KEEN AND ABLE

Orfy caught up with ex-Stoke City midfielder Kevin Keen. A key and talented Potters player in the 90’s, including our superb Play Off team of 95/96.

 You’ve been involved in football forever! Was Kevin Keen ever going to go in other directions?

No! As a kid in High Wycombe, I was football mad. I never knew another world. My dad Mike was in the game and I was brought up loving football. I was born 2 weeks before he captained QPR to their League Cup final win at Wembley in 1967… and that set the tone, I think.

If I ever did an autobiography, it would have to be called ‘The  Football Life.’  I just followed Dad around every Saturday during his playing days at Watford then when he became manager at Wycombe. I was into the nuts and bolts of men’s football from an early age. I was actually a Man City fan, which in these parts is strange. My hero was Colin Bell – I loved him so, that was the only reason I followed them.

You were part of the team that lifted the English Schools Trophy 1981.

That was a massive thing to people around High Wycombe. Absolutely huge, believe me. We had a group of boys who’d come through together from under 11 year olds up until we were 15/ 16. I wasn’t even the best player. Our main man was Mark West, the year above me – he was some player. He was with me as a youth prospect at West Ham for a while but didn’t make it. He went on to become a Wycombe legend and is now managing Thame United in Oxfordshire. Keith Dublin was in the team and he ended up playing for Chelsea and Watford. Graham Bressington was another – he went on to play at Southend. We just clicked and kept our nerve all the way through.

 Then you went on to play for England Schoolboys – good memories?

We had some top players who went on to have good careers in the game – Darren Beckford, Steve Potts, John Beresford. Lots of us made it from that squad. Charles Hughes was our manager after he had just written that infamous coaching book, promoting the POMO approach (position of maximum opportunity). Imagine the contrast for us West Ham lads, who had been brought up playing the pass and move style.  Two more contradictory principles of play you couldn’t wish for!

He made us play 4-2-4 with me and John in centre midfield.  If we had the ball, we were ordered to kick it immediately into the channels for forwards to chase after. Training was all about shooting sessions with everyone running in for rebounds off the keeper. To be fair, it did work once, later in my career when I scored a tap-in for Stoke when I followed up a shot.

You made your Wycombe debut at an early age…

I was 15 and very slight as you’d imagine. We were in non-league then, in the Isthmian League – I was just a boy in a man’s world. I only played 3 games there before I left school and joined West Ham. I weighed just 9 stone 3 but I was quick over the ground and had a clever football brain. Non-league was brutal – rough tackles and tough men. I’m still Wycombe’s youngest ever player. Jordan Ibe (now at Bournemouth) might tell you he is – but only in league football, so the record is still mine!

You had a lengthy and eventful West Ham career – what were the highs and lows?

That’s easy. We had 2 promotions to the top division. 1992/93 was my best season – I scored 9 goals from midfield and came runner up in the Player of the Season awards. In contrast, we also got relegated twice to the second tier, which is never nice.

Looking back, one of my regrets was leaving West Ham after promotion. I’d been there 9 years and loved the place but they were in financial trouble and I was disappointed with the contract they offered. When Wolves came in for me, my head was turned. They made a good offer and came across as ambitious, wanting promotion themselves. Molineux was looking good by then as well, so the place seemed to be on the up but I was naive and I should have been more patient. The move to the Midlands was a big decision for the family, especially because my son was only a baby then. We lived in Lichfield and we loved it there. In fact, we still own a grade 2 listed flat after all this time. We rent it out but we often visit the town to this day. It also came in handy when joining Stoke later on, obviously.

 How did the move to Stoke come about?

I was never quite settled at Wolves to be honest. Molineux felt big and open – it didn’t suit me and I never felt the kind of vibe there you need to produce your best. Graham Taylor was manger and we didn’t exactly see eye to eye either, which didn’t help. I’d worked with Lou before at West Ham – he was the first manager to play me from the start every week. My memories of Lou from then were positive, even though for him it was a disastrous time in charge. Stoke is obviously a nice distance from Lichfield as well – close enough, but far enough away. Not many Stokies live around there, so there was privacy without feeling a million miles away either. Any of  my ex-teammates would tell you I’m not exactly one for the social side of things – I’m a family man who kept myself to myself.

The Victoria Ground was the other big attraction. Honestly, one of the main reasons I signed was that ground. I loved it. The feel of it was perfect. The Vic was old fashioned like Upton Park – a really working-class, atmospheric old place with the punters right on top of you out there on the pitch. I strongly remember playing there for West Ham on the opening day of one season, years before my move to Stoke.  It was the first game of season and I scored at the Boothen End. It was the day Frank McAvennie broke his leg.  But I do remember the buzz of playing at another tight ground with good noise levels. Proper grounds, in my eyes.

Even with low crowds, there could still be an undercurrent of passion from the terraces. I remember scoring a header for Stoke (I only scored 4 with my head in over 600 games, so I was never going to forget it) – it was the winner against Millwall at the Vic – their fans would have loved me as well, being an ex Hammer! We’d lost to Port Vale the week before so the crowd was low and it was quieter than normal but even then, the place went mad at times like that, with a winner at the death.

What was it like playing in those Potteries derbies?

Funnily enough, I’m quite proud of my record in derby games in general.

I scored for West Ham vs. Millwall, for Wolves vs. West Brom and for Stoke against Vale. I’m not sure there are too many who can say that! The Potteries derby felt different if I’m being honest because Vale don’t have that crowd pull or that history that all the other teams mentioned do. I loved scoring though because I knew what it meant to Stoke fans.

Wolves and West Brom are similar sized clubs so those games always felt well matched and on the edge. Games against Millwall were pure evil if you wore a claret shirt! Once, at Cold Blow Lane, we got kept in for 2 hours after the final whistle so their mob couldn’t get to us. That stays with you. During the match, the abuse coming at you from those terraces was on another level. With Stoke and Vale going in opposite directions, that rivalry gets lost I suppose, which is a shame in many ways. Football can feel tame at times without that edge to matches.

 Was it you or the wind that scored that goal at Vale Park?!

Ha, ha – that was the most ridiculous goal ever scored! For me to even score a diving header was amazing. The way it blew up from the cross and then I just chucked myself at it and somehow it swirled its way into the net – that was crazy!  It was a good feeling though. I’d come off the bench I think and it was right in from of the Stokies in that away end – one of those special moments. You knew not losing was the big thing for the fans so it was satisfying. I look totally shocked during the celebration after that one!

There was a spell when Lou seemed to sub you every week – was that frustrating?

Big time! When I scored once, I took my shirt off to make a subtle point to Lou, which was out of character for me but I was a bit fed up. I whipped my top off after scoring and tried to hold it up like a fourth official holding up the board for a substitution! To be fair to Lou, I was cursed with injuries for a while so perhaps he thought he was protecting me.

A few weeks after, you scored what surely must have been one of the best goals the Victoria Ground crowd had ever witnessed…

Yes, the Derby County volley has to be right up there in terms of my career goals. My Marco Van Basten moment! It was live on TV as well which was nice. And it had to be in front of the Boothen – it wouldn’t have has the same magic at the other end would it?

People often ask me if we’d worked on it on the training ground but we didn’t – it was an off the cuff, spur of the moment thing with me and Nigel Gleghorn. I always got on well with Nige – we are similar characters and were similar players too in some ways, in terms of our love for getting the ball down and playing the ball to feet. We both got the odd rollocking from Lou for overplaying in midfield, that’s for sure! He had such a lovely, cultured left foot and could really play – he made us tick.

As he stood over the free-kick, we had a quick chat and decided to try something different. I peeled away and he found me perfectly on the right corner of the box. It was a controlled whack, but I was only hoping to hit the target.  When it smashed into the net, that feeling… well, that’s why you play the game as a kid, isn’t? It should have been the winner but they scored a late equaliser – that was a shame as it took the shine away a little.

The lads on the bench had me in stitches in the changing room after. They said that as soon as Lou saw what we were up to over that free-kick, he was saying “No, no, no!” getting louder and moving further towards the pitch to scream at us with every additional “No!” as they sat chucking behind him. He obviously wanted us to put it into the box for the centre-halves to latch onto. We gambled for once and it paid off.  A special moment. I teased the fans by almost taking my shirt off again but I thought I’d better save them from that again. It’s weird really – the shirt off celebration went with a scruffy goal – it would have suited the Derby volley far better.

Stoke fans remember the 1995/96 fondly, with the SAS up front and the play-off charge against the odds… was it an enjoyable season?

I got injured late on so I missed the business end – I was absolutely gutted about that.  We had a small squad and regular line up which helped in some ways although it probably held us back right at the end against Leicester. The midfield four complemented each other so well – me and Graham Potter on the wings – he got up and down the line and I buzzed around. Ray Wallace grafted and covered for us while Gleghorn dictated the play. Goalscorers are always the key though and Mike Sheron was the cherry on top. I got injured at Luton – that midweek game when we scored twice in the last minute to win.

Missing out on the Play Off games was tough to take – I remember watching the first leg at Filbert Street from the stands – I didn’t enjoy that one bit. We were unlucky but they had more quality overall. Garry Parker could play, couldn’t he? I played against him as a young boy, funnily enough – he had some talent.

We fell short of the standard required but we did well throughout the campaign. My favourite game was Wolves away – we battered them 4-1 and it all came together that day. We battled hard as a team and on that day had plenty of quality to go with it. I enjoyed that day very much.

 The 1996/97 season was the last at the Vic and you were hit by injuries throughout. Were the squad on a hangover after the play-off defeat?

Possibly. I don’t remember thinking there was a huge change in the dressing-room dynamic or anything like that.

Lou had his way of doing things – he never did much work on the tactics side of things and he was a hard man to play for in some ways. Especially, the way I liked to play. But I try to see the positives in people – I felt his biggest strength was recruitment – signing players with a point to prove and making them gel into a unit. We’d sold Peschisolido the season before, so we were short on strength in depth.  Perhaps, he wasn’t able to galvanise the squad with new signings – like the bargains he normally found.

Lou rescued careers for many of us – Sheron, most of allHe believed in players and let us get on with it, as long as we were super fit. He went mad at me once – another goal everyone remembers but for the wrong reasons this time – that back-pass at Huddersfield. It was down as my own goal of course, but Mark Prudhoe completely missed it with an air shot! Lou felt I should have cleared it down the line but I tried to retain possession. I’ve seen Prudhoe since and we’ve laughed about it. I’m sure you lot weren’t laughing behind that goal though! Mark was a good keeper, actually. He’s a keeper coach now, at Hull and I see him from time to time – a lovely bloke and a brilliant character in any dressing room.  He should have cleared that bloody ball though!

Then came the move to The Britannia Stadium and the relegation season – did you see it coming?

Hard to say. Lou leaving was huge because he was a strong figure – a leader who set the tone for the whole place. He wasn’t a man for heart to hearts or groundbreaking stuff on the training ground but you knew where you stood with him so his departure created uncertainty.

But the ground move was a huge factor in my opinion. It’s easy to underestimate what uprooting like that does to a club – look at West Ham now. The grounds are so different to the old ones, it becomes a real challenge to your identity as a club. Open, windswept, modern grounds don’t help with creating that fortress feel you look for. Long-term, the ground move has worked out well of course but the teething problems meant we suffered for quite a while. Our home form certainly suffered. Then again, having 3 mangers in a season doesn’t help either.

We weren’t managed with a clear direction. It was Chic Bates, Kris Kamara then Alan Durban. That period under Kamara was horrible. I hated it. Him not picking me very often didn’t help either, funnily enough! There was the 0-7 defeat to Birmingham. All I’ll say is that the whole season was not good and I have very bad memories.

The last game at home to Man City topped it all off – both sets of fans were singing about seeing each other at Macclesfield. I went out for dinner that night with Steven Tweed and his partner – our wives got on well. We sat in a restaurant in Stone and hardly spoke. We felt sick and it was one huge nightmare.  We shouldn’t have gone down with the players we had – Kavanagh, Thorney etc, but that’s what instability and too much chopping and changing does to a team. The dressing room had changed.

It was far different than The Vic…….I bumped into Carl Beeston a few years ago when I was coach at West Ham. He could play, by the way – with modern sports physiotherapy he’d have played at the top level. Anyway, I was on the train and tube to get to the ground and I hear someone shouting “Keeno!” at the top of his voice. It was Beest – he was on a day out with his mates watching Stoke at Highbury! It was good to see him – he was exactly the kind of down to earth bloke I associate with playing for Stoke at that time. Unfortunately, things at the Brit were very different in those early days.

 Brian Little came in and gave the fans a big lift before the season fizzled out…

His style really suited me personally. For the first 8 games, I played centre midfield in a 3-5-2, which took me off the wing, saving me from a clattering from full-backs! We were winning every week and then there was that night we lost at Fulham, and things changed.

Chris Short was flying for us at right wing back – great player, super lad and so, so quick. He gave us good balance and someone I could feed the ball to. He collapsed on the pitch and in the end, after all the talk of heart scares, I think they diagnosed a problem with the lining of his stomach or something like that. I see him still – he’s working as a fitness coach for a league club. He could run like the wind. From my own point of view, Brian Little was the best Stoke manager I played under and one of the best I’d worked with in my whole career.

Why did we not even make the play-offs then?

(He laughs, pauses then offers a wry smile and takes a deep breath). Losing Chris Short was a massive blow. We missed him and I think in that league, he was too good for opponents, so we missed him. I was shifted out wide and we just didn’t gel as well after that. Little’s management was second to none. He treated me with such respect. Training was always very good and professional under Tony McAndrew and Alun Evans.

I got Player of the Year – the trophy is safely at home, next to my Goal of the Season trophy from years earlier. Selfishly, I enjoyed that season a lot. It fell away towards the end and we finished about 8th I think, which was disappointing. I thought we were nailed on to make the top 3 or 4. Towards the end, Little called me in for a chat and told me he was planning to let me go. He soon left though…..

So, you’d technically left the club at that point?

Yes! Then Gary Megson came in and offered me a contract. I’d been training with Chesterfield and they’d made me an offer. I think it was Graham Kavanagh who’d spoken to Megson – he told him to keep me, and not to lose a good player for no reason.  I then received a call from John Rudge and before you know it, I’ve signed and it looks to everyone else that I’d never actually left!

Megson was a very hard – an old school, strong figure. I do have a lot of respect for what he did in his short time at Stoke, but he wasn’t my favourite manager, he was very authoritarian. But he got the club back on track – we were moving in the right direction again, battling for the crowd and the shirt. Now, I’ve been a manger and coach and I understand the challenges he faced, you have to respect the impact he had.

The Icelanders then came in with their own man…

I played in Gudjon Thordarsson’s first game – just down the road against my home club Wycombe. That was a huge night for me, bringing it all back to where it started. We won 4-0 and I played well – it was a good start. But it didn’t last for me.

Gudjon didn’t like me. I can’t say I was too keen on him either, but I definitely thought he didn’t rate me. To make things worse, in training one day, I shattered my wrist after Gavin Ward landed on me. I ended up missing out on the Wembley Final in the Auto Windscreen’s. That wasn’t nice. I was a good inured pro and I always did my rehab well. I returned very late on that season but it was too late to really have an impact.

Your Favourite Stoke memories?

You always think of the goals first, obviously. Scoring on my home debut against Wolves at the Vic was sweet – I’ll never forget that. Apart from the Derby County volley, the one I like best, in terms of technique, was a chip I scored against Oldham at the Britannia. Their keeper wasn’t that far off the line but I made perfect contact and it sailed in beautifully.

I enjoyed my time at Stoke – I always enjoyed a good relationship with the supporters. They knew I always tried my best, first and foremost. I’d like to think I could play for them a bit as well. That bond I had with Stoke fans – the working-class work ethic and emphasis on respect for 100% effort reminded me of my early days as a pro at West Ham so it was a really good fit. Just running out of the tunnel into the Vic, hearing the locals right on your side – that was the feeling that I remember above anything else.