A mainstay at the heart of Southampton's defence at the start of the Premier League era, Ken Monkou made more than 200 appearances for Saints in the 1990s, playing under five different managers at The Dell...
The first one would be the famous Man United one. Nobody actually mentions how well we played that day, because everyone talks about the grey shirts and how they had a bad day, but we played them off the park. Dave Merrington was in charge, and I remember him telling us that we weren’t allowed to speak to the press the week before the game, but I did an interview about three or four weeks before and the journalist placed it on the Saturday! The headline was ‘THEY NEED TO MAKE US BLEED TO BEAT US’, so that added petrol to the fire, which was what Dave Merrington was trying to prevent. If we’d got beat that day, the finger would definitely have been pointed at me! The second one would be the Norwich 5-4 game, and the third one would be the home game against Wimbledon on the final day of the season (1995/96). In the end we didn’t concede or score. As players we were petrified to make a mistake. It was unbelievably tense – you could feel it from the stands.
I got on really well with Franny (Benali) and Matt Le Tiss – we had a really good understanding and we’re still mates now. But I got on with most of the guys – we had great characters, great personalities.
Iain Dowie was one, and Gordon Watson was another. There was always stuff going on with their antics! There were some crazy stories – I remember one with James Beattie, Matt Oakley and David Howells, when they bought a little cruiser and one day after training they tried to go to France, but they got lost! What could be so difficult? It’s only a few miles!
Probably the Man United game, but there was also one against Arsenal. When you speak to colleagues in other sports, we always have an outer body experience – I think that’s what I had in those two games. You finish the game and you know you’ve played the game, but you can’t remember what went on, even though you played out of your skin. Normally I was physically, mentally, emotionally knackered, but on those particular occasions I wasn’t. I’d played the games but didn’t feel like I had. There is a picture of Ian Wright grabbing hold of my throat and I’m standing looking over him and laughing at him! I remember Franny telling me afterwards that we were toying with him and he really got frustrated – we were passing the ball between us and he couldn’t get hold of it. We were just laughing and shouting “Olé!” and he steamed in two-footed, and that’s when he grabbed me and I was laughing at him. Those pictures in the newspapers the next day proved that I was actually there, but I couldn’t remember playing that game. When you ask a lot of people in sports, I think they would also have similar moments.
It’s strange because I remember close friends of mine watching games and saying, ‘Ken, it looked like you weren’t doing much today – you weren’t running and closing people down like your normal self.’ But actually when I looked back at the game, I didn’t make any mistakes, I didn’t give the ball away and I was actually just reading the game and being as efficient as I could be. I’d come off the pitch feeling absolutely knackered because I’d been putting people in position and shouting, just without running around like an idiot. I think my best period as a player was probably between 32 and 35, because I was still fit but I read the game properly because I’d developed more experience as a player. Players last much longer now – between 30 and 33 is often when they hit their peak. Before, it used to be between 25 and 30. It’s because of the nutrition and people looking after themselves much better, even though the game is much faster than when we played.
If you asked the supporters, they would say the Norwich one because of the importance of the goal. But I think I scored two of three other ones that, technically, were much better, and we’d worked on them in training. They were usually set-pieces, and most of the time Matt Le Tissier was behind the ball. I think there was one against Everton with Neville Southall in goal, when I scored a half-volley but it was disallowed for some reason – maybe someone was offside. That was one of my greatest goals!
Matt (Le Tissier), without a doubt. We had some really good players, but Matt stood out. It was just his ability, and he always played with enjoyment – sometimes it was annoying, especially in the beginning when I didn’t understand what type of player he was, but then you work it out. I remember when [Graeme] Souness came in, he asked me what the team was like. I said, ‘we are a very straightforward team, we play 4-4-2 and we’re a like big cake – the icing on the cake is Matt Le Tissier. If you understand how we play and how to use him properly, we will win more games than we lose.’ In the end I only played four or five games that season under Souness! But we all said that – once you understand the calibre of player Matt Le Tissier was and how to use him, he could be one of the great players. I have no doubt that if Matt Le Tissier had played in Europe, he would’ve had an even bigger name than he has now.
Best opposition player?
Liverpool had a great team when they won the First Division in 1989/90. Peter Beardsley and Ian Rush together, as a pair, were unbelievable to play against. I played against some good, good players, like Owen, Shearer, Klinsmann, Zola… but Beardsley and Rush were very cunning. Ian Wright was another one – I remember when he scored his hat-trick at The Dell. He hadn’t scored against me for a long time, but when he scored in that game he came running past me and said, ‘Ken, you’re nothing special, I’ve beaten you now as well!’ I laughed at him, because before that he hadn’t been able to score. We had unbelievable battles. I remember years later, after one of the last games that he played, he walked up to me and said, ‘big man, listen, let’s bury the hatchet.’ Years later, he called me, and said, ‘Ken, it’s Ian Wright, I’m doing this charity and I’d like you to participate.’ I remember seeing him and we gave each other a big hug and laughed. We’re good mates now, but when we played there were battles going on – battles within battles! He was one of those players like a [Luis] Suárez – very irritable, but a good player that you’d want in your team and you didn’t want to play against.
Best opposition team?
I think Arsenal were very good, with Bergkamp, Wright, Overmars, Vieira and Petit. There was the young Manchester United team with Cantona, when people said, ‘they won’t win anything’ – that was a good team too. I can’t forget Chelsea with Gullit, Zola and Vialli, and even teams like Middlesbrough couldn’t be underestimated, with Juninho and Ravanelli. When you look back, every team had at least four or five quality players in their side that people would want to come out and see, regardless of who they supported.
Best away day?
Anfield was great – one of those stadiums you enjoyed playing, because of the tradition and the atmosphere. But also places like Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa – big clubs with great grounds. The moment you drove through the neighbourhood towards the ground, you could sense it.
Definitely Alan Ball. In the seven and a half years I was there, we had five different managers. They were all different approaches, but Alan Ball stood out because he read the group very well and he recognised what the supporters wanted. For him as a character, he wanted to express himself, and that’s what we were allowed to do. We trained with enjoyment – he always had to cut the training sessions short because we always wanted to continue playing. He used to say, ‘contain it until Saturday!’ I think all the boys in that period loved it the same that I did. I remember years later I was in China in a club with some friends, and suddenly people started shouting. There was this little guy in the corner and it was Alan Ball walking in! He said, ‘big man, how are you doing?’ and came up to me with a big hug. That illustrated what kind of man he was. He was a great, great manager. What people forget is that even though you’re getting paid and it’s a serious job, you’ve got to enjoy what you do. He definitely brought that.