Keane Exclusive From Inside England Camp

For a man who professes himself to be very comfortable, Michael Keane is sounding restless.

The Everton defender parks himself on the edge of a sofa in the sprawling reception area of St. George’s Park, England’s magnificently-appointed training headquarters where Keane feels more at home than ever, and considers the reasons underpinning his ceaseless quest for improvement.

Of the team which started for England on Keane’s senior debut against Germany in March 2017, the centre-back is alone in making this squad for European Championship qualifying ties with Bulgaria and Kosovo.

Six of the 13 who populated the bench in Dortmund are included in Gareth Southgate’s latest party.

Keane was not aware the turnover was so stark. Nor is he altogether surprised to discover he is the outlier of the 11 who began that friendly two-and-a-half years ago.

“There are a lot of top-class young players emerging and making it harder and harder to be picked for England,” he tells evertonfc.com.

“You cannot stand still, you have to continue improving.

“When you come here, you have to train well every day and be fully involved in everything that happens.

“Show you really want to be here and to play and do well.

“It is not easy – but playing for your country shouldn’t be easy.

“I don’t think anyone takes being here for granted, you know you have to work hard if you want to stay.”

 

Keane’s latest England summons felt slightly different from some of his earlier calls.

There was perhaps a notion in the initial phase of his international career of Keane being picked on what he would become. That Southgate could envisage Keane combining the over-my-dead-body defending he mastered under Sean Dyche’s guidance with his ball-playing Manchester United upbringing to mature into the model current-day centre-half.

Reporting for duty on Monday morning Keane strode through St George’s Park’s revolving reception doors – a metaphorical reminder of the requirement for elite standards if ever there was – very much a man for the here and now.

Keane is one of the bedrocks of a miserly Everton backline which has recorded 10 clean sheets in 15 Premier League matches, a sequence stretching back to February.

The 26-year-old was fixed on beginning this season strongly after a 2018-19 campaign when he banished memories of an up-and-down first season with Everton to become one of Marco Silva’s go-to men.

“It is important people aren’t thinking it [his form] was a one-season wonder,” says Keane.

“You need to keep improving all the time.

“I am reaching the age where I will be in my prime in the next two or three years.

“I am only going to keep getting better, I think.

“I have always had the right attitude, the desire to keep learning and working hard every day.

“The manager [Silva] played a huge part [in Keane’s upturn] when he came in.

“But the biggest thing was myself, mentally, wanting to prove people wrong and show them how good I could be.

“I want to play for England and to do that I have to put in top performances every week for Everton.

“I feel really comfortable for club and country now, and whenever I step on the pitch, I know I am capable of performing really well.

“I have to do that consistently and help my teams get good results.”

 

Keane’s “bad spell” – his words – saw him fall out of the England reckoning for a period which included last summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.

Revitalised under Silva, he was recalled 10 months ago. Keane won his fifth cap in a friendly against USA. Three days later he was on the bench as England beat Croatia to qualify for this year’s Nations League finals.

That felt about right for Keane and it was indicative of his progress that the same could be said when he completed 90 minutes in each of England’s opening two European Championship qualifying matches back in March.

Although he did not get on the field in the subsequent Nations League finals games against Holland and Switzerland, the player’s first tournament experience intensified his desire to be involved in next year’s European Championship.

He counts the atmosphere inside Wembley for that Croatia game last year among the best he’s known. Expect that fervour to multiply tenfold if Southgate’s side reaches the business end of the European competition in 2020, with both semi-finals and the final set for England’s national stadium.

More immediately, England must navigate the relatively benign waters of their qualification group. Keane scored his first international goal in the 5-1 win in Montenegro which launched the Three Lions’ campaign.

A 5-0 thumping of Czech Republic followed. Beat Bulgaria at Wembley on Saturday and win in Southampton against Kosovo three days later and Southgate’s side will have one foot in the tournament.

“My mindset when I come away with England has changed, definitely,” says Keane.

“There is a lot of competition at centre-back, a lot of top-quality players.

“Things have been going well for Everton and if you are performing for your club every week it gives you a much better chance to play [for your country].

“You get on with it if you don’t get picked, you go about your work the right way.

“But it is disappointing now if I come and don’t play.

“Every time I come here, I am getting more and more hungry.

“Playing [in the European finals] has to be my main aim. I know it will be difficult, but I have to focus on myself.

“The Nations League was a great experience, it was the first tournament I’ve been to with England and even though I didn’t play, I took a lot from it.

“That experience will help me if I go to more tournaments and have the chance to play.

“All I can do is keep improving where I need to and continue playing well for Everton.

“If I do get my chance [against Bulgaria or Kosovo], I need to be at my best, and hopefully that will give me an opportunity in the summer.

“The atmosphere against Croatia was special, if we get to the semis or final – if we play at Wembley in group games – it will top that.

“The whole country will get right behind us”

 

Keane was reared at Manchester United and was the club’s reserve player of the year in 2012.

But he was schooled at the elite end of his trade away from Old Trafford.

Burnley manager Dyche – a former central defender – was a significant influence during Keane’s three years at Turf Moor.

A flurry of earlier loans brought more opportunities to learn from ex-centre-halves. Nigel Pearson managed Keane at Leicester. With Blackburn Rovers, he was coached by former Everton defender Craig Short.

Southgate, an accomplished centre-back who played 57 matches for his country, was in charge for 15 of Keane’s 17 England Under-21 appearances.

He has absorbed valuable pointers from all of them. It is Everton manager Silva, though, who has emboldened Keane, provided the platform for the player to demonstrate his array of qualities.

“He [Silva] has different ideas from other mangers – every manager is slightly different and you learn from all of them,” says Keane.

“He has been brought up on a different style of football in Portugal and has a different philosophy – and it is great to learn from him.

“He has taught me a lot – I am sure the same is true for everyone at the Club.

“The way we want to play is really drilled into us now, we just need to fine-tune it, work on a few things – and I think we are close to being a really good team.”

How do Silva’s instructions contrast with those of his earlier club bosses?

“I play out from the back more than I have under other managers,” says Keane.

“He puts more faith in me to do that – he does in all the players because that is his way of playing, his style.

“But we are not silly with it. If it is not on to play, we have no problem going long.

“We have strikers who are very good at holding the ball up if we go that way.”

 

After Everton opened this season by shutting out Crystal Palace, Seamus Coleman lauded the contribution of his team’s “top-class” centre-backs.

On Keane specifically, Blues captain Coleman observed: "Michael was different class all last season and throughout pre-season and has really grown into an Everton player.

“You can see his confidence and how he is playing with his chest out.”

When Everton were locked at 2-2 with Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday and making all the running in pursuit of a deciding goal, one episode neatly encapsulated what Coleman was getting at.

Wolves cleared the ball to halfway only to find Keane up the pitch, swarming over his opponent to claim possession and spring Everton on the attack.

“That is something I have been spoken to about and want to work on,” says Keane.

“I want to get in people’s faces a bit more – at the right time.

“You can’t do it all the time, because the forward might pick you off and play one-twos around you.

“You have to be careful and choose the times when you can do it.

“I think it gives the team a big boost if the ball comes back to the halfway line and one of the centre halves can get tight, win it and set us on the counter.

“I think it lifts the place and it is important we continue to do that.

“It is the same with England. We like to play from the back, be aggressive and defend on the front foot.”

Keane’s assurance on the field is replicated off it.

He cuts a contented figure, here on England premises, as much a part of the furniture as the grey settees and armchairs dotted about the place.

His short walk to this interview is intercepted more than once by people eager to talk to an increasingly familiar face.

As he stands to leave, Keane is joking about the ‘red card challenge’ he received in training hours earlier. An England snapper ushers him away for some pictures.

“I feel really comfortable, like I am really part of it,” says Keane.

“You always want to prove yourself in training – but I am not coming here thinking I need to prove myself.

“I have shown my quality [in previous get-togethers] and they know what I am about.

“It is about coming here, enjoying it and giving myself the best opportunity to play as well as possible, if selected.
“Every player in the squad is of top quality.

“The ability of some of the forwards and wide players is incredible.

“They are very hard to defend against but that is good for learning.

“And when you go into the international games, there are not many teams with attacking players as good as ours – so you always feel ready to compete.”

More ready than ever in the case of Michael Keane.

 

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