Jermain Defoe claims he ‘loved’ playing against Martin Keown as the Arsenal legend would ‘pinch’ and ‘headbutt’ the striker after he broke through at West Ham United.

Keown gave Defoe a baptism of fire when the forward visited Highbury as a teen. It gave the striker a real lesson in how to handle the no-nonsense defenders of the era. But Defoe feels other types of players can wilt under the sort of pressure the Arsenal legend put him under.

Defoe made his Premier League debut at Middlesbrough in May 2001 under Glenn Roeder. He had already enjoyed a taste of first-team action on loan to AFC Bournemouth in Division Two in the 2000/01 term. But his top-flight bow beckoned aged 18 years and seven months.

Martin Keown of Arsenal and Jermain Defoe of West Ham United
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Defoe went on to enjoy a career in senior football that lasted until his retirement aged 39 in March 2022. His CV also featured two spells at Tottenham Hotspur, a stint at Portsmouth, a move to Toronto, a return to the Cherries, a move to Rangers and two spells at Sunderland.

The calibre of clubs on the forward’s CV further ensured he faced no teams more often than Chelsea (32), Manchester United (31) and Arsenal (28). Defoe also scored three and created four goals against the Gunners but only beat Arsene Wenger’s sides five times to 13 defeats.

Four of Defoe’s meetings with Arsenal saw the forward line up against Keown for West Ham. He first faced the three-time Premier League winner at Upton Park in December 2001 aged 19. Boss Roeder introduced Defoe as a half-time substitute to feature beside Paolo Di Canio.

West Ham United striker Jermain Defoe in action against Ray Parlour of Arsenal
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Defoe ‘loved’ playing against the Gunners legend in his youth

Defoe met Keown again in April and August 2002 plus January 2003 in games that also saw him face Tony Adams and Sol Campbell. Yet, despite being on the end of some odd conduct from Keown, Defoe ‘loved’ playing against the Arsenal legend and Wegner’s iconic squads.

“He’d be standing behind me [and] he’d pinch your back or he’d headbutt the back of your head, mad stuff like that,” the ex-England star explained on BBC podcast’s Defoe & Deeney Football Firsts. “Remember, you’re not getting this in the youth team.

Jermain Defoe recalls why he 'loved' playing against Arsenal legend Martin Keown
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

“So, when he started doing it I was like, ‘What is going on here?’ It fuelled me. But if you are a different sort of character, you are done. In a funny sort of way, I loved it because I’m buzzing anyway. I’m playing at Highbury, Thierry and all that lot playing there. I was buzzing.

“So, when he did it, I loved it but it was mad. The pinches would hurt, you know. It felt like someone had punched me – the sting and the little headbutts.

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