Thursday, August 11, 2022

Everton’s Michael Keane explains why the bond built during relegation survival won’t fade away in new season

One might argue that the worst thing that could have happened for Everton at the end of last season was for it to reach its conclusion. Spurred on by the burgeoning bond between supporters, manager and player, the Toffees had extracted themselves from a relegation battle that seemed destined to end their lengthy stay in the top half.

Premier League giants had been felled at Goodison Park, Frank Lampard was the toast of Merseyside and players who had struggled for form over a number of months seemed to be finding their best selves again. Such alchemy can be hard to create and easy to lose, but Michael Keane, a veteran of Everton’s last five seasons, sees no signs that the bond the club built in the early months of 2022 might be fading away.

“The bond is still there, 100 percent,” he tells CBS Sports. “The last six weeks of last season was probably the hardest time of of my career, but also the best to see how the Everton fans, the whole club came together in a desperate time. Obviously in general, it was a season to forget. But that time was something special, what the fans brought to us, the energy they gave us players and staff, that we then managed to repay that on the pitch.

“It was a period of time that I’ll never forget, I know all of the lads who were here will never forget. Hopefully, we can carry that momentum, that connection with the fans forward this season. I think we showed, when we are together like that, what we can do. It was a special place and a very hard place to come for the opposition.”

Though Everton’s aspirations are rightly far higher than 16th place, one could make the argument that this was the sort of campaign the club needed to drag itself out of the drift that had set in years gone by. The two seasons prior to 2021-22 had seen them marooned in the Premier League’s mid-table, and even before that, there were faintly unsatisfactory eighth place finishes without any deep runs in cup competitions.

Deeply disappointing though last term might have been in its totality, it did at least end with club, supporters and players united in pursuit of a common goal. They may have lost Richarlison, but in the run-in, they may have found inner qualities that will serve them equally well next season.

“Everybody realized how serious it was and we were pulling the same direction no matter what,” Keane says. “Whether you were playing, whether you weren’t playing, there was no sulking going on. Everybody was sticking together, us and the fans. It was just great to be a part of and obviously, looking back in hindsight now we’re safe, maybe it will be a good thing going forward.

“Us as players have seen how important the fans are, not that we didn’t know that already, but the way they were the last six weeks was something we’ve never seen. We’ve seen what they can be like and what they can do, how much they can push us on. Obviously, we don’t want be in that situation again, we hope to improve a lot this year and to give the fans happier times because they went through a lot last year. For most of the season, it wasn’t good enough. And we don’t want to do that to the fans again.”

At the heart of Everton’s revival seemed to be Lampard’s force of personality, an “attitude and personality” as Keane puts it that makes for an ideal fit with the supporters and ethos of the club. In the run-in, his side were not always the easiest on the eye, but fans came to admire the attitude with which his side play. 

Keane expects 2022-23 to bring a more proactive approach from Lampard, one which allows him to showcase his on ball skills, and he is certainly being made to work as preseason begins. “[The manager] has been brilliant since he came in, he has galvanized a squad, got us pulling in the same direction, playing better football and getting better results,” he said. “Coming in the middle of the season, it’s not easy for a new manager to get all his ideas across, he’ll be looking to do that more in this preseason.

“We’ve only been back training for four days now and it’s been really tough, we know we’re going to be pushed in preseason and that’s a good thing. We weren’t good enough last year — we needed to be fitter, sharper, stronger. I think we’re definitely going to be that judging from the first four days where we’ve been back in. At the same time, it’s enjoyable. A lot of football as well as as running — not just running for the sake of it, mixing it up well. I think we’ll be in good shape in a few weeks.”

Giving those fans something to cherish begins next week when Lampard’s squad fly out to the U.S. for two preseason games, taking on Arsenal in Baltimore on July 17 before facing Minnesota United in Saint Paul four days later. Everton have a rich history of American players at their club — most notably Landon Donavan and Tim Howard — so it perhaps no wonder they have such an avid fanbase Stateside.

Everton are regulars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean; last year they were one of the few teams to travel abroad before the 2020-21 season and won the Florida Cup. “When we went to Orlando last year, the numbers that turned up were fantastic. You see how much they love the club and how much they love all the players. They get up at all times of the day to watch our games with the time difference so it’s nice to be over there and see them and witness their support. We want to give back to them, sort of say thank you for the support they give to us.”

Preseason tours also give new teammates the chance to develop bonds on and off the pitch, not that that will be quite such a pressing concern for Everton’s new center back James Tarkowski, with whom Keane built an impressive partnership over 18 months together at Burnley. In that time, Sean Dyche’s side won promotion to the Premier League, where the second-best defensive record in the bottom half of the table saw the Clarets avoid relegation.

It is to no surprise that when Keane became aware his former colleague could be available on a free transfer come the end of the season, he was among those leading the charm offensive to get him to Goodison Park, despite interest from Aston Villa and West Ham.

“I spoke to Tarki probably two to three weeks ago, before the announcement,” Keane said. “I just told him what a great group of lads we’ve got here, the staff, manager, how brilliant they’ve been and that he’d really enjoy it. At the time, he said he was coming here. I was really happy for him and looking forward to playing with him.

“I think we’re both quite dominant center halves. We’re both physically strong good in the air, good on the ball and we can handle ourselves. Playing with each other consistently always helps. We know each other’s games really well, it works. Obviously, there’s been five, six years, I’d like to think I’ve developed. He’s developed. Hopefully, we can be even better.”

If that is the case, then Keane may just have cause to hope that he can make his way back into the England side. The 29-year-old won the last of his 12 England caps but has not made an appearance since November 2020. Center back appears to be a spot in which Gareth Southgate is not blessed with in form options. A strong start to the new season and Keane is hoping he will be able to force his way into the 26-man squad for the World Cup.

“I’ve not by any means got it out of my head. I know it’s there. It’s an opportunity for me to play really well for six months, show Gareth what I can do again. I’ve been there in the past a lot. He knows what I’m about. But if I can play my best for six months, I think I’ve got a chance. I’d love to go to Qatar. I’ve never been to a major tournament with England. It’s always something that I’ve wanted to do.

“We’ll have to wait and see but all I can focus on is how I play for Everton, how we do as a team here. And if that takes me to Qatar, then amazing. I’ll give it everything and hopefully, I can get myself in his thoughts again.”

It would make for quite an about turn; 2022 had started with Everton battling for their place in the Premier League, now Keane believes his year might end with a World Cup. If that is to be the case, he will need to keep hold of the momentum he and his Everton teammates built in the spring.

Everton’s USA preseason schedule

Saturday

July 16

Everton vs. Arsenal

7 p.m.

Baltimore, Maryland

M&T Bank Stadium

Wednesday

July 20

Minnesota United vs. Everton

8 p.m.

St. Paul, Minnesota

Allianz Field

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