Will Keane remembers landing at Philadelphia airport in 2016 and turning on his phone to see the score. Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal, with a second double in four days from a teenage striker. "Marcus Rashford had scored another two and it was like 'oh my, no,'" he said. "There was no bitterness towards him but it rubbed salt in the wound a little bit because it could have been me."
It is no idle boast. It could have been him. It was a tale of two of United’s youthful striking prodigies. Rashford was fast-tracked, making the most explosive start to an Old Trafford career, but only because the luckless Keane was injured again. Rewind six days in 2016 and, Keane recalled: “I was ahead of Marcus in the pecking order. I came on ahead of him at Shrewsbury. He wasn’t even in the squad.” And then misfortune reared its head again, aided, perhaps, by the peccadilloes of an idiosyncratic manager.
Louis van Gaal had sent Keane to play for United's Under 21s for 75 minutes at the Etihad Stadium on the Saturday. Two days later, he was a substitute at Shrewsbury in the FA Cup. "He was a bit funny with lads who were on the bench, he only really liked them going to warm up if they were going on, " Keane recalled. "Usually [for other managers] I would go out two or three times so I did a quick warm-up when he told me I was going on. It was a really cold night."
Too cold, maybe, as, in the process of hitting the post: “I felt something pop in my left groin which I had never had. It felt like my left leg had detached from my body. ”
In an instant, Keane’s United career was over. He was 23, and in the final months of his contract. “It is all about timing,” he added. “It was my last chance to make an impression.”
Instead, when Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up against Midtjylland three days later, the debutant Rashford stepped in and scored twice. The youngster, as Keane underlines, would have made it anyway. “Marcus was always going to get a chance,” he said. “He was highly thought of.”
But so, a few years earlier, was Keane. Perhaps he is United’s great lost striker, an elegant touch player who his friends have compared to Dimitar Berbatov, who never made it at Old Trafford through no fault of his own. He excelled in the 2011 FA Youth Cup-winning team, scoring three of their goals in the 6-3 aggregate win in the final over Harry Maguire’s Sheffield United. The three standout players of that side, his twin Michael says, were “Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and my brother.”
Now Michael is the £30 million (Dh136m) Everton defender and England international. Then, however, Will is not being immodest when he said: “I was always the one people were talking about and he was in the shadows a bit.”
Michael was a late developer. Morrison represents a case of unfulfilled potential. “It is not like he has serious injuries that have held him back,” said Will Keane. He speaks from personal experience. Two cruciate ligament problems have each sidelined him for over a year. At 27, he has only started 63 league matches. The good news is that he has career-best tallies of games and goals for League One Ipswich this season. Go back to 2011 and his first career appearance was a famous one: United 2-3 Blackburn on Alex Ferguson’s 70th birthday.
“The first time playing in front of a full house at Old Trafford,” he said. “I was over the moon.” Less pleased was his fellow prodigy, Pogba, disappointed to be overlooked as Ferguson fielded a makeshift midfield partnership of winger Park Ji-sung and right-back Rafael da Silva. “You definitely wouldn’t say their strongest position was centre mid,” Keane reflected. “He felt like that should have been his opportunity to play. I don’t know if he actually got the hump that day. It was baffling really it was so clear to see what he had in terms of his ability. You think surely he is going to get a chance soon. It was that summer when he left, he was out of contract, he was a bit like ‘well you don’t trust me to play’.”
Keane thinks he was on Juventus’ radar thanks to the same scout who recommended Pogba. They both left United’s first-team picture in 2012, the Frenchman to Italy – buying him back would cost £89 million – and the Englishman courtesy of his first cruciate injury. Ferguson had retired when he returned. Loan spells were inauspicious. “I went to Wigan on Friday under Owen Coyle and he was sacked on the Saturday, ” he recalled. Then it was QPR and a taste of Harry Redknapp’s inimitable approach to recruitment. “They didn’t have many strikers at the time but the same day they ended up signing another three,” he said.
Then, after Preston, came his ill-fated second stint on the fringes of the United team. The Old Trafford connection brought a transfer, to Hull under Mike Phelan, but a second cruciate ligament injury, sustained when turning away from Virgil van Dijk, meant he did not play in 2017. “It was just devastating again because even though it wasn’t at United I had got into the Premier League and it was an opportunity to be at that level,” he said. When he was fit again, many of his teammates had gone. “Robbo [Andy Robertson] and Harry Maguire got moves on the back of that and you see what they have gone on to do in the last couple of years. ”
He missed the entirety of Marco Silva and Leonid Slutsky’s reigns and came back under Nigel Adkins. His misfortune with managers continued. “I never seemed to get a proper opportunity under him,” Keane said. “I don’t know why, he obviously wasn’t having me as a player.”
Perhaps there was a contrast with the supreme man-manager Ferguson: “With the young lads, he was always quite chatty and jokey whereas sometimes in front of the press you’d think he was Mr Serious all the time. At the training ground, he wasn’t like that.”
Respite came with a move to Ipswich, even in relegation to League One. They were 10th in the third tier when football shut down. “Before it finished with coronavirus, I had played really well but the goals had dried up,” Keane said. Likeable and eloquent, philosophical when he could be sour about his injuries, he still has optimism. “The ambition is to get back into the Championship,” he said; preferably with Ipswich, where his contract expires this summer.
But Keane has higher aims. An England youth international was on Ireland’s radar; indeed, Michael was an Ireland international at youth level. “The ambition for both of us has been to play in the Premier League,” he said. He takes heart from others who have belatedly come to the fore. “You even see players like Jamie Vardy,” he said. “He could be a one-off, but he has not hit the heights until later in his career so I have still got to keep that belief that there is no reason why it can’t happen. ”