Will Keane.

What doesn't kill you...

Sunday 04 July 2021 09:00

I was 11 years old and had been playing Sunday League for two years in south Manchester when United scout Derek Langley had been chasing the club up for quite a while. They were knocking on the door and asking if I would be interested in going for a trial.

It would last six weeks and Mike, my twin brother, had been scouted at the same time and would have started then too but he was delayed because he picked up a toe injury.

They were obviously impressed as I received an offer to join after only two weeks. Mike got signed up pretty much straightaway too and we both signed – he was a midfielder though when he was younger.

I played in an older age group for United for a couple of years but went through a bit of a growth spurt and shot up. My body was out of sorts a little bit and I was a little bit like Bambi on ice for a while. I’d always been a player who was in control and technically capable and, while I wouldn’t say I stopped enjoying it, this coincided with the pressure coming and conversations about scholarships. Opponents were a bit stronger than me, because I was playing a year up, and the coaches said at a parents evening that, while Will has got ability, he’s guilty of cruising a little bit.

I’d like to think that’s just the way I play and my body language. People might think I’m not putting in the maximum effort but I can assure you I definitely am. Maybe I play a little bit like Dimitar Berbatov – he always got called lazy didn’t he?

So I remember, after that parents evening, it was a kick up the bum and my mum and dad were saying: ‘Look, you need to make sure you’re giving everything you’ve got’.

They had made sacrifices in taking us to training and matches and knew what we were capable of. At that point, though, I was never thinking long term. Of course, I always wanted to be a footballer but I never understood the process of scholarships and professional contracts.

I was first offered a scholarship and then a contract when I turned 17 and remember getting a contract through and starting to get paid a bit more money but, to be totally honest, it never even crossed my mind back then. I was just delighted to stay at the club and play football. I didn’t think about earning money at that age, just working my way up through the system, getting a pro deal and going over to the first-team building and in and around the manager. So it was an added bonus and a shock at the time.

I don’t think Sir Alex liked agents getting involved at that age so it was a case of getting it and signing it anyway. My older brother Tom still looks after me and Mike, in that respect, but no, this was all about progressing – winning the FA Youth Cup carried the magnitude of achieving that, because it was always the big thing coming through, so I was looking forward to taking it from there.

Will Keane says

"Maybe I play a little bit like Dimitar Berbatov – he always got called lazy didn’t he?"

I will always remember my senior debut. It was New Year’s Eve in 2011, Blackburn at home, and I was chucked into that. I’d been on the bench, including at Aldershot when Mike made his debut, but we had a few injuries and Paul Pogba and I were on the bench from our age group. I think he was disappointed he wasn’t starting, to be fair, as Rafael playted central midfield which is not his usual position.

I am sure Paul was fancying himself to play but we were losing when I came on. I obviously used to go to all the games and watch it from the Family Stand, near the tunnel. When I came off the bench, it’s not like it was a cup game at a smaller ground. This was Old Trafford. I stood there looking across the pitch at eye level and focusing on the North Stand opposite, seeing it full.

Flipping heck.

It was so surreal. Wow. I’ve arrived now, there is nowhere else I want to be.

It was a bit of a blur, I even remember little things like the electrical advertising boards and stuff behind the pitch because there was just so much going on with the fans and all the advertising. It was such a mad experience.

So I came on and had a shot in the box that their giant centre-back Chris Samba blocked. I actually cleared an effort off their line by Phil Jones; I blocked it and stopped it going in their net. But you’re just fearless as a young lad bursting onto the scene. They’d said just go out and enjoy it, the stage is set so do your thing.

You cannot ask for a bigger confidence booster than that. Giving you the nod to go on in a Premier League game. When we were losing and needing a goal. That spoke volumes for me. A year or two before, Kiko Macheda had scored that winner against Aston Villa. I thought ‘wow, I could end up being the hero’.

But I wasn’t.

We ended up losing the game and Sir Alex was fuming afterwards, giving it the proper hairdryer. I can’t remember it being aimed at anyone individually, just generally, and, although I was so disappointed with the result, I was so chuffed to be involved. As a young lad, I was made up as it was something I’d worked for over so many years. To do it under Sir Alex while he was still there, someone I’d looked up to as the biggest legend at the club, made it extra special.

It was a shame we couldn’t make it a happy birthday for him, and I didn’t play again for the first team for a while after that. Obviously, the senior lads were back fit and then, at the end of the season, I had my first injury – my first ACL (anterior-cruciate ligament), while playing for England Under-18s.

It was so innocuous. Non-contact. A long ball over the top and I took it down, going through on goal. A defender was chasing behind me and I ran across him so he couldn’t come back to me but, as I was running, my knee just caved in.

I don’t know if there was a bit of fatigue. It was the last game of the season. Literally, the last 20 minutes of my season. I had played two games already for England and taken a whack on the head in the first half. I had a couple of stitches on the side of the pitch.

My parents always say, looking back, they wonder if I had a concussion and you never know how that affects you. I was fatigued anyway and it might have slightly altered my co-ordination. Obviously, now it’s a big talking point with more awareness of concussion protocols and maybe I would have been taken off as a precaution in the first half.

It’s just the game, isn’t it? It is just unfortunate.

I remember Sir Alex was quoted as saying I was going to be in the first-team squad and just hearing that was a great feeling. However, at the same time, I was so gutted. It was my first experience of a proper injury.

I didn’t know what an ACL was before I did it. I’d never heard of it.

Being the end of the season, I didn’t know how long I’d be out. I had scans and stuff and it was explained I was going to be out, typically, for nine to 12 months. I’d heard scenarios where lads could be back between six and nine months but everyone heals at different rates. I had a lads’ holiday booked, with Mike, Jesse Lingard, Luke Giverin, going abroad to Marbella. A first lads’ holiday and I had to miss it because I was on crutches and the knee was really swollen. I did have a family holiday in Barbados a couple of weeks later and had the op when I got back. It was then that I remember Sir Alex saying to me one day at the training ground in June: “Don’t even think about coming back until April the following year.”

I thought at the time, well you agree with him, but I’ll definitely be back before that. I didn’t know what the process entailed and the severity of it. I had a couple of complications and actually ended up being out for longer than that. It was 15 months.

I got back outside with no complications, after eight or nine months, but then the knee kept swelling up. There was a bit of debris chipping off my meniscus that needed trimming and that added another four or five months on.

I went from being 19 to coming up to 21 and, when I returned, I went on loan for the first time – to Wigan. It was only a short, emergency loan for three or four weeks. I signed on the Friday and Owen Coyle played me on the Saturday. He got sacked that night after I made my debut and didn’t have the best of games as we got battered at home.

I started up top but we were getting completely overrun. I don’t know if it was because I was so inexperienced but he took me off at half-time and wanted to shut up shop and try for damage limitation. But then he left and it was bad timing really. Uwe Rosler came in and knew I was due to go back to United in a few weeks and wasn’t part of the longer-term plans so I didn’t start a game under him. Maybe he had his City connection at the back of his mind!

So I went back to United and then had another loan opportunity, at QPR. It was the last day of the window in January and one I couldn’t turn down. They were near the top of the Championship and had been in the Premier League a year or two before so they had a big, experienced squad of players. Harry Redknapp was manager. I went there thinking if it all works out, the best case scenario is I play, score goals, we get promoted and it gives me a great chance of going back to play for United.

In hindsight, I wasn’t fit.

After coming back from my injury, I really should have stayed at United that season, training with Warren Joyce and getting as fit as possible. I’d not had the volume of training for so much time and took the opportunity to back myself. Yet it was my first exposure of first-team football. I’d been playing Ressies football and had a couple of senior appearances but I’d not played properly in a year and a half.

These were grown men in the Championship. In my first game at QPR, I played pretty well and hit the post, which was unlucky, but after about 55-60 minutes, I was cramping up. I just wasn’t fit. I was thinking: ‘How am I going to beat the defender when every time I take off, my calves are cramping up’.

I just didn’t feel fully fit. So I lose a bit of confidence of top of it and had a run of three or four games without scoring. When Harry signed me, they only had a couple of strikers so I thought I was going to play but he’s known for his last-minute deals and I swear, on deadline day itself, he signed another three forwards!

So he had about six of us at his disposal and it was one of those where I’d start one week but then not even be in the matchday squad the next week. To be honest, I know I wasn’t playing anywhere near my best and didn’t feel great. Your confidence takes a hit when you’re not scoring as a striker.

I wanted to get a foot in first-team football, especially with a club at the top of the Championship. It was such a good opportunity and it’s easy to look back, in hindsight, and say I should have stayed at United. Then, maybe in the following season, I’d be in a better position to do more, but it was one of those things. It was still a good learning experience and QPR managed to get promoted, even if it was frustrating I wasn’t in the matchday squad for the play-off final so I didn’t really feel part of it.

Yet I’d contributed to it and played against Mike for the first time, when he was at Blackburn. He played right-back so there wasn’t much direct contact against him and I think they beat us 2-0. I hit the post in the game as well.
Will Keane says

"A year or two before, Kiko Macheda had scored that winner against Aston Villa. I thought ‘wow, I could end up being the hero’."

The following season, I did stay at United for three or four months and used that to get fit before going to Sheffield Wednesday on loan. I had a good run there and enjoyed it. The manager, Stuart Gray, was somebody I really enjoyed working under and, while I didn’t score as many goals as I would have liked, at least I was getting a consistent run of games, which is what I felt I needed. I was showing what I was capable of doing and went to Preston after Louis van Gaal took over at Old Trafford.

To be fair, he is one of those, van Gaal, who is so cut-throat and straightforward which might, at times, come across harsh and ruthless. But at least, as a player, you expect that and know where you stand. Maybe it’s the Dutch mentality but he tells you exactly how it is. When we went on tour to the United States, he said I wasn’t ready to play for him because I wasn’t fit enough.

I needed to go out and play and had a good run of games at Preston before being recalled in the January. I had a couple of weeks back and scored five goals in one Reserves game against Norwich at Old Trafford. Obviously, he was watching me because he put me in the squad for the FA Cup tie with Shrewsbury.

I came on with 20 minutes or so left and had been on the pitch when Memphis set me up on my left foot and I got a good shot off. It smacked off the post but, literally as soon as I struck the ball, I felt my groin literally detach from my body. It just pinged off. Basically, a torn adductor, ripped off the tendon and the bone at the top.


I had never done anything like that before and knew it was serious again. I tried to shake it off but couldn’t run. It felt like my leg was literally hanging off so I had to come off.

I was just gutted.

It felt like my last proper shot at getting a chance at United, getting my foot in the first-team door and making my mark in the squad.

That is my chance gone. It wasn’t my worst injury in terms of length of time out but the timing of it was one that meant I knew it was curtains for me at United.

Louis had asked me to play for the Reserves on the Saturday before the Shrewsbury game on the Monday, as they were short on players so I was probably a bit fatigued after that. I was on the bench and it was a freezing night. I'd heard, apparently, he didn’t like players getting warmed up unless he told them they were coming on, so I wasn’t keeping warm constantly throughout the game.

When he said I had a few minutes before I was going on, I had a quick warm-up but it wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked on this cold night.

I had that shot and something was not right. The injury happened and then, on Thursday night, Midtjylland happened. Wayne Rooney was injured and Anthony Martial pulled out after the warm-up.

I probably would have played.

Marcus Rashford wasn’t in the squad for Shrewsbury but he came in and I saw him score those two goals and then flew to Philadelphia to see a surgeon to have the operation there. I landed at the airport on the Sunday in America and the physio turned his phone on and said Marcus had scored twice again, against Arsenal.

I said: ‘No way. What are the chances?’

I was obviously buzzing for him. I had nothing personal against him at all but was, of course, thinking at the same time that it could have been me.

It was so bittersweet.

A few of the young lads played in that game and it felt like my time at United was up. Here we go again. I’ve had a couple of chances but it just wasn’t meant to be for some reason. I’d had another setback and was not missing a game or two. It always seemed to be the worst outcome in terms of the length I was kept out. I didn’t tweak the groin. My groin was hanging off and I need surgery.

It was a big kick in the teeth.

That was a tough one to take.

So I had to think about my next move because I needed to kick on elsewhere and start afresh.

Which was obviously a shame, wasn’t it?

Will Keane says

"I was obviously buzzing for Marcus. I had nothing personal against him at all but was, of course, thinking at the same time that it could have been me."

I did get back for pre-season and Jose Mourinho came in. He as great with me, to be fair, as I knew that, realistically, I was looking for another club. He said do pre-season with the lads and then they’d try to help me if something came up that was right for me, he’d be happy for me to go. As it turned out, Mike Phelan became Hull boss and that came up at the last minute after he’d been in interim charge.

It was a great opportunity for me as they were in the Premier League and a good challenge. He knew me really well and played me. In my first game in the league for them, I came on at Turf Moor and it was pretty cool to come up against Mike again as he was now with Burnley. I had a couple more games before getting injured again – at home to Southampton.

Our other striker, Abel Hernandez, had already been stretchered off when the ball was bouncing about and I flipped it over Virgil van Dijk. I went to turn and the same thing, pretty much, happened as the first time.

My knee gave way.

There was no contact. Innocuous again. I’d done my ACL four years apart. The physio said it was not because the knee was weak, it was just unfortunate. At that split second, it was in a vulnerable position. You get a lot of these reoccurrences six or 12 months after the first one if it’s not healed or isn’t strong enough. Four years apart, it was fine. Just a freak.

I was hoping I’d partially done it but had a scan and it was going to need reconstruction again.

It was one of those that makes you think: ‘Am I ever going to get a break?’

I just wanted an injury-free run to show what I could do. Even though Hull were relegated, some of the lads – Harry Maguire, Andy Robertson, Sam Clucas – had done well enough to get moves on the back of their performances.

It was just another killer really. To miss that whole experience of playing at that level. While I was injured, the manager changed three or four times. Neil Adkins picked me for a good away win at Nottingham Forest when I played really well but then we lost 2-1 at Middlesbrough a few days later and, literally after that in January, he didn’t select me again until the second-last game of the season.

For four months. I don’t know why – I had no explanation but he took me out of the team and to not be involved was just so hard when I’d been out for such a long time. I just needed a run of games to build my fitness.

People say training cannot replicate a game and the demand it puts on your body with the whole atmosphere and adrenaline. The first time I did my ACL, when I was younger, I got back outside with the physio doing rehab and ball work and it was literally like having to preprogramme my brain and learning how to do movements and even shuffle to the side.

My body in general, but obviously my knee particularly, felt so stiff. I hadn’t moved it freely and it was like retraining my whole body in terms of how to move around again, even without the ball let alone integrating that again. It takes time but I’d been through it. I know what an ACL injury entails and I’m so gutted when I hear of other lads doing it.

There are going to be highs and lows and you’re buzzing to get back but then it plateaus off a little bit so it’s about getting the balance back. I’d learned to deal with injuries and spent the last six months of my Hull deal on loan at Ipswich. I got off to a good start and Paul Lambert was playing total football even though we were near the bottom of the Championship. I enjoyed playing under him but got injured. Again. I did my hamstring after scoring a penalty at Wigan and it was a grade-three tear which meant eight to 10 weeks out. I came back after seven because I wanted to play before the end of the season but it hadn’t healed properly and the hamstring went again at Sheffield United.

More surgery.

I was out of contract at Hull but had been playing really well at Ipswich and thinking I was in a good position to get another Championship move. I’d had the hamstring issue but at least planned to be back for the last remaining games.

But no. Flipping heck. Another four months out.

Will Keane says

"It was one of those that makes you think: ‘Am I ever going to get a break?’ I just wanted an injury-free run to show what I could do."

I knew my track record with injuries wasn’t good. People were going form their own opinions. It was so daunting.

Many people in football say they know about my quality but they also know about the injuries I’ve had. I’m sure it puts people off which is understandable. They want lads who are reliable and guarantee a run of games.

In the last couple of years, my focus has been on staying fit and seeing what comes of it. I’d obviously made a good impression at Ipswich because they re-signed me and I did finally get a good run of matches.

I was getting through my first real season without any injuries or at the same club. I’d have six months at United and then six months out on loan but not completed a full campaign at one club. I would finally get a full season under my belt.

And then COVID-19 hit.

League One was abandoned in March 2020.

I got through it. I took the positives in so much as I could keep myself fit during lockdown.

Yet, because of the financial impact, Ipswich could not commit to my option of another year. All clubs took big hits and they weren’t giving out deals players had maybe grown used to due to the implications.

There were a lot of lads out contract and I just needed to get in somewhere. I trained at Wigan in the summer and they really liked me but could only offer a one-month deal because they were in administration. I was looking for a bit more security but, thankfully, the situation improved at the club and they got a bit more backing from the administrators.

They said they could sign me until January and I could build on that. It worked out perfectly for me. It’s quite local to home and I knew the club from before and enjoy working with the manager. A lot of youngsters were forced to come up into the first team and that has been a good experience. They respect us senior ones who have been playing at a higher standard and look up to us. I was more of a role model to them and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing.

New owners have come in and are ambitious. I’ve signed on again for next season and we’ll take it from there. We stayed up last season and I ended up with five goals in the last seven games to help us achieve that.

I’ve been playing in a different role – deeper and almost a Frank Lampard position, let alone a Teddy Sheringham no.10. I have always been a played who hasn’t relied on pace. I like to think I’m deceptively quick but I’m not like a winger who is always threatening in behind. My strengths are linking up play, getting on the ball and having awareness.

I spoke to Paul McGuinness, our coach when we won the FA Youth Cup, and he said I’d missed the best part of three years in terms of being injured. That’s a lot of time but, if I can look after myself, I might gain those years at the end of my career.

Touch wood.

Some lads burst onto the scene as teenagers and you can only imagine the toll it takes on their bodies. I am 28 now. I’m not young anymore but I’m certainly not old either. Hopefully, I can still work my way back up and the first step is trying to get into the Championship with Wigan. After all, look at other players – Jamie Vardy didn’t play in the Premier League until he was 28.

Teddy Sheringham played into his 40s – another 12 years? I’d take that all day! You see Zlatan Ibrahimovic still doing it at AC Milan. He’s such a specimen isn’t he? You look at his physique and how strong he is and yet he did his ACL too.

You know, the fact I’ve had injuries in the past, I always think what could I have done differently? Did I do the right rehab? The right strength work?

At the end of the day, it can happen to anyone.

You look for reasons why it happened and you blame yourself. Yet sometimes it’s just fate – look at Zlatan. He’s an absolute machine and he still did his ACL.

The setbacks have definitely made me a lot stronger mentally. I’ve worked with a sports psychologist over the past couple of years and people like that just help put you in the right frame of mind.

I’m always positive. Always looking forward rather than dwelling on negative things.

I accept it would be easy to do that, especially in my position as a striker. Confidence is always key.

I’m still playing professional football. I am quite a positive person and I’ve had to be like that. A lot of other people may easily have packed it all in and quit the game with the setbacks I’ve had.

I’m trying to make the most of it and my ambitions are to perform and you never know what might happen in the future. When you’ve had big periods out of the game, you don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate playing football and everyone’s path is different. Some lads are lucky not to have any serious injuries and others have setbacks. It is about how you handle it.

Looking throughout my career, I’d liked to have scored more goals and that’s disappointing for me. But you need to know the ins and outs of my career to see it’s been very stop-start. Now I’ve had a run of games, I’ve had my most productive season.

I’ll keep building on that and see where it takes me.

I’m on the up – but taking nothing for granted.

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