BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to former Preston North End midfielder Michael Keane
Deepdale’s Town End can always be relied upon for imagination and a touch of humour when it comes to football chants and songs.
The ‘Super Tommy Clarke’ tune often gets an airing every time North End fans wish to show their ‘affection’ towards their arch rivals from down the road Blackpool.
And the chorus and verse dedicated to modern-day cult hero Joe Garner will no doubt go down in club folklore.
Former North End midfielder Michael Keane probably has a little giggle to himself when he recalls the ‘chant’ created just for him by the club’s fans.
“We all dream of a team of Michael Keanes...a team of Michael Keanes...a team of Michael Keanes – to the tune of the old Beatles’ classic ‘Yellow Submarine’ – was a song which could be heard reverberating around Deepdale in the early noughties.
Although the Irishman – who made just over 50 appearances for the Lilywhites in the Championship between 2000 and 2004 – would never claim that he deserves to be mentioned anywhere near the club’s pantheon of greatest ever players, the song does at least pay homage to his wholehearted and never-say-die attitude while wearing the famous white shirt.
“My work ethic and my heart and pride in wearing the Preston shirt were massive things for me as a player,” said 33-year-old Keane.
“The main attributes I had as a player were that I could tackle. I would not flinch.
“I was a very strong tackler.
“You would probably describe me as committed, wholehearted, a team player.
“Somebody who just wanted to succeed.
“There were many players who were better than me, more talented than me, but I don’t think I have seen anyone who wanted to win a game of football more than I wanted to win.”
It was this commitment to the cause which contributed to Keane becoming a firm fans’ favourite in his time at Deepdale and one of the reasons why he was handed such a warm welcome when he returned to the club as a special guest late last year.
Invited to do the half-time draw for North End’s league encounter against Hull City – a match the home side won 1-0 – three days after Christmas Day, Keane was humbled by the reception he received.
“It was amazing when I went back there as the half-time guest at Christmas,” said Keane
“I had birthday presents waiting for me when I got there at the ground.
“My birthday is on December 29...the day after the Hull match.
“I could not believe it that some of the fans had bought me presents.
“My girlfriend Georgina, who came over with me, was amazed that even after all this time – it’s 11 years since I left – that the fans could still be like that towards me.
“It’s incredible that I can go back there after so long and the supporters have not forgotten me, which is a big, big thing for me.
“I have certainly not forgotten Preston and the fans.
“I was certainly one of those players who always had a big amount of respect for the supporters.
“I knew and appreciated how hard they had to work every day so that they could pay their money to get to the games.
“It was always in my mind before kick-off or in the build up to games when I played that I had to give the fans something...give them something to shout or cheer about.
“I think that is one of the main reasons why I was so close to the supporters.
“It probably is very unusual for a footballer to be as close to the supporters as what I was.
“Outside Deepdale before games, I would probably give 20 tickets out to young fans whose families could not afford to go to the games.
“I also tried to get involved in the community when I was at Preston.
“I used to try to support charities in and around the city.
“The people just meant a lot to me and the disappointing thing for me is I never really got the chance to thank the supporters after I left.
“If I can, I would just like to thank them for all the years that I was there. It just goes to show with the reception that I got, if you go out of your way for people, you will get that kind of respect back.”
Indeed, such was Keane’s determination to touch base with the supporters once again, he declined an invitation to watch North End take on Hull from the luxury of one of the hospitality suites at Deepdale.
Instead he asked for a ticket in the Town End to be in amongst the supporters.
“I think the supporters liked me because they knew I was one of them,” Keane said.
“When I came over for the Hull game, I was invited for the meal in the Invincibles Lounge, but I asked the club if it would be okay for me to go in with the fans down at the Town End.
“I bet the people were probably thinking why would I want to do that, but I would much rather go in with the supporters and have a pint with them.
“That’s the great memories I have of the club – the noise that the Town End used to make.
“It was great coming back. Pulling up at Deepdale – the journey on the way to the ground – there were so many memories going through my head, it was unbelievable.
“And to get the result as well – I think the team has won their last three league games so hopefully I brought with me that little bit of Irish luck.”
It was in 1999 that Keane first arrived at North End from home city Dublin at the tender age of 16.
Billed in his home country as a possible heir apparent to legendary Irish midfielder Roy Keane, there was much interest in the youngster.
Despite being pursued by several big-name clubs, Keane was lured to Preston by the persuasive powers of then PNE boss David Moyes.
“I came to Preston initially on trial,” Keane said.
“I had already been to several different clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Ipswich Town, Manchester City, Stockport County.
“So I had been to a good few clubs, and I went to Preston to have a look around and see whether I would actually like it there.
“I think I had been to City and Spurs about four times each and eventually it was narrowed down to those two clubs and Preston.
“They were good offers from two big clubs.
“Joe Royle wanted to sign me at City and Gerry Francis was keen to take me to Spurs.
“The difference between me signing for Preston and not those two clubs was basically David Moyes.
“We just basically got on like a house on fire. I just liked his honesty.
“Straight away he said to me, ‘Look, we won’t be able to match the two offers that Spurs and City are giving you but if you do well here, you will get opportunities.
“David just said to me that if I did well in the youth teams, I would get to play in the reserve team and if I did well in the reserves, then I would go into the first team.
“He sort of said it would not matter how young I was.
“That kind of swung it for me.
“I could just see with David how determined and committed he was and that was how I was.
“The way he was rubbed off on me and it proved to be a very good decision.
“Clubs like City and Spurs could go out buy players and spend money on players, where as Preston would need to look to their youth set-up.
“Anybody good enough would get an opportunity.
“For me at the time, it was all about opportunity.
“Basically Preston made a fuss of me where as when I went to other clubs, they probably had 20 players like me who they were taking a look at.
“I am a very passionate person and it was important for me to feel like I was loved.”
In Keane’s first year at Deepdale as a trainee, Moyes led the club to the old Second Division title in 2000.
The PNE boss handed the diminutive 5ft 4in youngster his first-team debut the following season as North End finished up in the play-offs. He came on as a second half substitute for Mark Rankine in a 1-0 home defeat to Blackburn Rovers.
“I always remember everybody talking about my shorts on my debut,” Keane said.
“They were big and baggy in those days and with me being only 5ft 4ins, they looked huge on me!
“There were all different sizes, but I think they didn’t have the right size for me.
“It was a bit funny and I think it has stuck in a lot of people’s memories.
“Preston at that time...it was kind of at the start of when the club was building under David Moyes.
“The manager did an incredible job there.
“He built the foundations of that squad and in my eyes, where Preston are now, a lot of that is down to David Moyes.
“I used to idolise him and still do.
“The man was just an absolute winner.
“His work ethic, determination, commitment, desire...it was just incredible.
“After Preston, he went on to do a great job at Everton and he was treated very harshly at Manchester United in my opinion.
“They never gave him a chance to succeed there.
“Looking at them now, they are still having lots of problems so I think David was very harshly treated.
“It goes to show that you need to give a manager time.
“He will come back and any club should be delighted to have him because he works harder than any other manager I know.”
It was the following season that the Irishman began to establish himself in the team.
He scored on his full home debut – a 1-1 draw against Wimbledon at Deepdale.
“Neil Shipperley opened the scoring for Wimbledon and I got the equaliser,” recalls Keane, who has two children 11-year-old Paris and Mikey (8)
“I remember seeing the ball hit the back of the net and running over to the bench and jumping into the manager’s arms.
“I had sort of been waiting for that moment because I wanted to go out there and do well for the club and David Moyes.”
Later that season, Keane fired home the winner against Bradford City at Valley Parade and also appeared at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in the FA Cup in February 2002.
North End led through Richard Cresswell, but the Blues hit-back to win 3-1.
“That has to be the biggest game I have played in,” Keane said.
“We were 1-0 up and had a great chance to go 2-0 up when Jon Macken – who was a great player for us – did not hit a shot hard enough and Carlo Cudicini managed to get across to save it.
“I have got a picture of myself next to Gianfranco Zola and after the game I managed to get Frank Lampard and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s jerseys.”
A month later, Moyes left PNE for Everton and the following season, injury disrupted Keane’s progress.
After a loan spell at Grimsby Town, Keane re-established himself at Deepdale under Craig Brown during the 2003/04 campaign.
He went on to make 33 appearances, but was sold in the summer to Hull City.
From there, the former Republic of Ireland Under-21s international joined Rotherham United, making more than 60 appearances for the Millers. He returned to Ireland in 2007 where he signed for St Patricks, but was sacked for being deemed too overweight – a decision he managed to overturn on appeal.
Keane is now retired from playing, but works as a scout and coach for Mallorca Football Academy.
His facebook page can be accessed via Michael Mallorca Keane.