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.