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Exclusive: Michael Keane – Big Sam, Wayne Rooney’s influence and World Cup dreams

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Michael Keane
Photo: Reuters

Before the start of the 2017-18 Premier League season, there was talk of a revolution at Everton.

The Toffees had been a rejuvenated outfit under Ronald Koeman last time out, only finishing eight points behind Manchester United in seventh place, and the top six was all of a sudden a genuine target.

This was a feeling that was only heightened by the Dutchman’s elaborate spending during the summer – which rose to above £150 million by the time September was upon us – and it seemed that it was now Everton who could be the ones to attempt to ruffle the feathers of the Premier League’s elite group.

One man who was part of this movement on Merseyside was England defender Michael Keane, arriving from fellow top-flight side Burnley for a fee believed to have the potential to rise up to £30 million – a club-record deal for a defender.

It was a move that was hugely justified following a mightily impressive season at Turf Moor, where he helped Burnley comfortably retain their top-flight status after Championship promotion in 2016.

In the space of just ten months Keane had returned to the Premier League, earnt his debut England call-up and been nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year, as well as secure his Everton move.

And discussing his decision to move to Merseyside with The Boot Room, Keane said that it was the right move for his career – even though boyhood team Manchester United showed interest.

“I thought I’d get more chance of playing at Everton.

“Manchester United was my Club growing up but I put my heart to one side, thought about it realistically and decided that I would definitely have more chance of playing at Everton.

“Everton is a massive Club, it’s got a huge fanbase, the supporters have been brilliant with me and the manager convinced me to come in the summer – all of these things play a factor and it just felt right.”

It was a move that was merited after an outstanding year at Turf Moor, but it was also a decision that was made with a heavy heart after leading the Clarets back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

As much as nobody wants to be relegated, a year spent in the second division ultimately developed Keane into the hardened and established Premier League centre-half that he has become, and he insists that time in the Championship changed him for the better.

“It was the making of me going back down to the Championship.

“It’s never nice to get relegated but I was only young still and playing week-in, week-out in the Championship is tough – it’s a difficult league – but it built me up as a man. On the pitch I was a lot more aggressive after that year, and winning games gets you in the habit of winning football.

“Looking back it was a massive year in my career, and probably the most enjoyable too – you want to win lots of football matches and win titles and that’s exactly what happened that season. It gives you that hunger to try and do it again.”

But, despite earning his big move over the summer to an Everton side brimming with financial backing and ambition, it has been anything but plain sailing since making the switch to Goodison.

The 25-year-old’s record transfer fee for a defender immediately set expectations rolling amongst supporters, and it is something that Keane confesses he’s had to deal with over the past six months.

“There was [a sense of expectation] but that’s just natural, it doesn’t add any pressure to me coming into games. If anything it spurs you on and it’s a compliment that Clubs are willing to pay that much for you. You want to pay them back and show Everton supporters that you’re worth that

“It has been a difficult start, I want to perform at my best more consistently and to be playing all of the games, but a lot of that has been down to injury as well”

Both Keane and Everton started the year well enough but things began to unravel in spectacular fashion as the Toffees gravitated towards the bottom three of the Premier League table, winning just twice in 12 matches in a barren run between late August and November.

Combine this with a wretched Europa League campaign – earning just the solitary win in six group stage matches – and those pre-season hopes and aspirations of a top six battle swiftly changed into stark relegation fears.

It was a run of form that ultimately cost Koeman his job in charge at Goodison Park, and Keane is the first to admit that his Everton career has had a rude awakening this season.

“It’s been up and down. It started really well when I first came in, we had a good pre-season when the Europa League started and we did well in the Premier League in the first couple of games, but then it went downhill for a few months. We had a few bad results and a lot of the lads – including myself – lost confidence and form which resulted in Ronald Koeman getting sacked.”

The immediate period following Koeman’s departure was just as problematic as the preceding months however, with interim manager David Unsworth overseeing a troublesome five weeks in charge.

The Everton Under-23 boss managed seven first-team games whilst the board of directors searched for a long-term replacement, losing five of these as their demise into the relegation spots continued.

However, they say that every cloud has a silver lining, and it came in the form of Sam Allardyce.

Big Sam’s Premier League pedigree is one that can’t be doubted – after all, last season he came in and miraculously helped Crystal Palace avoid the drop when all seemed lost – and after an arduous first three months of the Premier League season there was a ray of light at Goodison.

Within just seven matches he had pulled Everton away from danger and back towards the top-half, winning four and drawing three as an all-too rare sense of optimism started to return into the Gwladys Street Stand.

And Keane has praised the immediate impact that Allardyce has had since arriving on Merseyside, citing his ability to right the wrongs of the opening months of the season.

“He’s just got us back to the basics, doing things that we weren’t doing well during the few months before he came. We’re defending well now, defending as a team, working harder and he’s got us fitter and harder to beat because we were conceding a lot of goals. Considering the players we’ve got that should never have been happening but we were just a bit all over the place positionally and he’s come in, he’s sorted it out and I think you can see the results straight away.

“We’re definitely harder to beat, we’re looking more of a threat going forward at the minute and hopefully the new signing we’ve made [Turkish striker Cenk Tosun from Besiktas] and maybe one or two more will help us to add to that.”

It is not just Allardyce that Keane credits with Everton’s upturn in form, though, and he points out childhood icon and ex-Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney as a vital first-team figure.

The former England captain returned to Goodison in the summer and has arguably been the pick of the recent arrivals, leading by example and reaching double figures for goals already.

“I used to play with him at [Manchester] United and England and used to watch him growing up all the time, so there’s no doubting the ability he’s got. There was the question of whether he could play regular games and bring it to the table but he definitely has done and he’s been one of our best players this season.

“He’s scored a lot of goals and set a lot up, and when he’s in the team it’s always a lift. He’s always looking to get on the ball going forward – he’s been brilliant.”

It is not just on the pitch where Rooney has impressed this season, with Keane praising the 32-year-old for the presence he brings into the dressing room.

“He’s a leader. He’s got all the experience and he passes it around, especially to the younger lads, and he’s a great person to be around. He’s a good lad, a good laugh, but he knows when he needs to be serious as well and he’s never afraid to deal with the team at half-time which is what you need.”

Yet, whilst Everton’s – and Rooney’s – form has improved, Keane’s stop-start year has continued.

After picking up an injury earlier in the season the England centre-half was absent from last Saturday’s defeat at Tottenham with a cut to his foot, stalling the momentum that he’d been building up in the back-line.

The former Claret endured a rocky start to life with Allardyce, being omitted from the starting line-up for three successive league fixtures in mid-December, but he returned for the visit of reigning champions Chelsea and showed the new boss just what he can do with a rousing and determined individual display in a 0-0 stalemate.

This performance – allied with another clean sheet against West Brom in his next outing – finally allowed Everton supporters the chance to see their £30million man hitting top-form.

Another untimely injury has forced Keane into pressing the pause button on his 2017-18 season once again though, and he explained the frustration that injuries at the top level can cause.

“It’s hard. To be honest it’s something I’ve never had to do before, so it’s quite new for me to have injuries that keep you out for two or three weeks. You enjoy playing football and training every day on the pitch but when you’re injured you’re on the bike and doing things like that which isn’t nice.

“Other players then play and, if they do well, you won’t get back in the team and that’s something I’ve had to deal with this season. I knew I couldn’t complain but at the same time it is frustrating. You have to work so hard when you’re injured as well to keep that fitness up.

“I just need to get over this one by next week and then hope I won’t have any more.”

Keane’s frustrations at another injury can be understood considering that competition for places in the Everton defence is rife at the moment. With Ashley Williams, Phil Jagielka and Mason Holgate also battling for starting berths there’s big strength in depth – but Keane insists he thrives on the competition.

“We need competition.

“In my position we’ve got four or five centre-halves at the minute at Everton who are all ready to start a game at any time. It’s chopped and changed quite a lot, so there’s not really a settled centre-back partnership yet but that’s good when you’re training, you want to bring the best out of each other. That’s what the manager wants and you’ve got that in our position.”

Whilst the competitiveness for places at Goodison Park is healthy on a domestic front, Keane will no doubt be desperate to re-instate himself as a first-team regular upon his return from injury with the 2018 World Cup fast approaching on the horizon.

The 25-year-old was awarded his England debut by current manager Gareth Southgate in March of last year, earning his first cap in a 1-0 friendly defeat to reigning world champions Germany, and since then he’s featured a further three times to put himself firmly in the reckoning for a spot in the final squad for Russia 2018.

Reflecting on his England bow, he said:

“It was unbelievable – I’ve actually only just got my cap through for the first time.

“It was an unbelievable feeling and I wasn’t expecting it at the time. I was focused on what I had to do and the game came around, went well, and afterwards it was the best I’ve ever felt after a football match.

“It’s a huge honour to play for your country but to do it away in Germany in such a difficult game, even though we lost, was special. On your debut you look more at your own performance and I think I did well, so I was pleased with that.”

He certainly did well enough to impress Southgate, who called on him once again in the final World Cup qualifying match away at Lithuania in October as part of his first five-man defence experiment.

It is a system – likely to be used in June – that Keane has expressed his comfort in.

“I’ve done it quite a few times this season, and done it in the past, and if you get it right it’s a good system to play in. The manager’s made it obvious that he likes to play like that so I feel I can fit into the system. I just need to get back playing for Everton, play well week-in, week-out, get a bit of consistency back in my game and hopefully I’ll be knocking at the door come the summer.”

“It’d be a dream to go to the World Cup. It’s going to be difficult as there’s a lot of competition for places and a lot of the lads are playing well at the minute so all I can do is focus on getting back fit for Everton and playing well there – what will be will be with England.”

It is this final comment that’s one of a player who knows that his immediate priorities lie with Everton, who head into the final stretch of the Premier League season inside the top-half.

Four defeats on the bounce had somewhat stopped Allardyce’s runaway train in its tracks over the past few weeks but yesterday’s draw against West Brom – whilst far from ideal – at least steadied the ship.

Keane – who watched from the substitutes bench – has now called on Everton to end the season strongly ahead of next year,  and he knows how key this period is in order to build for next season.

The England international may not have endured the dream first six months at Everton but the current side is undoubtedly a work in progress, and he predicts that it won’t be long before the Merseyside outfit are once again aiming to compete with the Premier League’s very best.

“Going forward we’ve definitely got the capabilities of getting in the top six and, who knows, maybe knocking at the door of the top four in a year or so.

“At the minute we need to concentrate on getting ourselves back up the table but we can also learn from the start we had to this season and hopefully next year we can hit the ground running.”

It is a bold statement of intent to emanate from a testing few months at Goodison Park but with Allardyce steadying the ship since arriving, and with further additions set to be made in January, Everton have the necessary platform and resources to re-build themselves as a consistent top-seven side – with Keane intending to be a vital component at the heart of it.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

Everton

Henry Onyekuru has a real battle to rectify Everton career

Everton snapped up the Nigerian last summer, but he has had a tough 2018 so far.

Mathew Coull

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Last summer Everton made plenty of new signings. The club invested heavily in the first-team squad, with the likes of Michael Keane, Jordan Pickford and Gylfi Sigurdsson all expensive recruits for Farhad Moshiri to empty his pockets for.

Another new signing was that of Nigerian talent Henry Onyekuru. The attacker had just scored 24 goals in 41 games for KAS Eupen the season previously and had plenty of teams chasing his signature.

Everton eventually won the race, paying a fee reported to be in the region of £7 million by the BBC.

He was immediately loaned out to Anderlecht, as he did not have the credentials to earn a work permit to play in the UK.

The hope for Everton was that Onyekuru would thrive at the Belgian giants. He would then go to the World Cup with Nigeria and receive his work permit as a consequence.

That has not proved to be the case. At first, it appeared the plan was working. Onyekuru scored nine goals in 26 appearances in the first half of the season, mostly playing from the left-wing. However, in December, he suffered a serious knee injury that left him out of action until April.

Now, Onyekuru risks become a forgotten man at Everton.

The injury scuppered his chances of playing for Nigeria this summer. Despite his return in April, Anderlecht were reluctant to play him and he no longer wants to stay in Brussels on a similar loan spell next season as a consequence.

His lack of first-team action saw the Super Eagles omit him from the World Cup squad.

(Photo credit should read ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Without a UK work permit, he is set to find another loan club next season, with Borussia Monchengladbach linked by HLN.

Everton now have an entirely new structure to the one that first brought Onyekuru to the club and the Nigerian will need to produce some real quality next season to remain on the club’s radar.

He also needs to win back a place in the Nigeria squad, or Everton will never get the accreditation needed for him to play for the club.

This season has turned out to be a disaster for the £7m Everton newbie and it is not ridiculous to think he is now struggling to ever make an impact at Goodison Park.

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Everton should offer Crystal Palace former player Yannick Bolasie to get Wilfried Zaha

Everton are keen on signing the Ivory Coast winger.

Mathew Coull

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Everton have today been linked with a move for Crystal Palace attacker Wilfried Zaha. The Ivory Coast international has been in fine form for the Eagles this season, scoring nine and assisting five goals in 29 appearances, and is being targeted by a host of clubs in the Premier League.

The Sun is now suggesting that Everton’s main managerial target Marco Silva wants the winger to be his main man and the club are putting together a £60 million deal.

(Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

It is, however, a tough field in terms of transfer opposition. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City are also keen on the player this summer. For Everton to get their hands on the player they will need to do something a little different and offering Palace a ready-made replacement could be the best option.

The player in question is Yannick Bolasie. If Everton want Zaha, then offering the DR Congo winger back to his former club might give them the edge over their competition.

Bolasie joined Everton in 2016 for a fee reported by the BBC to be in the region of £25 million. After a promising start to his career on Merseyside, a knee ligament injury saw him out of action for over a year. Since his return to action, the 28-year-old has struggled to find any good form, frustrating players with his inconsistent performances.

Many value the fact Bolasie can occasionally produce some magic. But if Zaha is around, he will be doing so on a more consistent basis.

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Offering him back to Palace would give the Eagles a ready-made replacement who knows the club. It would also help Zaha in his decision to leave Selhurst Park in good hands, as he clearly cares for his boyhood club.

There is also a school of thought that Bolasie’s presence at Goodison Park could help convince Zaha to come and play for the Toffees, given the pairs good relationship.

Either way, it is clear the £25 million star could play a pivotal role in Everton ensuring they are the ones to get their hands on Zaha this summer.

Fans will certainly hope that is the case, as Zaha would be a major signal of intent from Everton ahead of a new era at the club.

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Heurelho Gomes would be perfect back-up for Everton under Marco Silva

The Brazilian veteran would be a great option for Everton.

Mathew Coull

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Everton certainly do not need a new first-team goalkeeper. The Toffees have an excellent young stopper in Jordan Pickford who, in the long-term, has the potential to be a star for both club and country. This summer it appears he will be the number one goalie for England at the World Cup in Russia.

However, Everton may need to bring in a new stopper to back him up. Joel Robles is out of contract this summer and Maarten Stekelenburg continues to suffer from a long-term hip problem.

Everton, who are also after a new boss, are therefore likely to bring in a new face this summer. Well, if they make the managerial choice they clearly desire, the best option for back-up ‘keeper becomes clear.

(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The Toffees want former Watford boss Marco Silva to become the new boss at Goodison Park. His appointment would surely see a move for veteran Hornets stopper Heurelho Gomes become a possibility.

The 37-year-old has established himself as a top keeper in English football at Vicarage Road. After a mixed spell at Tottenham Hotspur, he has been fantastic for Watford for the past four years.

The 11-cap Brazilian international might be on his way this summer. Javi Gracia, Silva’s replacement at the club, was clearly not his biggest fan and dropped him for Greek international Orestis Karnezis.

(Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Therefore, if Silva does get the Everton job, bringing Gomes to Goodison would appear something of a no-brainer.

With years of experience in the English game, he would be a brilliant back-up and mentor to young stopper Pickford. When called upon, Everton would be able to relax in the knowledge that the still talented shot-stopper was coming off the bench to do his duties.

The 37-year-old could be a cheap and shrewd piece of recruitment from Everton this summer.

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