In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, former Blackburn Rovers boss Steve Kean reflects on the difficulties that he faced amid supporter unrest at the club and how he was able to put the experience behind him to find success abroad...
Monday 8 November 2021 08:29, UK
Steve Kean has been off the Premier League radar for a decade now so it was a surprise when Gary Neville namechecked him twice on Monday Night Football recently. The treatment of Steve Bruce harked back to Kean's own challenges at Blackburn Rovers.
There has been much sympathy for Bruce of late, a man with 1,000 games as a manager behind him. But this was Kean's first job in management. At the time, that was a reason for the opprobrium. Now it feels like a reason to reflect on how tough it must have been.
"It was only when I came out of it that I realised," Kean tells Sky Sports. "It was almost like the pressure cooker lid comes off and you decompress. You realise that mentally you are a bit battered by it. It took a few months for me to get my energy back, just mentally."
Kean took over from Sam Allardyce in December 2010 and while Blackburn stayed up in that first season, they were relegated in 2012 with the Scot departing in September of that year.
His time in charge was chaotic off the field, the Venky's takeover leading to controversial decisions and supporter unrest. Kean became a target, the most visible symbol of the new regime, his positivity at odds with the frustration being felt by the fans.
Kean is reluctant to see himself as a victim of the situation. "It was something that made me stronger," he says. But when pressed he acknowledged the difficulty of it all.
"I think back to when David Moyes came to a game at Ewood Park and just walked out. I spoke to his wife Pamela not long after and she told me she heard the door slamming and asked him why he was home so early. He said, 'I couldn't sit and listen to that'.
"I can understand the media hype and the fan passion but it can spill over. You can see it now with the focus on mental health and how it can affect people. I had that 10 years ago at Blackburn, but there is more awareness now, it is just all more visual.
"My family were incredibly supportive and it was tougher for them. I could immerse myself in the job at the training ground, not look at all the negativity in the media and on the forums, but my kids were at school at the time. That can be more nasty.
"I know my boy got into trouble a couple of times because of it at school. You know the way that kids are with the cyberbullying. That is when it affects you. I can deal with it myself but when you see it is affecting your kids that is when it becomes really hard.
"There was support from within the game. I had calls from nearly every manager in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson was amazing, Tony Pulis too. That experience was a negative but very few things have happened like that in my coaching career."
Indeed, that is the fascinating aspect of Kean's story. While the Premier League turned its gaze elsewhere and Blackburn would suffer another relegation five years after his exit, Kean's career continued away from the glare. He even won the title in Brunei.
Speaking to Sky Sports from his Surrey home, he is reflecting on a globetrotting career that also took him to Portugal as a young player, Real Sociedad as assistant to Chris Coleman, and most recently to Melbourne where he coached through the pandemic.
The children are grown up now, university educated. Kean refers to them as "boomerangs" because of their habit of returning home, but the same could be said of his own adventures.
"I left Glasgow's East End to go play in Portugal for Academica as a young man. Now that I have since lived in Australia, it seems so close, but that was before the internet and before mobile phones so it felt so far away back then. It was a massive culture shock.
"The first year was tough. I was on a payphone outside the apartment trying to keep in touch with family. Nobody was that up on their English but that meant I had to learn the language really quickly just to communicate which helped me. It became easier."
Kean played alongside future Portugal internationals Dimas, who would go on to play for Juventus, and Fernando Couto, who enjoyed a long career that took him to Barcelona.
"I was just a young boy making my way in the game but we had some great players and I still have a lot of friends in Portugal. I speak to people out there a couple of times a week. You forget a few words but as soon as you start speaking it again, it all comes back."
It helped him during his time at a multi-cultural Fulham under Jean Tigana and again when reunited with Coleman at Real Sociedad. "A lot of the verbs are the same." There are fond memories of San Sebastian. "That whole region is an incredible part of the world."
He is pleased to see Real Sociedad back near the top of La Liga and praises the "sensational" academy programme at the club. "The players there are so passionate and quite different to southern Spain," he recalls. "They are unbelievably tough, hard as nails."
From there, he went to Coventry City, working with future Premier League winners Kasper Schmeichel and a young Jordan Henderson, then a right-winger on loan from Sunderland.
"You think of his improvement since he went to Liverpool, it has been incredible. I am not surprised about Jordan's desire and intensity. He always had that ambition to drive on, but to see him add all that technical side to his game, he is a top, top player now."
But it was his time in Brunei that brought his greatest success.
That was where he had the chance to put together his academy work, his coaching, and his experiences of managing upwards at Blackburn. "You need different hats and I have worn most of them," he laughs. At DPMM, he took responsibility for everything.
"We had nothing, no reserve team, no academy, had never won the league," he says. "But there was no massive media chasing me around. I could build. Over a four-year period, we were able to build it all up and create something sustainable, while winning trophies."
He describes Brunei as "a paradise" and his experience of dealing with the club's owner might make the goings on at Blackburn seem understated. The chairman of DPMM was Crown Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, the eldest son of the Sultan of Brunei.
"I would go to his palace every month and talk about the team and the progression, what we needed. It was great because he is an incredibly passionate Liverpool fan. I would drive up with the general manager but he would turn up in all sorts of super cars.
"He was a nice man, came to every home game, every training session. But he let me do my job, never asking me why I played this guy or that guy, he just let me get on with it.
"It was an incredible time, winning the league for the first time. I went on my own, no academy director, only two local coaches, because I was thinking that I would only stay for one year, pass on some experience. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed for four years."
Kean's most recent role was as an assistant in Australia's A-League with Melbourne Victory, a stay made more complicated by the pandemic. "It was very strict," he says. "I was taken straight off the plane by the military for two weeks of hard lockdown in Perth."
After two days of training, there was another three weeks in a bubble in Qatar, competing in the Asian Champions League, but when he did get to Melbourne he loved it.
"It is an incredible sporting city, everything is right there, the MCG, the Rod Laver Arena. The bubbles were good for me because I got to know the lads quickly. It was a different league, a very physical league. In terms of the distances that the lads cover, it is frightening."
Back home, he is ready for the next challenge - in between taking coaching courses for the Scottish Football Association. There are always Portuguese, inspired by Jose Mourinho's decision to study at Largs all those years ago. "That works well for me," says Kean.
Would he ever consider returning to where it all began?
"I am open. I left a long time ago so I have never worked in Scotland. But I am not saying it has to be this role or that role. I just enjoy working with players. We will see." Ten years on from all the drama, Kean is just happy to be plotting his own path in football.
"I am not on the back of the newspaper every day or on television. I am not active on a million different platforms to tell people I am doing this or that, I just get on with it. But there is football in other parts of the world. You just have to embrace that opportunity."