“He’s like I was at 24: a great sponge. He’s from a great family and had a good school upbringing. He’s very mature for his age. He never blames others, which is refreshing, because not all the younger generation of players are like that.”
Rio Ferdinand is a man who knows a defender when he sees one. Capped 81 times by England, with a trophy cabinet full to bursting after a successful career at the highest level, he’s well versed on what it takes to make it in today’s game. So when he waxes lyrical about new Everton signing Michael Keane, it means that little bit more.
It was because of this eagerness to learn that Ferdinand had no hesitation in mentoring his former Manchester United teammate during their time together at Old Trafford as Keane made his first tentative steps in the game. And for that, the Blues’ new recruit is extremely grateful. Dedicated to improving his game, the England international has often sought out the right examples with which to work to ensure he continues to develop. Ferdinand is still one such example.
“When I came through at United, Rio was one of the best centre-halves in the world,” explains the 24-year-old Keane. “To have someone like that as a mentor was great for me. I learned plenty from him at United. Just watching him and how he went about his business taught me a lot. He was always talking to players. Rio’s quality on the ball was a big aspect I took but there was loads I picked up from him, even though a lot of it was in training.
“He has kept in touch ever since we were at United and is always giving me advice. Rio is someone I can always turn to. I spoke to him before I came to Everton and he said it would be a great move for me. And ahead of my England debut he was texting me or sending voice notes, just with little bits of advice that stick in your head.”
His desire to improve saw Keane leave Manchester United – no easy decision for a lad from Stockport who came through their academy – to join Sean Dyche’s hardworking Burnley side, a move that has yielded international honours after his England debut in March this year against Germany. Keane had spent the first half of the 2014/15 campaign on loan with the Clarets and made the move permanent that January. Regular football under a former centre-half in Dyche made sense.
There are similarities to the move he has just made. If Burnley was the perfect platform to launch himself as a talented youngster, then playing for Everton under Ronald Koeman is, in his words, the “perfect match” at this stage of his career.
“I definitely feel the manager is the right mentor for me,” reasons Keane, who signed a five-year contract with the Blues for a fee that could rise to a Club-record equalling £30million.
“You see what he has achieved in his career and there’s no reason why I can’t go on to do that. He was unbelievable and it’s not going to be easy but you have to aim high. I’ve had good guidance so far, playing under the likes of Sean Dyche and even Gareth Southgate with England who was a centre-half as well, but to work under Ronald Koeman, another classy centre-half, hopefully I can add another string to my bow. The last few years at Burnley I felt that I learnt how to defend the hard way. Now I can show I’m a good footballer as well.
“First and foremost, it was the manager who attracted me to Everton. He played in my position when he was a player and the style of football he likes to play is one that appeals to me. I watched a lot of Everton last year and I think I really suit how the team likes to play.
“I feel like it’s a great place to come and continue my development. He’s convinced me that he can still improve me in certain areas of my game. I’m only 24, which for a centre-half in the Premier League, is relatively young. I’ve still got a long way to go. I had a good year last year and that was just down to playing regular football, and hopefully I can do that again and under his guidance keep improving.”
Koeman has a wide supporting cast when it comes to working with his new defender. Established veterans like Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams and Leighton Baines will play key roles in bringing Keane on. “I feel like there’s a lot of experience here and that can only help me,” Keane continues with enthusiasm. “The last few clubs I’ve been at, be it on loan (Keane also had stints at Leicester, Derby and Blackburn) or Burnley, I started off with an experienced player alongside me and I’ve learnt a lot from doing that. There’s a lot of Premier League games between the players here, so I’ll be talking to them and hopefully they will give me bits of advice. I’m still willing to learn, I know I have to learn and, like the manager has said, I feel like my best years are still ahead of me.”
And then, of course, there is Wayne Rooney. Keane is no stranger to England’s all-time leading goalscorer, having called him a teammate with both the Three Lions and at United. He is adamant that adding someone of Rooney’s considerable calibre will benefit far more than just him and the other young players in the Blues’ squad.
“The experience that he has got will rub off on the rest of the lads and he is a great leader. I know that first hand from our time with United and England. He is a player who will come and talk to you, offer bits of advice and if you are doing something wrong he is not afraid to tell you as well! Like Rio, as a young lad, you watch him and how he conducts himself and you learn a lot from him. He has been through it all and won everything there is to win at club level. Someone like that in the changing room can only be a good thing.
“His ability is there for all to see and we saw it straight away in training. He has so much talent and he is only 31. It is a fantastic signing. Wayne, of course, is a boyhood Blue but had 13 fantastic years at Manchester United and has so much experience. For him to come back here at this stage of his career is massive because he still has a lot of good years left in him.”
Those years will be spent trying to lift Everton to the next level, a challenge Keane himself is relishing. To have the opportunity to play in the Europa League in 2017/18 is a solid first step towards taking the Toffees to new heights.
“I spoke to Steve Walsh, who I know from my time on loan at Leicester City, before I signed,” added the defender. “He said its only going in one direction here at Everton and it will keep heading in that direction. Playing in Europe was a massive draw, too. I want to keep improving. Last year I was lucky enough to make the step up to international level and now I want continue that. By coming to Everton and playing in Europe, pushing on under a different manager, I feel that may help retain my place in the England squad as well.
“When the move was being discussed I kept an eye on Everton and the signings they were making because I knew that if things worked out I’d be coming here. It was exciting. I feel like the Club is moving in the right direction and it has for a few years now. With some of the signings we’ve made already, I feel we’ll give it a really good go next season and push right up the league.”
The above story first appeared in July’s Everton magazine! To buy or download singles issues, click here. To subscribe, click here.