In an interview that first featured in the Official Matchday Programme for Everton's clash against Newcastle United, boyhood Evertonian Morgan Feeney discusses going from Season Ticket Member to First Team, his gratitude to the Club’s Academy, and flourishing as captain of recently-promoted Carlisle United.
Professional footballers can sometimes be guilty of massaging the truth when it comes to revealing their allegiances - but not in the case of Morgan Feeney.
Born in Bootle, into a family of half Evertonians and half Liverpudlians, it was always Royal Blue for Feeney, who held a Season Ticket throughout his childhood and even after making his senior Everton debut having joined the Club’s Academy aged seven.
In fact, following that senior bow in a Europa League clash with Atalanta in November 2017, Feeney returned to his usual seat in the Lower Gwladys Street seven days later as Wayne Rooney’s stunning hat-trick earned the Toffees a 3-0 win over West Ham United.
“I had the best view in the house for the third one, the goal from the halfway line,” he recalls. “I saw it the whole way... It was an amazing moment.”
The excitement in Feeney’s voice is still there. So, too, his obvious love for Everton — but things have moved on significantly since that moment.
Now captain of League Two side Carlisle United, Feeney is playing an integral role in the Cumbrian side’s push for promotion to the third tier as the season reaches its climax (since this interview, Carlisle won the League Two play-offs).
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
There were false starts upon leaving Everton for the first time in January 2020, when a loan spell with Tranmere Rovers was cruelly cut short after suffering a hamstring injury on his debut.
Feeney then left his boyhood Blues permanently that summer, penning a short-term deal with then-League One side Sunderland but, despite impressing staff, the Black Cats were unable to offer a longer-term contract with financial uncertainty arising from the coronavirus pandemic.
Third time, lucky, then, as Feeney put pen to paper with Carlisle United in January 2021 for the remainder of the campaign but even then he was forced to be patient, with a freak training ground incident leaving the defender with a broken foot just 20 minutes into his very first training session with the club.
“It was a strange 18 months of bad luck, really,” recalls the 24-year-old. “I had injuries but none of them were inter-linked and there was no pattern to it.
“Towards the end of that period it almost became laughable at how bad the luck was but I never, ever lost any hope or belief, even if I did get knocked back a couple of times.
“I always believed in my own ability and that it would work out somewhere, as long as I gave it 110 per cent, which I always will.
“I signed for Carlisle and before I could even get going I got injured in a five-a-side game making a tackle that I’ve made a thousand times before. It was then I thought, 'When is this run going to end?', but, luckily, they stuck with me despite it keeping me out for the rest of that season.
“I came back that next season — I had a good off-season and I've not looked back since.
“Touch wood I can carry on going from here.”
Carlisle manager Paul Simpson handed Feeney the captain’s armband ahead of the current campaign and Feeney has flourished on a personal level, while also helping the side’s promotion charge after a 20th-placed finish last term.
“It's a really good club,” explains Feeney. “It's got a good fanbase, good stadium, good lads in the changing room and people around the place.
“I’m really enjoying my time up here. Last year — my first proper season — we didn't do very well as a group and ended up in a bit of a relegation scrap but we stuck together and came through it.
“This year we're having a go at the top end and hoping to keep that going.
“Being made captain is something I relish and we’re all just really enjoying our football and determined, as we come to the business end of the season, to go and get promoted.”
Perhaps even more obvious than his passion for Everton is Feeney’s gratitude towards the Club and its staff, who he credits for providing him with a robust platform to go on to forge a career in the professional game.
Starting out with Barlow’s JFC at The ‘NAC’ (Netherton Activity Centre), Feeney, along with fellow former Everton youngster and close friend Antony Evans, formed part of a formidable side that went more than two seasons unbeaten before also spending time with Kirkby Colts and Croxteth Park with Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.
It wasn’t long before Feeney’s talents were spotted and he joined Liverpool’s academy initially but when Everton eventually showed interest, a move became inevitable.
“Our Sunday league team was really good but it got to a point where virtually 90 per cent of the group went off to different academies and it fell apart,” said Feeney. “Obviously, I've always been a big Blue but I ended up at Liverpool because they wanted me.
“I spent a few years there and I think I was eight when I joined Everton.
“I remember I'd played against Everton and I had a good game — Everton wanted me after that and as soon as that was the case, that was it. I was only ever going there. There was no question about it.
“As you'd hope, it felt like home straight away. Everyone was fantastic with me in making me feel welcome from the first moment.
“I’d actually done a couple of sessions with Everton in the pre-Academy at Netherton and Bellefield but it didn’t work out and that’s why I joined Liverpool.
“I was doing okay at Liverpool, playing games and enjoying football, although I obviously didn’t enjoy putting on a red shirt!
“I remember it all happening shortly after my grandad died. He was a big Evertonian, like all of my mum’s side and my dad is a Blue, too.
“There was never a choice for me. I've always been an Evertonian and it was the best decision I ever made, although I guess it was never actually a decision.
“I remember vividly the first visit to Finch Farm after signing. It was nothing like Bellefield, it had everything and I saw a few first-team players knocking about. My jaw hit the floor.”
Morgan Feeney celebrates captaining Everton to Premier League 2 title success in 2019
Feeney’s raw ability was developed and honed by Everton’s Academy, who, of course, have an impressive track record of producing local talent for the rigours of elite football.
“There are so many coaches to mention, I’d hate to miss anybody out because there are so many great people at Everton that you learn from and take bits from for different reasons,” explained Feeney.
“John Doolan was one of the really important figures for me — I learned so much from him and I still keep in touch with him now. He was so helpful on and off the pitch. It felt like I clicked with him and he helped me so much.
“But I could say that about everyone because, honestly, there's not one person I worked with at Everton who I didn't learn something from.
“I learned so much in the Academy that I still take with me now.
“Taity [Paul Tait] is another one. It's great to see him doing well with the Under-21s because he is a great coach and was really good for me as well.
“As I got older, Unsy [David Unsworth] was obviously brilliant with me and it was him who gave me my debut. We got on really well and he's another one who I learned so much from, as a former defender himself and an Everton legend.”
Aided by the likes of Unsworth, Feeney climbed through the ranks at Everton and, somewhat unusually, remained in his favoured position of centre-back.
“It’s always been about defending for me, always,” says Feeney, who was once described by Unsworth as “from the Dave Watson school of defending”.
“I think everyone, especially in Sunday leagues, everyone wants to be the goalscorer but I always loved defending — tackling, blocking, keeping teams out - even at that young age.
“I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I can't tell you how it started or how it happened but it's something that always felt natural and something I've always loved.”
Feeney’s list of achievements with Everton Under-23s is an impressive one, featuring two Premier League 2 titles, a Premier League Cup — including scoring the winner in the final — and an Under-23s Player of the Season.
The stand-out moment of his Everton career, though, came off the bench in the Blues’ European defeat to Italian side Atalanta at Goodison Park.
“It ended up being a tough year and we had a couple of changes with one manager leaving, a caretaker manager and then a new manager coming in,” admits Feeney, who earned a maiden First-Team start in Everton's 3-0 Europa League group stage victory against Apollon Limassol in Cyprus two weeks later.
Feeney in Europa League action for Everton at Apollon Limassol
“I was in and around the First Team with Unsy when he took over and before that I'd trained a few times when Ronald Koeman was there. I really enjoyed my time. I had been involved in a few of the Premier League squads before that — I didn't make the bench but I was the 19th man a few times.
“I went on the bench for the first time against Lyon when we played away there in the Europa League group stages. I didn't come on but it was another unbelievable experience — a proper European night, away from home in a huge stadium against a big club.
“I was on the bench again for the Atalanta game and, obviously, the game wasn't going well and it wasn't a good result for us... But that is the only thing I would change about it. Jonjoe [Kenny] had been struggling with a bit of an illness in the build-up and when Unsy turned around to tell me to go and get warm, even then I didn't think anything was going to come of it. But I was in the moment, enjoying it.
“Then I got called back to the bench and John Ebbrell and Alan Kelly were going through set pieces with me... then I knew it was happening!
“I’d always dreamt of coming on to make my First-Team debut at Goodison and this was it.
“I wish it came in different circumstances – in a win – but of course it is still such a massive moment. I remember running on in front of the crowd, a crowd that I would have been in if I wasn't coming off the bench. It's a dream come true, isn't it?
“I’ve still got my shirt from that night hanging up on my wall now.
“As any Evertonian would tell you, to run out at Goodison Park — in any scenario — to represent the club you love is just a dream come true.”
Since flying the nest, Feeney reveals the bonds he created with players during his years at Everton continues to be strong.
“I love seeing the other lads doing well,” he says. “That Everton connection definitely never goes away, even after you leave.
“Every group I was ever in at Everton was a tight-knit one.
“At Everton, I don't think you get through the system if you're not a decent lad as well as a decent player.
“You spend a lot of time together with those lads growing up. You never lose that bond or those friendships, even if you lose touch for a while.
“Every week, the first result I look out for is the Everton one but then I go down the games and checking the results of the teams of other lads... Who's played? Who's scoring? Who's doing well?
“Antony Evans and Harry Charsley are two of my best mates, I played with Jarrad Branthwaite and he was up here to watch a game recently and it was great to catch up with him — I’m delighted to see him doing so well because he’s a such a nice lad and a top player.
“Then you bump into people, like when we were travelling down for an away game recently and we stopped at a services in Blackpool and I ended up seeing Callum Connolly, Luke Garbutt, Josh Bowler, Jordan Thorniley... It's always brilliant to see them again.
“It's good to see the lads achieving. I get it myself, if I've had a good game or I've scored, I'll get messages saying well done and things like that — it's nice that the lads still look out for each other in that way."