On Tuesday last week, Michael Keane ended 43 years of international anonymity for Burnley’s English outfield players when he took to the pitch for the Three Lions’ friendly against Germany.
The towering centre-half exuded the kind of assuredness in possession which belied not only his age, but his stark lack of international experience. Keane had made 16 appearances for the U21s across two years, but the past week has seen the defender already earn an eighth of that total with two encouraging displays in Dortmund and at Wembley, where England beat Lithuania 2-0.
From the dugout, fellow Burnley star Tom Heaton watched on. He has been involved in every England squad since last May, including the Three Lions’ all-too brief sojourn to France for the European Championships in the summer of 2016. Heaton, too, has two England caps and few would bet against both he and Keane adding to their tallies should they maintain their impressive form.
A gradual development
For anyone beyond of the claret realms of East Lancashire, Keane’s confident displays were eye-opening but those who are regular match-goers at Turf Moor have known for some time that they have had an England international in the making. Since joining the club, initially on loan before making the switch permanent from Manchester United in January 2015, Keane has shown tangible signs of progress.
Originally partnering former Burnley skipper Jason Shackell at the heart of the defence, Keane assumed the mantle as leading centre-half following Shackell’s return to Derby County that following summer.
Alongside Ben Mee, Keane then blossomed into a leading Championship stalwart and was touted for a move to bigger things after helping lead Burnley to the title last season. Such rumours have hardly been quelled by Keane’s subsequent displays, and now his magnum opus are the two England caps he proudly owns.
While Keane’s stark rise can be attributed to his own mental fortitude and commitment to improvement, Sean Dyche must surely take some of the plaudits for harnessing his natural talent. Dyche made Keane his only January signing in 2015, for £2m, and then thrust the then-22-year-old into the midst of a relegation battle, which many believe is a scrap that calls for experience. For Dyche to imbue that level of trust in Keane, at that age, with relegation and the financial drop-off that comes with it looming large, was commendable.
It helps that the Burnley manager was a centre-half himself. While Dyche never made the top-flight as a player, he enjoyed four promotions with various clubs and gleaned the necessary knowledge to equip him for a life in management. Keane has been among the biggest beneficiaries of Dyche’s sage advice, and others will surely follow.
Call-ups underline Burnley's strength
The international exploits of both Keane and Heaton, however, also serve to highlights the growth of Burnley Football Club as a whole. The Clarets’ rich history has been augmented by internationals, yet one would suspect that the current crop of players contains the highest volume of regular players for their countries. And the vast majority of nations represented are not minnows, either – all bar Scott Arfield’s Canada sit in the top 24 highest ranked teams in the world.
It suggests that not only can Burnley now attract seasoned international players – Belgium's Steven Defour had pulses racing when he joined in August – but that they can produce them, too. Heaton had just been relegated to League One with Bristol City when he joined in 2013; Keane had made a smattering of first-team appearances for Manchester United and Arfield was without a club after being released by Huddersfield Town four years ago. Now, all three are international players.
Previously, England – and indeed, perhaps, other national team coaches – naturally gravitated to the bigger clubs for talent, on the assumption that because they were the biggest and best club, they had the biggest and best players. Where many believed players were picked on the merit of the club they played for and not their performances, current England manager Gareth Southgate’s recent starting XI against Lithuania contained players from nine different clubs, with four more on the bench.
Some may attribute to diversity of clubs to other factors, such as a paucity of high-level England players, an influx of foreign players or a drop-off in international quality altogether. But try telling Michael Keane that.