First came Ray Wilkins, and his complaint that new Manchester United signing Victor Lindelof had done “absolutely nothing”, while Michael Keane had “played a season exceptionally well” for Premier League Burnley. Then there was Stuart Pearce, and his claim that he would “be astounded” if Everton went unopposed for the £25million signing of the centre-half from Turf Moor.
Wilkins’ point was difficult to fathom from the very beginning, the pundit lamenting the fact that the fee for any European player signed from a different country “always starts with a three”. Keane, he insisted, was the proven commodity, while the younger Lindelof, with 12 Sweden caps, seven trophies and appearances in the Champions League knock-out stages, represented a huge risk for slightly more money.
But Pearce’s sentiments have been echoed elsewhere, albeit in tight, confined spaces with little room for the dull, tiresome sound to reflect.
“I’ve got to say, if Everton get there before any of the top four, five or six, I’ll be astounded,” he said. “If I was one of the bigger sides, I would get in and get there before Everton.”
You can picture Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger listening, realising the extent of their mistake, rushing to phone their relevant transfer committee, executive vice-chairman or Daniel Levy. Forget Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Virgil van Dijk; we need Michael Keane.
The clamour for the 24-year-old to aim for the moon, defy Neil Armstrong and take one giant leap instead of one small step is, to a degree, understandable. The only non-retired English centre-halves with more than 20 international caps are Phil Jones, Wes Brown, Joleon Lescott, Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and John Terry. Gareth Southgate himself cannot be far from a call-up.
Keane, in that respect, is considered integral to the future of the national team. He is the all-heading, all-tackling, all-passing, baby-faced yet mature and intelligent defender; a John Stones for fans of a good old-fashioned 4-4-2 and a good old-fashioned kicking in equal measure.
Wilkins, Pearce and others who would claim to be “astounded” if no club other than Everton pursues Keane will be well-served to bear Stones in mind. The centre-half may yet develop into the calibre of player many have foreseen, but his move to Manchester City has certainly stunted that progress instead of accelerating it.
Had Stones stayed with Everton for one more season, out of the glare of the spotlight at the top of the Premier League and in the Champions League, and without a £47.5m price tag weighing heavily around his shoulders, he would surely have been provided the time and opportunities to develop further. It should be stated that he had made 77 Premier League appearances before moving to City last summer; Keane has more Championship appearances to his name (86) than games in the top flight (57).
Switching Burnley for Everton is no sideways move; it is undeniably a sign of progression. Keane has proven himself too good for a team in 16th, and while a mere place separated the Toffees and Manchester United this past season, the gap to the elite is slightly wider than those eight points suggest.
When looking at the career progression of this country’s finest modern-day defender, a move to Everton would mean Keane has far more in common with Rio Ferdinand than his supposed natural successor Stones. Stones went straight from Barnsley to Everton to Manchester City; two fairly giant strides in the space of three-and-a-half years. Ferdinand took the slight step up from West Ham to Leeds, where he improved, honed his performances, and then earned a move to United.
These are different paths, but provided Keane is good enough, he will eventually reach the same destination. There is no rush. Few players make the move directly from a Burnley to a Manchester United; the door to Old Trafford is constantly open to players from Everton.
Considering the struggles Stones has faced, one would be well-advised to follow Ferdinand’s path. Those imploring Keane to take four or five steps up the ladder at once instead of one or two should be wary of a heavy fall. Goodison Park is the perfect destination for him right now.