Michael Keane is anticipating a “fitter, sharper and stronger” Everton, as Frank Lampard’s team aim to capitalise on the irresistible bond formed with supporters last term.
Everton begin match practice for the forthcoming campaign when Lampard’s side face Premier League rivals Arsenal in Baltimore on Saturday.
There was a hairy ending to 2021/22 when Everton had their backs firmly to the wall in a fight for the Club’s top-flight life.
But supporters and players united in a compelling effort, overseen by the talismanic figure of Lampard – appointed midway through the campaign – which culminated in the survival-clinching victory over Crystal Palace in May.
Keane rates that electric Goodison Park night – when the defender’s measured finish launched Everton’s recovery from 2-0 down – as the best of his football career.
The former Manchester United player’s feelings over that occasion are wholly down to the atmosphere generated by Evertonians. And Keane, in common with his manager and teammates, is keen to repay those fervent fans with more consistent and, potentially enterprising, performances this season.
“It is not easy for a manager to come in the middle of a season and get his ideas across and he’ll be looking to do that this pre-season,” said Keane.
“He has been brilliant, so far, he galvanised the squad and got us pulling in the same direction, playing better football and getting better results.
“We know we will be pushed [over the next month].
“We weren’t good enough last year and, maybe, needed to be fitter, sharper and stronger – and we will be this season, judging from our first week back.
“The closing six weeks of last season was the hardest time of my career but also the best, seeing how the Club came together in a desperate time.
“It was a season to forget but those weeks were special, with what the fans brought and the energy they gave the players and staff.
“It was a period I will never forget.
“We want to carry forward that momentum and connection with the fans. We showed what we can do when we are together, Goodison was a special place in that period and a very hard ground for our opponents.
“We were not where we wanted in the table… but there are benefits to take from that situation.
“We have seen how important the fans are, not that we didn’t know it, but the past six weeks were like nothing we’ve seen.
“We want to improve and give the fans happier times. They went through a lot last year, it was a good ending but for a lot of the season it wasn’t good enough and we don’t want to go through that again.”
Keane has been joined at Goodison Park during the close season by former Burnley central defensive partner James Tarkowski.
It is five years since the pair were separated and Keane reckons the two players will “complement” each other in the heart of Lampard’s defence following their respective growth in the intervening period.
The 10 days Stateside will accelerate Tarkowski’s bedding-in process, says Keane, who is additionally convinced formidable opposition in the shape of Arsenal represent a perfect pre-season challenge.
Playing in the USA – Everton also tackle Minnesota United in Minneapolis on Wednesday 20 July – constitutes an opportunity to perform in front of another passionate arm of the Club’s support base.
“Evertonians are amazing, you saw that at the end of last season,” said Keane.
“And it’s not just those in the city, it’s all over the world.
“The dedication they show in America to get up and congregate and watch the games is among the things that makes this club so special.
“I have never witnessed anything like the support at the end of last season.
“Everton fans are the most passionate I’ve known, the raw emotion for their team is something I’ve never seen at another club.
“It is not just the chanting, it is the looks on their faces, how much it genuinely means to them.
“That is what makes them special and sets them apart from other clubs’ fans.
“The Evertonians in America are very passionate, too, and we have a big fanbase there.
“It is nice to go to see them, to feel their support and say thank you for the backing they give us.
“Arsenal will be a good test, we want tough games, they make you feel better and fitter in the long run.
“We are looking forward to it and, hopefully, the fans enjoy a good occasion.”
Keane played 38 games across the competitions last term and has made 186 appearances since joining in summer 2017.
And in advance of his sixth Goodison campaign, he is savouring the prospect of going on the field liberated from the shackles of a relegation scrap – and beginning to implement Lampard’s longer-term strategies.
“Potentially this season, we will look to play a bit more and pass from the back more,” added Keane.
“We didn’t do those things much at the end of last season due to our situation, we couldn’t take too many risks.
“It is about patterns of play, knowing where people will be and having the confidence and ability to do it [pass from defence].
“Hopefully, we can play some good football, get ourselves in a good position in the table and play with a bit more freedom.”