To witness Morgan Feeney thundering into tackles, powering headers clear and expertly marshalling the Everton Under-23s’ backline, it is striking when the Bootle-born defender admits, “I’m still not quite 100 per cent yet”.
Feeney has been a key component of a rock-solid young Blues defence that has conceded just seven goals in their opening 13 Premier League 2 matches – the best record in the division. He will be aiming to deliver another accomplished performance as the table-topping Toffees travel to Leicester City on Monday night (7pm kick-off).
Feeney was out of action for seven months - between February and September 2018 - after undergoing surgery on both knees to correct a long-standing problem with his patella tendons.
The enormity of the 19-year-old’s battle back to fitness was summed up by his manager, David Unsworth, who said recently: “Ten years ago, players maybe didn’t come back from that type of injury”.
Feeney, however, has seamlessly stepped back into the Under-23s team. The England youth international has consistently displayed the fearlessness, composure and defensive nous that has seen him emerge as a centre-back of such promise.
And the lifelong Evertonian is convinced he can further elevate his performances. He stresses he is still striving to achieve his optimum level following his spell on the sidelines.
“I’m not quite there yet,” said Feeney, who made his first-team debut last season in Everton’s Europa League match against Atalanta, before making his maiden start in the victory at Apollon Limassol. “It’s a slow process. I didn’t have a pre-season and I’m just getting back into the swing of things now.
“The signs are it’s going in the right direction. I was told about all this before the operation and I’m hopeful things will settle down soon.
“I’m feeling better each week.”
Feeney, who counts the likes of Italian greats Paulo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro among his footballing idols, admits he “just loves defending”.
Indeed, the centre-back’s willingness to put his body on the line to prevent opposition goals is showcased on a regular basis.
A further familiar sight this season, however, has been Feeney stepping out of defence and playing incisive passes into the feet of Everton midfielders.
He has also demonstrated a capacity to unleash raking, precision balls aimed at the young Blues’ gifted forwards, helping to turn defence into attack in an instant.
“There’s a lot of demand on centre-halves to be good on the ball,” he explains.
“I’m trying to implement that into my game.
“I’ve got the confidence to play those passes. Hopefully I can keep improving as the season goes on.”
Feeney was in typically commanding form in the Under-23s’ final outing of 2018, as the young Blues edged out title rivals Derby County in a closely-contested clash at USM Finch Farm.
The 1-0 victory saw Everton leapfrog the Rams and go two points clear at the top of the Premier League 2 table.
“We pride ourselves on clean sheets, so to get a really important one against a good side was a really good feeling,” he said.
“We started off the season hoping to be challenging for the league and it’s great to be top.”
Feeney is convinced the young Blues boast the depth of talent to go all the way in Premier League 2.
He says the quality and resilience in the squad is reminiscent of that boasted by the 2016-17 title-winning group.
“Now it’s about pushing on in the second half of the season and keeping up our momentum,” adds the defender.
“It’s been a real squad effort. We’ve had periods where there have been lots of games in quick succession so there’s been a lot of rotation.
“We want to drive on and go on to win the league. We know we’ve got the players.
“There’s a similar feeling among us to what we had a couple of years ago. There’s a real belief we can do it.”