In an interview that originally appeared in the Everton Matchday Programme ahead for the clash with Tottenham Hotspur earlier this week, Michael Keane opens up on the period he thought his Blues career was over, his deep feelings for the Club, the lasting impact of Sean Dyche had on his career as a youngster and the details the manager and his staff have worked since their arrival in late January...
It’s a funny old game.
It had been more than nine months since his last Premier League start when Michael Keane was thrust into action against league leaders Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last month.
In that testing period, which involved no injuries, he admits there was a time when he felt his Everton career had gone beyond retrievable.
However, underlining just how quickly fortunes can change in football, he retained his starting berth in the line-up in each of the past three games having being handed that chance by Sean Dyche, as the Blues began to build momentum with an impressive home win over Brentford sandwiched between a pair of away draws at Nottingham Forest and Chelsea.
Arriving for this interview at Finch Farm’s media room, Keane is muddy-kneed and just about has his breath back after a gruelling training session prior to some hard-earned rest during the break from domestic action.
“I didn’t want to leave Everton but, at the same time, I didn’t see a way that I was going to play at all, so at one point I felt I had to try to get out,” he reflects, with admirable honesty. “There were a few opportunities from clubs who wanted me and it would have been a chance for me to go and play football again. But the Club didn’t let me go and now I’m thankful for that, because, deep down, I didn’t want to leave — I love this club.
“I know how big a club this is. When you leave Everton, it’s going to be very hard to replicate the feeling, wherever you go.
“The thoughts I had at the time purely came down to just wanting to play football. I’m back in the team now and I’m really happy.”
While that prolonged spell on the sidelines had been the first time in his career he had experienced being out of the picture, Keane’s commitment and professionalism never came into question.
Perhaps most impressively of all, his self belief did not waiver, either.
“The first couple of months were probably the hardest where I wasn’t used to it at all — I wasn’t used to being fit but not playing, to not having a game to look forward to at the weekend and things like that,” he reflects. “In a bad way, after a couple of months you get used to it a bit — not that I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to get back in this team’, but I just felt like I wasn’t close and it was going to be really difficult for me to get a chance.
“It was most difficult around matchdays, not having that buzz but throughout the week I kept myself busy, working hard in training, getting in the gym, then away from the training ground I’ve got a young daughter now, so I had things to take it off my mind.
“It was probably a bit different now to how it would have been for me four or five years ago. I think I coped with it well. All you can do at that point is work hard and wait for a chance.
“I felt I couldn’t have done any more in terms of being ready, so there was no use worrying about it, I felt like I just needed a bit of luck.
“All I could do was work hard and I continued to do that every day and hoped to get a chance.
“I’ve had a bit of luck with the manager coming in and thankfully I had been training well because that gave me the opportunity to start well in training when he came in and show him how good I am still.”
Dyche and Keane, of course, go way back.
Keane, who celebrated his 30th birthday at the turn of the year, had already enjoyed productive loan spells in the Championship at Leicester City, Derby County and Blackburn Rovers when Dyche brought the central defender to Turf Moor on an initial temporary basis in the summer of 2014.
Dyche had been impressed by Keane’s performance in the East Lancashire derby, despite Keane’s Blackburn ending on the wrong end of a 2-1 defeat — and identified the then-21-year-old to bolster his backline after sealing promotion to the Premier League.
Keane was immediately taken by the manager’s meticulous nature.
“I was a young lad but when I spoke to him I could sense the belief he had in me as a player,” he recalls. “I’d done well at Leicester, Derby and Blackburn and when I spoke to him, he obviously knew about me and I’d played against his Burnley team.
“I was aware he knew a lot about me. He knew what kind of player I was but I think one of the main things as well was he knew where I could improve and, speaking to him, I felt he could really make me a better player.”
It wasn’t just a sales pitch.
There was substance to Dyche’s words, as Keane would soon find out.
“I’d play four or five games, then he’d pull me into the office and show me a few clips,” he reveals from his early days at Burnley. “It’d be little defensive details. I remember one thing, in particular... It might seem a small thing, but when I’m at centre-back and the ball gets crossed in, if the ball goes over my head, turning quick to react to the second ball.
“They are little things but important and working on those details become habits.
“I watch myself now and I still do things now that he worked on me with.
“If the ball goes over my head, I turn my shoulders quickly and get in position quickly ready for the next ball or any knock-downs.
“Blocking shots, always being read to run in behind, body position... the fine details but all of these things that might seem small really help when you’re out on the pitch.
“They are some of the things the manager instilled in me. When you do them on a day-to-day basis and he helps with that because he makes sure you do, it just becomes habit and becomes second nature.”
After suffering relegation on Burnley’s return to the Premier League, Keane helped the Clarets secure an immediate return to the top flight in 2015/16 as champions of the Championship.
He continued to play an integral role in Burnley’s defence as they retained their Premier League status the following campaign and that following summer Everton won the race for his signature.
“He wished me well,” said Keane, when remembering his move to Merseyside. “We had a great time together at Burnley. I played a lot of games and as a team we were successful. I was sad to leave Burnley because I had good times and a great relationship with the manager. I felt like I was improving a lot under him.
“It was just a great opportunity for me to be able to join a club like Everton and a chance to kick on.
“We ended on good terms and we stayed in touch every now and again — he’d call to see how I was, how I was getting on.
“I’ve always had a really good relationship with him.”
After a five-and-a-half year break, the story of the pair’s relationship began a new chapter as Dyche was named Everton manager in late January.
“Of course it’s not nice when someone loses a job but when the manager left, I was hoping [Dyche] would get the job,” says Keane. “I know what he’s about.
“The first time I saw him was in the canteen upstairs. It was nice to see him but it was just a quick hello, really, then we caught up a few days later because we were straight down to work.
“As well as being good for me personally, I thought he’d be really good for us as a team and so far I think he’s proving that.
“We’ve got a long way to go but I think in the time he’s been here you can see a clear improvement in the team.
“Training has been harder — in a good way — since he came in and that’s help me get fitter. But then I think there’s only a certain amount of fitness you can get from training and at some point you have to be thrown in to a game and you get your fitness through matches then. Thankfully, I got that opportunity.
“The feeling around the place every day is brilliant, the standards he’s brought in, the way we train every day and I think all of those things are showing out on the pitch.”
Dyche, an obvious admirer of Keane, identified Everton’s number five as one of a group of players that needed to crank up their fitness levels after taking the managerial reigns in L4.
A series of behind-closed-doors games — a semi-regular feature under Dyche — were set up for players who had found themselves on the periphery of the first team.
“He’s big on the statistics — how far we’ve run as a team, high-speed running and things like that,” explains Keane. “Particular in midfield areas, you are expected to cover a lot of ground, because you have to defend as a team and then get up the pitch and attack as a team as well. The midfield players, especially, cover a lot of ground.
“I think it’s fairly standard for any Premier League team. There might be managers that might not lean too much on it but I think, in the end, that shows.
“If you’re not fit enough, you end up looking tired at the end of games and losing points as a result.
“When you’re tired, that’s when teams get on top of you and you struggle. I think the fitter you are as a team, the better the chance you’ve got of achieving results.”
There has been a collective desire in Everton’s changing room to see an upturn in those numbers.
“When you’re winning games and you see how much you’ve outrun the opposition, for example, in high-speed running and total distance, it’s no coincidence,” Keane continues. “One game we ran more than 10km more as a team than the opposition... that’s almost like having another player on your team.
“I think it’s big.
“Some managers choose to lean on it quite a bit and others don’t but, at the end of the day, it’s important.
“If you can be physically ready, fit and run more, then it gives you a much better chance and the lads recognise that.”
Individually, Keane admits the opportunity to be back in Everton’s starting line-up has provided a timely shot of confidence, particularly given the quantity and quality of competition in his position.
And Dyche’s faith in Keane is being repaid — on top of taking five points from the past three games, Keane’s individual numbers are stacking up, too.
Since returning to Everton's starting XI, he has averaged 7.3 interceptions per 90, an increase on his season average from last season of 5.3. He's also won 73 per cent of his aerial duels, another boost on last season's average of 61 per cent.
“It’s massive,” says Keane, when asked about the manager’s vote of confidence. “I know the quality of centre-backs we have here. We have six experienced centre-backs who all want to be playing so to be one of those playing at the moment shows the belief and confidence the manager has.
“That feeds on to you.
“Obviously, I’m really happy but, at the same time, I know the competition is massive and that’s what we need.
“Six is a lot in one position but having competition where you know you have to perform every game to keep your place in the team is a good thing and it’s definitely something that keeps the lads on their toes.”
One of the most marked improvements during Dyche’s early tenure has been a resilience within the Everton camp.
After the disappointment on Keane’s return to action at Arsenal, the Toffees twice took the lead but ultimately settled for a point at Nottingham Forest, who were unbeaten on home soil since September. Brentford’s 12-game unbeaten run was then halted at Goodison Park before Dyche’s men twice came from behind to earn a handy point at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.
Keane believes improvements at both ends of the pitch, as well as clear individual instructions, are to thank.
“As a squad, it feels like we’re really together and heading in the same direction,” says Keane. “[I think the resilience] comes from hard work.
“It comes from shape — knowing what the manager expects from you regardless of your position and knowing if you don’t do your jobs, you’ll get taken off the pitch.
“It’s not just doing it on a Saturday, we do it every day on the training pitch. Everybody knows what to expect in that respect.
“I think the attitude alongside that is important, too. If we go a goal down in the game, we have the belief we can get back into it.
“Since the manager has come in, we’re creating a lot more chances than we did previously and that gives us belief as a team.
“We don’t want to concede, of course, but if we do it’s not the end of the world, we believe we’ll create chances and score when they come up.
“The belief comes from scoring goals and the clean sheets and solid defensive performances we’ve had. When you put those things together it gives you confidence and belief.”
Keane is the fifth-longest serving outfielder in the current Everton squad. July will mark six years since he made his move to the Blues.
To say he has experienced a rollercoaster in that time would be an understatement.
From European nights at Goodison to late escapes from relegation — including a superb goal in the dramatic 3-2 comeback victory over Crystal Palace to cement safety on home soil at the tail end of last season — Keane has seen more than most.
“My feelings for the Club have never changed — I love this club, I love what Everton stands for, the fanbase and the connection we have with the fans,” he reveals. “I think we’ve probably seen the best of that at its worst times, towards the end of last season.
“Overall, I never wanted us to be in this position when I first joined. Nobody does. But we’ve had to deal with a lot, obstacles to overcome and we’re here.
“As a team and as a club, we’ve always overcome these difficult moments and I think with the manager we have now, if we can get through this season, I really believe we’ll kick on with the mentality he’s brought here. I’m confident of that.
“It’s hard to be speaking about Europe or any other goals with the position that we’re in at the moment and our full focus is only on what’s in front of us but, of course, in the future it’s something I’d like us to be fighting for.
“The Premier League has got a lot harder over the past five years but there are examples of teams that it’s possible to turn things around and build to success, with clubs like Fulham, Brighton and Brentford all up amongst it at the moment.
“I’m hoping for me there’s still time to achieve really good things here.”