to win and how our men never backed down. Keown may look back on that moment and cringe, but none of us Gooners feel that way.
Keown’s will to win, his fierce desire on the pitch was ill-at-odds with the man we see now in front of the camera, but it was this competitive spirit that drove him to become one of the best defenders we’ve seen.
Image credit – Getty Images
Off the pitch, Keown is a well-spoken, educated man with a lexicon that is alien to most ex-pro’s. What isn’t well documented is that even in his spare time, Keown researched opponents and his own weaknesses, often with his son Niall, himself a pro footballer. The England international was never happy with his own game and pushed himself to be the best he could be, and Arsenal benefitted from his hunger.
Keown played for England for over a decade, but only amassed 43 caps. This shows the depth that England had in his position, but in his prime, Keown was among the best the country had, and he should have earned more during his career.
While our back 5 earned the right to be lauded and put on a pedestal, Keown should be remembered as fondly. He may be regarded as a legend amongst the club faithful, but Keown was one of our finest and can stand shoulder to shoulder with his peers.
Keown, in his erudite way mixed with his Arsenal experience and his unmatched desire, could have been the perfect coach to school our young Guns in what is ‘The Arsenal Way’ and what it means to play with the Cannon on your chest – not to mention how to defend stoutly.
Four FA Cup wins, three titles, a UEFA Cup Winners Cup, a League Cup was his haul of silverware in an Arsenal jersey, but perhaps his finest accolade was that he was kept by Wenger as part of the Invincibles squad, even in his latter years. He was not as fresh, as strong, or as quick as Toure and Campbell, but his positioning, his decision-making and his experience was enough to see him as part of the squad.
Martin Keown was much more than a specialist man-marker, but ask players of his generation about how tough to play against him it was. Ask Thierry Henry, Pires and Bergkamp how difficult it was training with him – that is a legacy.
I’ve written a book, and it’s been over a year in the making.
You can pre-order ‘Almost Invincible’ here and if you do, you get your name in the book and a signed copy.
Now that’s been mentioned, why should you buy it?
It looks at Arsenal’s epic title-winning team of 1990/91, and the horde of problems that beset George Graham and his squad. Despite all the obstacles in their path, they still went through the season with just ONE defeat, and the book looks at how they deserve far more plaudits than they currently get.
It features from the squad Alan Smith, David Seaman, Lee Dixon, David Hillier and Nigel Winterburn, as well as Sir Bob Wilson and journalist Amy Lawrence. It looks at every aspect of the season, from pre-season, transfers and every league and cup match.
The infamous brawl at Old Trafford that saw us docked points – still the only occasion before or since that this has occurred – our Captain Tony Adams being sent to jail and how the squad coped and the sole loss that never should have happened are all under the spotlight.
I started writing this book as I feel our club has a history like no other, and this title-winning campaign is amongst the finest things our beloved club has achieved in its illustrious past.
I’ve always had a fascination with words and it’s been a legitimate aim of mine for years to author a book, so if you notice me getting a little giddy at times on social media, then you now know why.
Plus, the book is designed to raise awareness of possibly the greatest unit it has ever assembled. Hence my frenzied tweeting.
We should be shouting about it, but it has faded into the background in amongst the perceived brighter lights, and this shouldn’t be the case. That is what my book is here to address.
We had the top scorer in the league. We had assembled the finest backline these shores have ever had the pleasure to see. Our team was complete, and the scary statistical similarities to the Invincibles of 2004 only embolden the fact that they achieved this with a far smaller squad – and a more testing fixture schedule.
With more games in less days, a far more competitive league with more contenders and Liverpool still the giant it was from the 80’s, Graham’s team worked miracles.
Don’t believe me? It’s all in the book, which you can pre-order here.
This team broke the monopoly of Liverpool and left the domestic game open. The Premier League era was dawning and Arsenal’s title-winning team of 90/91 were the ones who sent the old regime toppling.
The Miracle of Anfield 89, The Invincibles, The Double-Winning teams of 1971, 1998 and 2002 and the FA Cup winning team of 1979 are all fan favourites, but this particular campaign really does rank amongst the finest.
I hope that you’ll come to appreciate the lustre of this team. If you were a fan back then and were lucky enough to enjoy the season as it unfolded, or if you were like me and love the club so much that you want to know as much as you can – especially the good bits – then my book will fit the bill.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but you can pre-order my book here.
Published in the Gooner Fanzine – pick up yours outside The Emirates on matchdays!
It is a rare occurrence when rival teams and Managers acknowledge another teams strength. When it does happen, it sticks in the memory.
Think Henry being applauded by Pompey fans after destroying them single-handedly. Or Real Madrid fans begrudgingly clapping Ronaldinho after the Brazilian had taught their side a footballing lesson.
It doesn’t happen often, but it is a sign that true, unadulterated genius has touched proceedings.
Well, the amount of other teams managers, players and hierarchy that have held their hands up and given Arsenal’s famous ‘Back5’ as an example of the finest defensive unit to grace these shores, since the iconic Liverpool teams of the ’70’s and ’80’s is long and noteworthy.
Long coveting looks across the pitch and gushing comments of approval have rained down on the men who comprised the immovable object that was Arsenal’s Back 5 for over a decade – and for good reason.
Singularly, they were the zenith of defensive solidarity, giving each and every attacker the strictest of examinations. It was as a whole though, that they excelled. Much like the greatest groups that existed, each strength that was brought to the table was a segment that when put together, made an unbreakable shield.
Like the 300 which battled fiercely in Thermopylae, the shield formation which was the demise of many Persian enemies is a succinct example of Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon and Seaman.
If one shield drops, then the whole unit is compromised. It was each mans strength which gave the other man protection. It was a united effort.
At the centre, the Captain. Born to be a leader, adored the club and led from the front. Every battalion needs a shining example to ready the troops before battle, and Adams stood on the parapet each and every time, sword raised, his battlecry inspiring his men.
He wasn’t half bad on the pitch either. His reading of the game was modelled on England hero Bobby Moore, and he excelled. His aerial ability was unrivalled at both ends of the pitch, and he was his managers perfect middle man, making sure the plan was perfectly pitched.
Alongside him was Steve Bould. The forever follically-challenged Bould was the perfect foil for Adams, and each complimented the other. When both were playing, the foundation that the rest of the team could fall back on must have been a welcome presence.
On the right, Lee Dixon had an incredible engine, and whilst his frame was never imposing, his desire and tackling ability more than made up for his lack of height. His crossing was always a valuable outlet, and he never left his post, unlike some modern fullbacks today.
Nigel Winterburn was on the left, and he provided the same outlet that Dixon did on the opposite side. He also played on the edge, sometimes boiling over when he felt injustice.
Then the gentle giant David Seaman was the man between the sticks. A huge man with a gargantuan wingspan, he commanded his area with no room for error. Whilst the midfield could feel relieved to have the stout defence behind them, the very same defenders could rest assured that ‘SafeHands’ was standing true if any enemy broke through.
These paragraphs aren’t meant to do justice to these players. Their legacy goes beyond words. The reason their tenure at the club stretched for so long is that the essential factor of any defence – reliability – existed every year. Their excellence at what they did ensured that every season, the club would at least have a solid footing to fall back on.
The perfect example was in Copenhagen in 1994, when Arsenal won the European Cup Winners Cup after beating Parma 1-0. The Italians had the cream of attacking talent and were widely expected to roll over the Gunners, but Tomas Brolin, Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla grew more and more frustrated as the famous back 5 repelled each and every attempt they mustered. It was the perfect battle between attack and defence, and Arsenal’s backline won handsomely.
Arsene Wenger’s glittering start at the club would have been markedly different if he didn’t have this cadre of soldiers to fuse to his cosmopolitan flair. The mix in styles worked perfectly, and Wengers handling of the players training and fitness allowed these men to play on for more years than they ought to have with their previous regimen.
We have had defenders who have performed admirably for us since. Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Bacary Sagna and a few others provided top grade service to the shirt during their playing careers, but they never came close to recreating what the famous Back5 had.
The fact they are famous across footballing circles is because they were exactly what other managers wanted at their club – and still do.
Some factors in the sport are meant to be held up and admired through rose-tinted specs, and used as a prime example of what to aim for. Used as the ultimate achievement, but most will fail to attain such a standard.
Will we ever witness such an amalgamation of titans again? A barrier so formidable that even the sharpest of attacks were blunted as they attempted to force their way through?
As aforementioned, we have had elements of the equation before, but never as a whole. Could we now though, have all the parts to build the machine we require?
Petr Cech is still one of the finest exponents of goalkeeping in the Premiership. Hector Bellerin is already one of the best in his position, and at such a young age he will only get better. Koscielny had already forged a reputation as one of our greatest defenders, he just needed a partner. In Mustafi it appears he may have found one. On the left, Nacho Monreal has given us, and continues to, reliable service in defence and attack.
It is far too early to give a prognosis on the replication of such an immortal band of men, but the signs are good.
All they need now is a decade or more playing together, a truckload of trophies, and form that never dips below a certain level.
There are images and thoughts in your head that rarely become tangible. Those things that you stow away for when you’re having a particularly rough day, that lift the gloom.
Well, meeting Thierry Henry has always been one of mine. It sounds corny to use the word ‘dream,’ but it’s as close as I can get.
Much like every other Gooner, I have probably seen every minute of his beautiful career with our club. He is cast in bronze outside our stadium for good reason. To actually meet him though?
To do this tale of supreme Fanboy-ism justice, I must start at the beginning….
I have been plaguing Lee Dixon – another Gunners icon – with tweets. Desperate as I am to incorporate him in my project, I have tweeted him repeatedly, but to no avail.
Step forward the owner of Piebury Corner – Paul. He noticed my plight and said that the former Number2 had made an appearance in the restuarant recently and he could introduce me to him if I turned up to an event.
I was as good as there.
I booked my ticket, and was then told that another guest would be making an appearance.
Be still my overworked brain! As soon as the name was mentioned, I was a wreck, but I remained rational until I set foot on the DLR to make my way to the night.
Once in the train, my own personal highlights reel of Henry moments ran through my head.
His goal against United that looped over Barthez, his four goal demolition of Leeds United, when Jamie Carragher attempted to stop him and ended up as twisted as a pretzel……
I calmed myself by remembering previous events I had been to, where the headline act had pulled out inexplicably. This would surely happen again, Thierry must be overloaded with work…
I made my way to the venue – the Park Theatre near Finsbury Park – and stood outside. I waited for the stars to arrive like a pitiful autograph hunter, but I wasn’t ashamed. I just adored these men who had given me so much joy, and I dearly wanted to thank them. As I smoked what must have been my third cigarette in about fifteen minutes, I spied Tom Watts – perennial Arsenal host – lugging audio equipment into the theatre.
Not the best time to say hello, so I peered inside, where the ground floor bar was located. Standing at the bar, was none other than one part of the finest defence ever to grace these shores. Lee Dixon.
He was surrounded by people, and it was the wrong time to approach him, marker pen in hand, asking for an autograph, so I chose to keep my distance and gaze from afar, waiting for the prime moment to make my move.
It never came, so I made my way upstairs to where Piebury Paul was spinning some excellent tunes on the decks. I propped myself up at the bar and ordered a whisky. Then, Lee made his way up the stairs.
Once again though, I was foiled in my attempts to fawn over a Gunner, as he was ensconced in conversation as he walked past me, with none other than Le King.
They made their way to the corner of the room, and were untroubled as they remained in conversation. It was clear that this once again wasthe wrong time to approach them with my gushing sentiments, so I stayed in place, content to look from a distance at the men who have never been closer than they were at this moment.
Time slipped by as I watched them, and it bordered into creepy territory but I couldn’t look anywhere else. The doors to the theatre room opened and we all made our way down the stairs. The room to which we all would be treated to Thierry Henry and Lee Dixon soundbites was comfortable, open, and small enough to invite feelings of exclusive conversation. It felt as if we were having a house party, sans loud music and alcohol, but two of the guests were so captivating that everyone crowded around to hear their stories.
Tom Watt, master of ceremonies, took to the stage, to introduce the former players, and then, Lee Dixon’s wife, Yolande, was invited in front of the audience to explain the reason why this event is taking place – which is Yorke Dance Project.
Soon, the Thierry stories were flowing, from his World Cup win, to his inauspicious beginnings at Arsenal, interjected by Lee to great effect. Of particular resonance was when Thierry credited not only Arsene Wenger, but the core group of English players, such as Keown, Dixon and Adams, for helping him become the player he went on to be.
Thierry was inevitably charming, but what really became apparent was his love for the club. He credits his comeback goal against Leeds United as his favourite goal as it was the only time he was able to “score a goal as a fan” and when speaking about the club, he sheds his media shield and his tone changes. It is him speaking from the heart, and everyone was hanging on his every word.
Lee spoke of his punditry work with Roy Keane to great hilarity, and was abundantly clear was the rapport between the two men. Born in different countries yet they share a common strand within themselves, and the respect between the two is born from the time they taught each other valuable lessons.
Ninety minutes passed quickly, and it was quickly wrapped up, so the crowd funnelled through the doors and up the stairs for a pie and a drink. I shuffled towards the stairs, my mind whizzing through the different anecdotes I had just shared with the men on stage, and also from being so close to them! As I struggled to the stairs, I looked to the top of them, and Thierry was swamped by the crowd as he signed autographs and posed for endless photos.
I managed to get to the summit, but the hubbub around Henry was manic. I was going to patiently wait for my slice of Thierry time, but I was at the top of the stairs and my frame was blocking people keen to get a pie. I sloped off, worrying that my chance may be slipping away to bathe in the glory of the King – and show him my Thierry Henry branded socks….
I took solace in my pie, which was obviously a Thierry Henry, and spoke at length to Paul, who was again presiding over music.
Whilst the music was pumping, I went over my newly revised gameplan. I would wait ten minutes for the crowd downstairs to dissipate, then I would swoop in for my moment with the King. Then, I would ruthlessly seek out Lee and tell him why his contribution is so important.
I polished off my pie, downed the remains of my second whisky, and made my move. As I went down the flight of steps, the previously packed room was ominously empty.
Panic rose through my stomach like an icy eel, and I took the second flight of stairs two at a time (not a big deal to the average male, but I’m closer to a hobbit than an average man). I headed straight for the exit, and Thierry was there, saying his final farewells……
DJ Spoony was responsible for all the audio equipment for this special gig, and he was saying goodbye to Henry, whose cab was waiting. There were a few other chaps involved in the conversation, but no needy fans harrassing him – aside from me.
I would never forgive myself if I had let this chance slip, so I had to let go of my polite sensibilities and thrust myself into their proceedings. I did this by inching ever closer, so close that it was impossible for them to ignore my large melon creeping into their eyeline.
Bless DJ Spoony, he was the man who acknowledged my crazed presence, and told Thierry that I wanted to say hello. For this Spoony, I thank you. This is where the story really pays off….
Thierry turned ninety degrees. Despite his cab running and him quite obviosuly having other things to do, he looked at me, smiled and offered his hand. I grabbed it like it was the last piece of chicken in the bucket, but I managed to remain dignified when I shook it – apart from the fact that I didn’t let his hand go…..
I spoke to him. These were the words I uttered:
“Thierry, you are a hero of mine. I want to say thank you for what you did for our club, it means so much.”
Then, Thierry managed to shake off my clinging grasp, and put his now free hand to his heart, whilst simultaneously saying “thank you for this.”
I watched him enter his cab, and then as the vehicle left the scene, much like a farewell in a big screen movie – at least in my head. I smoked a cigarette to calm my nerves, and then began to hunt for my raison d’etre – Lee Dixon.
He was on the ground floor, and again it was DJ Spoony who enabled me to speak to Lee. I told him of my book and that I would love his experiences within the pages, and he agreed to give me his words.
I grabbed a photo with him, and then made my way upstairs. Mission accomplished. The rest of the night went well, and I met some great people, but it was Thierry and Lee that will remain ingrained on my memory.
The journey home was a blur, and the highlights reel that runs in my mind of Henry’s greatest exploits, now has a fantastic ending, when I met him.
His bronze-set form sits outside the Emirates as a constant reminder of his record with us, but Gooners don’t need a reminder. Meeting him was just as good as I had envisioned – but it could have been perfect……