Keane Exclusive On Ambition To Follow In Footsteps Of Everton Giants

In a feature interview originally published in Everton's matchday programme for Saturday's meeting with Manchester United, Michael Keane talks about filling big shoes at Goodison Park, the defender’s climbing confidence levels, a positive response to talking openly about mental health and retaining a childlike love of playing football.


Evertonians go the game.

It is part of the Club’s identity, woven so deeply into Everton’s fabric that a season ticket campaign six years ago adopted the phrase.

“That’s what we do,” concluded the tagline.

Watching free-scoring, Carlo Ancelotti-managed Everton in a deserted Goodison Park, then, can feel quite poignant.

Michael Keane gets that.

He scored in a Merseyside derby last month and says the goal would have counted as his personal Everton highlight with fans in the ground.

Keane can empathise with supporters. The defender remembers how going to football with his dad made him feel and the thoughts it triggered in his impressionable mind.

“My dad had a season ticket at Manchester United,” says Keane.

“If the mate he went with couldn’t make the game, his ticket alternated between me and my twin brother.

“If it was Will going, I’d be devastated, crying.

“Going to football with my dad… those days were amazing.

“He’d go to the pub a few hours before the game and I’d sit with him and his mates.

“We’d get a chippy on the way to the stadium, then get in for the warm-up.

“They were special times and you were in awe of the place at that age.

“It gave me that hunger and drive – the thought, ‘Why can’t I do this and make it my life?’”

It is “sad” in a sporting context, agrees Keane, that he is playing his best football for Everton in empty stadiums.

But he is very grateful for the opportunity to continue doing his job when countless others aren’t so fortunate.


Keane will talk in this interview about his grasp of mental health issues and the broad response to his own public account of hitting “rock bottom”.

Happily, he has “been in a good place for a long time” and Keane’s contentment is reflected in his football.

The centre-back is in his fourth season with Everton and profiting from the judicious influence of Ancelotti.

Keane’s passing, a recognised attribute since he was a greenhorn in United’s academy, is a fair barometer of where his game is at and this season his distribution has been thoughtful and incisive.

“I’ve always felt I had that ability,” says Keane. “But it has become easier and the pictures have been clearer for me since Carlo came because of how we play tactically and the work we do on it [passing from the back].”

Keane’s contribution to Everton’s second equaliser against Liverpool was overshadowed by a combination of Dominic Calvert-Lewin soaring like an NBA superstar to score and the obligatory hoopla that follows any derby.

The defender located James Rodriguez with a pass swatted through the narrowest of corridors to fire Everton onto the offensive.

“It was probably an inch from being intercepted but when you are confident and playing well you try things,” says Keane, his take on the ball to James feeding into a wider point.

Keane is shot through with self-belief, that intangible but most precious commodity which grants a sense of freedom on the field.

“When you’re confident, you feel more composed and make better decisions – on the ball and defensively,” explains Keane.

“Your trust in what you are doing.

“As footballers, we know we have the ability to execute what we want to do.

“But when you consistently play well, you get in a flow, things happen naturally and you don’t over-think anything.”

Keane reached 100 Everton Premier League appearances at Southampton last month.


He fairly sprinted to his century, playing every match since starting when Manchester United visited Goodison Park on 1 March, a day he began on 83 top-flight games for the Club.

Keane has “loved every minute” of being at Everton but, in his own words, had an “up and down two or three years” after joining from Burnley in the summer of 2017.

He’s not given to pumping up his own tyres so prefers to couch talk of this phase of his Goodison career in collective terms.

At 27, Keane is a senior man. His relative longevity at the Club creates a sense of attachment and responsibility.

And after defeats by Southampton and Newcastle United applied the brakes to Everton’s flying start, Keane accepts he’s one of those charged with getting his team motoring again.

“The longer I am here the more connection I have with the supporters and staff and everyone around the Club,” says Keane.

“I feel really at home and absolutely love going into training every day.

“I want to be here as long as possible and want the Club to achieve great things.

“I think we are on the right path.

“We have a healthy mix of youth and experience and a lot of top-quality players.

“It is a really exciting time and I am so happy to be part of it.

“I want that responsibility of being a leader and have a lot to offer.


“The mood in the camp can dip after a couple of losses and that is what we have to prevent.

“You lead during the week by setting standards through the way you train, the intensity you train, always talking on the pitch – identifying things tactically and correcting them.

“Being vocal and positive.

“We need to keep the confidence and belief and positive energy that has served us so well.

“A couple of defeats don’t make you bad players or a bad team.

“We know our quality, the temperament of the lads is good and we can get back to consistently playing well and winning.”

Keane is fresh faced and bright eyed when he pops up on Zoom for this interview.

He’s had a lie-in before an afternoon training session after spending his day off on the golf course, his final round before packing away the clubs for winter.

“I don’t mind a bit of cold but can’t play when it’s freezing,” he says, echoing the view of every fair-weather golfer.

Most of those amateurs who prefer the sun on their backs would snap your hand off for Keane’s eight handicap, mind.

He’s still rueing closing with two double bogeys for a six-over-par round last week.

It was in Keane’s pastime sport that the concept of the ‘nappy factor’ was born, as a pattern emerged of first-time fathers scoring notable tournament victories.

Keane celebrated the birth of his daughter by contributing the only goal in Everton’s win at Norwich City in June and hasn’t put a foot wrong since.


“It [being a dad] is brilliant,” says Keane.

“She has changed my life.

“All I want to do is make her proud.

“Every time I play, I want to do well for her and her future.

“I am loving everything about being a dad.”

Keane’s headed finish against Norwich was, by his own admission, overdue.

He’s always had a nose for goal and it was gnawing at him that he didn’t score more for Everton.

The player recently related he’d been studying videos of irrepressible Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos – who reached the improbable landmark of 100 club goals this week – for pointers on how to flourish in opposition penalty boxes.

“I look at the way he attacks the ball,” Keane expands today.

“The main thing is to believe you are going to win the header and score.

“Make aggressive runs, maybe feint to go the other way and find yourself in space.

“Stay alive in the box.

“If the ball goes over your head, turn and react and be ready for any knockdowns. That happened against West Brom [the second of Keane’s three goals this season].”


He coupled his analysis of Ramos with drills during the spring lockdown devised by his old Manchester United youth team coach Paul McGuinness intended to quicken Keane’s steps in close combat.

The results of his application were evident in that October Merseyside derby, Keane bulleting home a header and dexterously throwing a net over the slippery Mohamed Salah.

Keane’s opening two goals this term – he struck against Salford City three days before his West Bromwich Albion effort – arrived in the September week Everton’s players congregated in the USM Finch Farm cinema room to watch an emotive video featuring the most iconic players and events in the Club’s history.

“It was inspiring,” says Keane, of an edit which was the brainchild of captain Seamus Coleman.

“The players understand how big Everton is but it is important to have reminders of what the Club has achieved and what the badge means.

“To see how good those teams were, the unreal atmosphere inside Goodison and what it would be like if we win something ourselves.

“It gives you more of a feel for what the Club is about and its history.

“You can see the path you are following and shoes you have to fill.

“Everything about it was inspirational and made you want to get on the pitch then and there.”

Keane’s upbringing at United is possibly second only to his parents Aidan and Janet in respect of the influences which formed a likeable and grounded personality.

His ongoing alliance with McGuinness – who Keane recalls showing videos charting United’s storied history as his team, also featuring brother Will, progressed through a triumphant 2011 FA Youth Cup campaign – is testament to the relationships he forged at Old Trafford.


Keane didn’t have it all his own way with his first club, though. Far from it.

He was initially granted only a part-time scholarship and within two years of signing a first professional deal in January 2011 began a series of loans, starting at Leicester City where he “learned a lot from Wes Morgan”.

“When you see those players doing certain things,” continues Keane, of the centre-back who would become a Premier League champion in 2016, “you realise what it takes to be at that level.

“He was always talking to me and helped me massively.”

Keane ultimately left United for three excellent years with Burnley – where he converted his fourth different loan into a permanent arrangement – and was trending upwards following an England debut in March 2017 when he came to Everton.

It was during his first year with the Club, however, that Keane, trying to play with a reductive injury out of a sense of duty to teammates struggling for positive results, eventually reached his lowest ebb.

He didn’t spare any detail when talking publicly this year of the moment he dissolved into tears, telling his family how “things have got on top of me”.

Refreshingly, Keane harboured no fears over speaking out and the reaction was unanimously positive.

“I thought speaking up was the right thing to do,” says Keane.

“I received a lot of messages, some from Liverpool fans, saying how much they appreciated me talking and what an inspiration it was.

“Somebody’s wife contacted me to say I’d really helped her husband and changed their lives.

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05:29

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“That makes me talking worthwhile.

“It is important as many people as possible talk about mental health and normalise the subject.

“Talking does make things a lot better.

“Inside football, what I said was really well received and everyone was supportive.

“It is not the easiest thing to speak about, so a public figure opening up can be a big deal.

“All the lads at Everton were there for me when I was going through a tough time and have always been brilliant with me.

“Only good things have come from me talking publicly.

“I have been in a good place a long time but I have things I do [to maintain good mental health].

“I speak to a sports psychologist most weeks to keep my focus.

“We work on things to do with football.

“If I have a day where I feel a bit off, staying busy is key, not just lounging around – although that’s difficult at the moment.

“Trying to fill my day and having a routine and keeping busy is a big thing for me.”

Keane ranks the 4-0 Goodison victory over United in April last year as his standout Everton moment, “a special day when we dominated in every area of the pitch”, eclipsing his derby goal because “having no fans there takes the gloss off… the feeling would have been on a different level otherwise”.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford will return to Everton’s team for this latest meeting with United.

Keane has played more games with Pickford for Everton and England – 116 – than he has any other teammate.

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This content is available for free to Digital Members

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Free Digital Membership will provide you with the best possible experience when logged into the website, including access to the latest digital content.

Digital members will receive a monthly newsletter and get access to exclusive videos and regular member competitions offering money can’t buy prizes.

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04:48

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“Jordan fills you with confidence when you play in front of him,” says Keane.

“He is always talking and we know his quality as a keeper.

“He is a fantastic shot stopper and incredible with his feet, passing out from the back, which is what we like to do.

“Every player has dips in form – I have had them – but it is much harder as a keeper because if you make one mistake it’s a goal.

“If a goalkeeper is playing well, it rarely attracts much attention.

“If you have a harder time, it goes over the top.

“We know Jordan will be fine.

“Robin [Olsen] did well at Newcastle.

“That competition for places is good – we have it all over the pitch – and will push Jordan to keep doing what he is best at.

“I have no doubt he will be brilliant when he’s back in the team and I love playing with him.”

At England’s October get-together, manager Gareth Southgate’s message to Keane was to “keep doing what you’re doing for Everton”.

Keane has followed Southgate’s instruction to the letter and when we talk two days before the latest England squad announcement, he is hopeful of inclusion.

An opportunity to play against his dad’s Republic of Ireland homeland – the country Keane represented at Under-17 and Under-19 – would be “great”.


“The atmosphere would have been unreal with fans there,” enthuses Keane, who insists Aidan would switch allegiance to England for 90 minutes should his son figure this month.

“It will be intense on the pitch and won’t feel like a friendly.”

Intensity and pressure are the twin-forces capable of sucking the joy from playing football.

Keane has recalled the sport becoming “full-on” as part of the United academy he joined aged 10 after playing his first organised games for South Manchester FC.

The immersive approach suited him, though. Still does.

He talks glowingly, for example, of weekly meetings with Davide Ancelotti, when the Everton Assistant Manager arrives armed with notes and beams clips onto that Finch Farm cinema screen.

“I’ll explain why I have done certain things and he’ll say what could have been different,” says Keane.

“It really helps and increases your understanding of what the staff want tactically.”

The fan in Keane surfaces when he conveys the part he hopes his sport can play in sustaining morale during a second nationwide lockdown.

“You feel involved watching a game, whether you’re supporting a team or want a side to lose,” says Keane.

“It is exciting and you need that in your life. Football brings a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.”

But, for Keane, the thrill of playing outstrips all else.


“Nothing beats a matchday,” he asserts.

“It is just as exciting as it was when I was 10 years old.

“I love training as well but… you can’t wait for the game.

“I have never lost my love of football and desire to play, even when it’s not been going great on the pitch.

“The only way to come through tough times is to keep playing, to train well and work hard.

“If anything, I wanted to do more to put it right

“I love being on a stage where you can show what you can do.

“Pressure is a good thing.

“Being able to perform to a high standard under a lot of pressure is a big achievement.

“And nothing beats the feeling when you have played well and won.”

It is a feeling with which Michael Keane is becoming increasingly well acquainted.