Michael Keane almost slipped through the net as a teenager at Manchester United, but now he is edging closer to a £25m switch from Burnley to Everton. Nick Wright profiles the late developing centre-back with one of the coaches who brought him through the youth ranks at Old Trafford.
Last season was a special one for Keane. The 24-year-old’s commanding performances in the heart of Burnley’s defence earned him England recognition and a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination. After leading the Clarets’ promotion to the Premier League in 2015/16, he was instrumental in ensuring they stayed there.
It continued a trend of steady improvement. Keane has only missed five of Burnley’s past 84 league games since 2015, and two-and-a-half years after joining them permanently for just £2m, he is now on the brink of becoming the most expensive defender in Everton’s history.
It should be seen as a coup. Ronald Koeman first stated his interest in signing Keane back in January, but Everton were not alone. Having shown an impressive blend of steely determination, defensive skill and ball-playing ability, Keane had also attracted attention from Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United.
Keane’s rise to attract the attention of the Premier League’s top clubs has taken years of hard work and sacrifice. Paul McGuinness, a former Manchester United youth coach of 28 years, was there from the start.
“Michael was part of a very good group with players like Ravel Morrison, Jesse Lingard and Ryan Tunnicliffe,” he tells Sky Sports. “He was always a little bit behind the others. He had to fight to cling on to their coat tails, if you like, but in a sense that was an advantage for him. It helped develop his determination and resilience.
“For some of the lads at the top of the group – including Michael’s brother, Will – everything just came naturally. Michael really had to work at it. He had to concentrate and try to improve. But if you’re working hard, you’re learning and you’re listening to your coaches, it all adds up. Every year he was gaining more than lads who might have been more talented but didn’t have those traits.”
Keane would eventually become an important member of the U18 team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2011, but there were moments when it seemed he might not even make it that far. “When he was 15 or 16, he had a big growth spurt,” recalls McGuinness. “He became gangly and uncoordinated.”
The physical changes impacted his game. “Some people were wondering if he was good enough because he wasn’t playing well,” says McGuinness. “But part of the reason for that was that he couldn’t control his limbs. If your legs grow two inches and you’ve not yet got the core strength to look after your body, you start miscontrolling the ball and you can’t turn as freely.”
United eventually chose to stick with him. “We had the benefit of consistency in our coaching staff,” says McGuinness. “People who had been there for 10 or 20 years and worked with more than one cycle of players. If you’ve got that experience, you’ve seen someone like Michael before. It happens with the taller lads. They lose coordination and they struggle for a period.
“At another cub Michael could easily have been out, but we had seen he was a learner, he worked hard and he was determined. We thought we have to see how he develops once he has come through his growth spurt. It would have been unfair to release him at that point. He wasn’t fully grown. He was changing from a boy to a man.”
Instead of signing a full-time scholarship like his brother, however, Keane was given part-time terms. “He was a year behind in terms of his physical development,” says McGuinness. “We thought training with the U18s every day would be too much for him, so we told him to stay in sixth-form at St Bede’s College and come in to train with the year below.”
Keane was determined not to be held back, and convinced McGuinness to give him one-on-one sessions after school. “There were so many coaches involved in Michael’s development. They all would have done the same,” says McGuinness. “He had to re-learn how to move. We did very basic technical exercises: heading, clearing the ball, defensive footwork, moving forward and back.”
Gradually, Keane built up his strength and adjusted to his changing body. By the end of his first year as a part-timer, he was so desperate to re-join his old team-mates in the U18s that he took himself out of school so he could start going into Carrington on a daily basis.
“He left St Bede’s, paid to finish his A-levels with a tutor and came into training every day off his own back,” says McGuinness. “He still wasn’t full-time so he was only getting expenses. We told Sir Alex, and he pulled him into his office and said: ‘Right, how much are you paying to do your A-levels? We’ll pay for all of it and refund what you have already paid.'”
The drive and professionalism Keane first demonstrated as a teenager would prove invaluable attributes. Rio Ferdinand remembers him as a “sponge” who would keep his head down and soak up knowledge, while Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville describes him as a “student” of the game.
Sir Alex Ferguson was also aware of his potential from an early age. The former United manager handed Keane a first-team debut a month after Paul Pogba in a League Cup tie with Aldershot in 2011, but his prospects never looked so bright under David Moyes or Louis van Gaal. His last game for the club came in their infamous 4-0 defeat to MK Dons in August 2014.
“Sir Alex would probably have kept him a bit longer because he had seen Michael’s potential over such a long period,” says McGuinness. “He had seen his determination and he had seen him win the Youth Cup. That was a big thing about the class of ’92. Sir Alex trusted them because he had seen them pass so many tests. When the manager changes all the time, the kids have no chance.”
Indeed, Keane was forced to look elsewhere for his opportunities. He initially spent time on loan at Leicester, Derby and Blackburn, but McGuinness, who is now working as a coaching consultant as he waits for the right opportunity, describes working under Dyche at Burnley as the “fantastic finishing school” he needed.
“I’ve been in to watch them train,” he says. “Burnley under Sean Dyche is just a brilliant place for any young defender to learn the trade. He develops his team and the players. They do the basics, the fundamentals. That’s what Michael has got from him, getting the basics right every day, both physically and mentally.”
Everton will hope his progress continues in the years ahead. The move to Goodison Park will present new challenges and new obstacles, but Keane has never been one for feeling overawed. “He’s a good learner, he’s disciplined and he’s got great ability,” says McGuinness. “The next step won’t be easy, but Michael is ready.”