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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

Yves Bissouma would be the ideal first summer signing for Everton

Josh Kerr

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Yves Bissouma
Photo: Getty Images

According to Sky Sports, Everton could rival Tottenham for Lille midfielder Yves Bissouma as the two Premier League giants go head-to-head for the talented youngster.

After the sacking of Sam Allardyce from Goodison Park, Everton will know a huge summer window awaits. The Toffees need to recruit smartly if they are to improve on their 8th place finish of last season.

The midfield area needs serious reinforcements, with the likes of Davy Klaassen and Morgan Schneiderlin both enduring terrible campaigns. Bissouma, currently plying his trade in Ligue 1, could be vital in improving the club in the centre of the park.

Reports suggest Tottenham have been scouting the 21-year-old for the majority of the season so Everton should swoop soon if they are to get their summer plan in motion.

(Photo by Pascal Pavani/Getty Images)

The Ivory Coast-born midfielder already has 15 caps for Mali, and has hit three goals and one assist this season, impressing with his ability to play centrally or out wide.

Bissouma’s technical ability on the ball has impressed across the French league and he could be the addition that encourages Everton to play the free-flowing football that fans have been craving all season.

The report from Sky Sports also claims that former director of football Steve Walsh – who was sacked last week alongside Allardyce – was the one launching the interest in Bissouma, which means his exit could impact Everton’s pursuit.

However, the club should still monitor Bissouma’s availability as options in midfield are becoming increasingly thin, with several players becoming complacent and failing to impress on Merseyside.

The Toffees should undoubtedly follow up Walsh’s initial interest in the youngster and prepare to swoop.

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Marcel Brand’s stance on Ademola Lookman should reassure Everton fans

Max Cohen

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Ademola Lookman
Photo: Getty Images

On Wednesday, Everton’s new director of football laid out his plans for the Merseyside club, emphasising the importance of working with young players.

According to the Telegraph, Brands is set to meet with Ademola Lookman in a bid to convince the promising youngster to stay at Goodison Park; a move that will reassure Everton supporters.

The 20-year-old spent the second half of the season on loan at Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, enjoying a successful spell that was punctuated by three goals and two assists in his final two matches.

Yet, the Englishman’s fine end to his stay in Germany sparked reports in ESPN that the Bundesliga club were interested in purchasing Lookman on a permanent basis, a transfer that would come as a massive blow for Everton.

The talented attacker only signed from Charlton in the summer of 2017, and was tipped to be one for the future at Goodison Park. To lose Lookman after just seven league appearances for Everton would be a tragic misstep.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Luckily, Brands is well known for his development of young players and said he is seeking a forward-thinking coach who shares these beliefs.

As quoted in the Telegraph, Brand is looking for a “modern coach,” preferably someone “who wants to work with young players.”

These comments will surely come as a relief to Toffees supporters who suffered through Sam Allardyce’s reign, a manager who is possibly the polar opposite of a “modern coach.”

Maintaining the services of one of England’s brightest young attacking talents, one who was even tipped for a World Cup call-up, is undoubtedly among Everton’s top priorities this summer.

It is refreshing to see the club’s new director of football shares this view and Marcel Brands will do his best to convince Ademola Lookman to remain at Goodison Park.

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Everton news round-up: Baines remains, eight released and dressing room unrest

A round-up of the biggest news at Everton today.

Mathew Coull

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Baines Remains

First of all, there is good news for Everton fans. Reports this week that club legend Leighton Baines is considering his future at Goodison Park now seem wide of the mark.

It had been suggested that the England international was tempted by a move to Los Angeles to play in MLS. However, as reported by the Liverpool Echo, the defender has no intention of leaving the club he has been with for 11 years.

He is said to be excited about working with a new manager.

For Everton, it is great news. Not only is Baines a legend, but he is also the best left-back at the club and a danger from set-pieces who is reliable from the spot.

This news should certainly be welcomed among the Everton faithful.

The Not-so Magnificent Eight

Unfortunately for other Everton players, their future is out of their hands. Everton have released a handful of their under-18 staff today. Captain Tom Scully is leaving, with the expectation he will join Norwich City – according to the Liverpool Echo.

Others who have been told they can depart are Stephen Duke-McKennna, Tom Murphy, Sid Kerr, Charlie Ball, Nathan Moore and Jordan Corke. Nathan Baxter has also been released. He was signed under Roberto Martinez’s reign from Vitesse Arnhem but has failed to develop at Finch Farm and will now need to find his way elsewhere.

The release of Scully and Duke-McKenna may come as something of a surprise, but it appears that Everton are ready to freshen up their youth-team.

Whack-a-Mole

Now some troubling news reported by The Sun today. They claim there are huge divisions in the camp at Everton, namely between the whole dressing room and, seemingly, Oumar Niasse.

The report suggests the ill-feeling in the camp got so bad that youngster Tom Davies has even contemplated quitting the club.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Getty Images)

But the most alarming factor about this story is the supposed ‘dressing room insider’ feeding this sort of ‘story’ to the press.

Everton fans will not enjoy seeing the dirty laundry of the dressing room being aired out in the open.

These matters should be kept in-house and Everton must search out and give the mole the boot before anything else.

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