Morgan Feeney's stellar 2017/18 was recognised at the Club's End Of Season Awards as he scooped the Under-23s’ Player of the Season prize. The Bootle-born Academy graduate reflects on a breakthrough campaign and explains the grounding which has helped him develop into one of the most promising centre-backs in the country.
For the vast majority of football-obsessed kids over the past decade, it is footage of the likes of Ronaldinho, Messi and Neymar they have pored over in wonderment – marvelling at their breathtaking goals and audacious flicks and tricks.
Morgan Feeney is a rather different breed, however.
Speaking to the 19-year-old centre-back, there is one aspect of his character that most hits home – he simply loves his job. Well, defending, to be exact.
“I like old-school defenders,” he says. “Players like Puyol, Cannavaro and Maldini… I always watched them on YouTube when I was a kid. Everybody else at my age was looking at goals and skills!
“But they were always the ones for me – the Italian defenders, in particular. They thrive on the battle. It’s the same now, with the likes of Chiellini at Juventus. They celebrate when they make a tackle.
“Players like that who are willing to put their body on the line and get cut to stop goals – that's what I’m like, too.”
Feeney cuts a relaxed figure as he speaks backstage at a special Everton Supporters’ Club awards ceremony in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle. The boyhood Blue has just been recognised with their Under-23s Player of the Season prize, the accolade coming hot on the heels of his ‘Dixies’ award success in the same category.
The individual honours underline what Feeney describes as “a wonderful season and the most important of my career so far”.
Having been handed the captaincy of Everton’s Under-23s by boss David Unsworth at the start of the 2017/18 campaign, the Bootle-born defender went on to produce a series of dominant performances at the heart of the young Blues' defence.
Feeney’s accomplished displays were rewarded when he was handed a first-team debut on 23 November, coming on as a second-half substitute in the Europa League clash against Atalanta at Goodison Park.
He followed this up with his first senior start a fortnight later – delivering a composed, mature performance as the Toffees secured a 3-0 victory at Cypriot side Apollon Limassol.
Feeney – who signed a new two-and-a-half year deal with the Club in December – says being involved with the senior set-up helped him appreciate just what it takes to make it as an Everton player.
“They are so regimented and professional,” he says. “When I went on that Cyprus trip, it was a dead rubber in theory, but every single one of the players played the game and built up to it like it was a final. It was amazing to see.
“You see model professionals – the likes of Seamus and Jags – they are great leaders and make you feel comfortable. They give you little bits of advice, which is great.
“And you see them stay out after hours in training to work on things… even though they might be an unbelievable passer of the ball, they’re still out there practising. You think, ‘I can do that, too’.”
Having featured in all of Everton Under-23s’ opening 16 Premier League 2 games – starting 15 of those matches – Feeney’s season was brought to a premature end in March, when he underwent surgery on his right knee.
The defender had a long-standing problem with his patella tendons and admits the injury became such an issue that an intervention was needed. He has since undergone a further procedure to correct the issue in his left knee – and is already feeling the benefits.
Feeney is confident he will resume training again soon, and says he is relishing taking to the pitch in peak condition.
“I was playing through a lot of pain, it wasn’t good,” he explains. “It got to the point where I sat down with Unsy and the physios, and we said, ‘We can’t do this for much longer’. It was the right time. I knew I couldn’t progress with the pain I was in.
“I went to Sweden for my operations. The surgeon is very well respected, he knew exactly what to do. It’s quite a rare injury but he was a specialist in that. He’s done a great job.
“I can tell the difference with my right knee because I got that one done earlier – that was the worst knee – and it is certainly feeling a lot better. It’s looking good. Obviously, the sooner I get back, the better, but without rushing it.”
Feeney – who has been capped for England at Under-17, Under-18 and Under-19-level – speaks with confidence, clarity and an authority far beyond his years.
These qualities, combined with his commanding presence on the pitch, convinced Unsworth he was the standout candidate to succeed Jonjoe Kenny as Under-23s captain last term.
Indeed, when presenting his skipper with the Player of the Season award at The Dixies, Unsworth’s admiration for Feeney was underlined when he described the 19-year-old as a “whole-hearted, typical Everton centre-half”, adding he was “a pleasure to coach”.
Feeney believes the armband has helped to elevate his game to a new level.
“I see myself as a leader,” he says. “When Unsy told me at the start of the season, I was still very young to be captain at that level and it was unexpected. But it was something that I relished and took with both hands. And I've thrived on it.
“On the pitch, I’m certainly a shouter. That helps me concentrate as well as hopefully helping others through the game.
“I like to think I set a good example off the pitch, too. Hopefully I come across as someone the young lads can turn to. Even if I didn’t have the armband, I’d carry that out anyway. It’s a responsibility I like to have.
“I work hard – that’s my character – to leave everything on the pitch, but also carry myself in the right way. That’s for my own benefit, of course, but if it can rub off on others, then great. Because that’s what Everton’s about – good people, good characters and role models doing things the right way.”
When in conversation with Feeney, a further feature that resonates is his fierce determination to improve his game. The Academy graduate insists he has a “defend-first” mentality but has been encouraged by how his quality on the ball has developed over the past year.
He is intent on further advancing in this area and helping to build more attacks from the back.
“I always try to improve my passing,” he says. “The best time to do it is in games. I’ve tried to implement that into my 23s matches whereas, a few years ago, I’d be playing a bit safer, just to make sure I cemented my place in the team.
“Since I’ve had the captaincy, I’ve felt I've needed to step up and play a few more incisive passes and try to get us on the attack.
“Rather than seeing a pass and thinking ‘If it goes wrong, I might be in trouble here’, now I feel like I’m one of the senior players who needs to try to set the tempo.
“That could be with a strong tackle or a sharp pass – just to fire the game up. I feel like I improved in possession last season – I’ve now got the confidence to play passes like that. I believe in my ability.”
A born-and-bred Evertonian, Feeney retains his Season Ticket at Goodison Park, continuing to cheer on the Toffees from the Gwladys Street.
As a result of his exploits for the Under-23s and Everton’s first team, he admits he is now starting to get recognised when taking his seat at the Grand Old Lady. The lifelong Blue says it is a surreal experience.
“It weird… I’ve grown up sitting in the stands and now I’m suddenly getting noticed,” he smiles. “But I like interacting with the fans and I love going to games.”
As much as he enjoys cheering on his beloved Toffees, Feeney is eager to get back into the heat of battle.
He believes the Under-23s – who finished seventh in Premier League 2 last season, having been champions in 2016/17 – can challenge for the title again in the coming campaign.
The centre-back also admits his first-team experiences have whetted his appetite for further action at the highest level.
“The short-term goal is to get back playing and feeling good,” he says. “I’ll take things slow at first, get a few games in and get used to my new knees – without any pain, hopefully.
“For us in the Under-23s, this year was a bit of a transition phase because we had such a new group but everyone settled in nicely. It took a while for us to get going but it’s something we can really build on. We can hopefully press for the league again next year.
“The end goal, of course, is to get a few more games for the first team – but we’ll see what happens."
Speaking on stage at Everton’s Academy Awards – in which Feeney presented prizes to Blues talents from the Under-6 to Under-9 age groups – Academy Director Joel Waldron emphasised the Club’s overriding goal is to “not just develop excellent footballers but excellent people, too”.
Conscientious, unfailingly polite but also possessing the work-ethic and steel required of an Everton player, Feeney is the living embodiment that this ambition is being realised.
The defender – who joined the Academy aged seven – says these qualities are a pre-requisite for any young Blues player.
“It’s the values of Everton,” he explains. “You see it, not just with the lads who have come through the ranks here, but in the young lads we have signed, too.
“You look at someone like Josh Bowler in the Under-23s. He’s come from QPR last summer, and we’ve signed a player who is not just a good footballer but a good person.
“You need to know that when you come – you must carry yourself in a respectful way. Like it says on the badge, ‘Nothing but the best’.”