Everton Giant Dave Watson says Michael Keane is making great progress at Goodison Park – and believes “there is a lot more to come” from the England defender.
Centre-back Keane’s consistently dependable form this season has been key to Everton's rise up the Premier League table which now has them two points off seventh-placed Wolves.
The 26-year-old has been part of a backline which secured clean sheets at Goodison against Liverpool, Chelsea and in Sunday's 4-0 success over Manchester United, with the Blues also keeping out Arsenal along the way.
Keane's performances have been recognised by England manager Gareth Southgate, who selected the defender in last month's European Championship qualifying wins over Czech Republic and Montenegro, a contest which saw Keane score his maiden Three Lions goal as he celebrated his seventh cap.
The 2017 summer signing from Burnley has blossomed under the tutelage of Marco Silva, the player’s assured defending and reliable and progressive distribution winning him a regular spot in the heart of Everton’s defence.
He has won more aerial duels (163) than any other Premier League defender bar one this term and his 100 headed clearances is the seventh most of any player in the division.
“Michael has done very well this season, he is taking on the responsibility of being the main man in the middle of Everton’s back four,” Watson told evertonfc.com.
“That is a big change for any defender, rather than looking for help from someone next you, it becomes your job to guide players.
“He is gaining experience and will become an even better player with more international matches.
“I think he has been great this season and I am sure there is a lot more to come from him.
“And with the confidence he’s gained recently, he will feel the same.”
Watson owns perhaps the most authoritative Evertonian voice of all on the art of central defensive play.
He won the league title with Everton in his first season after joining from Norwich City in summer 1986.
The talismanic defender, whose magnificent service across 15 seasons and 528 appearances led to him being named Everton’s Millennium Giant of the 1990s, was capped 12 times by England and represented his country at the 1988 European Championship.
Watson, captain of Everton’s 1995 FA Cup winning team, played in the Premier League until the age of 38.
And he reckons Keane, who fits the bill as a modern-day centre-half with his ability to pass accurately through the lines, is built for longevity.
“You have to be able to play at centre-back,” said Watson. “At one time, you could head it and kick it and that was enough.
“These days, with goalkeepers playing from the back, centre-halves are expected to be able to deal with the ball.
“In that position, you have a picture of the entire pitch in front of you, you see everything that is happening.
“It is not often you need tremendous pace, unless you are playing with a high line, which not many teams do these days.
“As you mature, you become wiser and learn from all your experiences.
“Michael will play until he is 34 or 35 at least, all being well, so he still has a fabulous career ahead.
“And having another taster of the England set-up will give him an extra lift and add to his learning.”
Thirteen months separated Keane’s fourth and fifth England appearances, with the former Manchester United player recalled for a friendly against USA back in November.
Rejuvenated under Everton manager Silva, he has started 31 of his club’s 35 Premier League matches this term – missing two early in the campaign after sustaining a hairline skull fracture and the recent 1-0 win over Arsenal due to illness – and had no issue with the flux in his defensive partners this term.
Injuries, suspensions and rules governing loan players' availability have all prevented Silva from handing one of Kurt Zouma, Yerry Mina or Phil Jagielka a regular spot.
And Watson believes Keane’s ability to thrive in various combinations is a further measure of the player’s growing stature.
Additionally, the ex-Everton man, whose gargantuan appearance total puts him third on the Club’s all-time list, insists Keane’s first England goal will have acted as a significant personal shot in the arm.
Watson scored 37 times for Everton, including the decider in the titanic 1991 Merseyside derby FA Cup trilogy and the only goal of the 1995 quarter-final against Newcastle United.
“It is a great feeling and a huge boost when you feel you are helping the team at both ends of the pitch,” added Watson, who also had a spell in caretaker charge of Everton at the back end of 1996-97.
“It gives you great confidence and if you take that into games, it does you the world of good.
“Michael has had a lot of different centre-back partners and managed that very well.
“It generally takes time to develop understandings with players around you and appreciate exactly what the manager expects from you.
“Going into the England set-up, he was with someone different [Harry Maguire] again, but put in two really good performances.
"He is still learning the game and as you develop confidence from playing well, you get better and better."