Steve Kean interview: Blackburn, life abroad and the rise of Asian football

In Depth

Steve Kean was much derided during his time in charge at Blackburn Rovers, but the club’s struggles since his departure in 2012 prove their problems extend beyond the man in the dugout at Ewood Park.

Five managers have taken the Rovers hotseat since Kean, with only Gary Bowyer lasting at least a season. Henning Berg and Michael Appleton managed only 57 and 67 days respectively, making them the shortest and second shortest-serving managers in the clubs history.

Bowyer’s two full campaigns in charge yielded eighth and ninth-placed Championship finishes, their highest since relegation, but Paul Lambert could only lead them to 15th last season before resigning.

They’re currently third from bottom, having lost their first-choice defensive pair of Shane Duffy and Grant Hanley – to current top two Brighton and Newcastle, respectively – in the summer and then sold midfielder Ben Marshall to newly-rich Wolves in the January transfer window.

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In fact, despite sales to the tune of at least £30million in the past 18 months, the only player Blackburn have paid a fee for in that time is the reported £250,000 for Derrick Williams.

The rest has gone towards servicing the considerable debts the club has racked up since relegation from the Premier League: this sat at over £100million the last time they released annual accounts, a situation exacerbated by the end of their parachute payments at the end of the 2015-16 season.

Understandably, Venky’s were voted the joint-second-worst owners in the country in a recent poll. It’s a terribly sad state of affairs for one of only six Premier League clubs to have won the Premier League, and one that Kean takes no pleasure in.

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Admitting he still looks out for Blackburn’s results, Kean told us: “Everyone has seen it: if you don’t strengthen the squad during the transfer window and lose players it is going to be tough, but hopefully they can get out of it.

“Owen Coyle is a good pal of mine, but I have not spoken to him since he went to Blackburn. He will try and do things his way, but it is tough at any club if you are seeing players leaving and losing some of your best players.

“I had it in my first year in charge, a lot of the big players left. Their salaries had to go because of the wage bill, and that is the decision of the powers that be to balance the books. You have to try to find players to do well, but there is no guarantee that you can replace some of the better players.

“We lost the likes of Ryan Nelsen, Jason Roberts, Chris Samba, Yakubu and Roque Santa Cruz, and players like that come at a premium. We lost some huge experience when players left, and then you are working on half of a budget that you had before.”

He adds: “Fans sometimes forget the manager is an employee of the owner of the football club. It is tough and you put your best workforce out on the pitch and work with them as best you can.”

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After two years acting as a lightning rod for criticism at Ewood Park, Kean has enjoyed happier times as manager of Brunei DPMM in Singapore’s S-League, leading them to claim the Singapore League Cup in 2014 and the league title the following year.

Those who have worked with Kean won’t have been surprised by this. The Scot developed a reputation as one of the best coaches in the country during his time at Fulham, Real Sociedad and Coventry as Chris Coleman’s loyal assistant. In 2008, he even turned down the chance to become Luiz Felipe Scolari’s assistant at Chelsea.

However, as Steve Clarke, Carlos Quieroz, Mike Phelan, Steve McClaren and Paul Clement can all attest, no matter how good a coach you are, the step from coaching to management can be perilous.

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Kean puts that down to the way the relationship with the players changes upon stepping up to take the reins.

He says: “Being a first-team coach or academy manager –  of which I have been both – you are closer to the players, but when you become a manager you have to keep a separation, distance from the players.

“I like to get to know the players I work with and I would never be aloof to them or anything, but I think it is important to have some type of distance.

“Monday to Friday I tell my players that I work for them to try and improve them and then when it is game time they work for me.”

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Kean finds himself united with McClaren and Clement in another significant way: all three have found greater success plying their trade abroad.

McClaren won the Dutch Eredivisie with FC Twente despite his struggles with England, Nottingham Forest, Derby and Newcastle, while Clement went from assisting Kean at Blackburn to being Carlo Ancelotti’s right-hand man at PSG, Bayern Munich, and a Champions League-winning Real Madrid side, yet he failed to live up to expectations at Derby (though he has another chance as Swansea boss).

Even before Kean’s time in Asia, he was the beneficiary of being one of the few Brits to have broadened their horizons: the opportunity to assist Scolari was at least in part down to the fact that Kean speaks Portuguese, having become fluent during a three-year playing spell with Académica de Coimbra.

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Kean would advise any budding managers to look past the recent experiences the Neville brothers and David Moyes had in Spain, and follow the example set by Clement and McClaren, not to mention Terry Venables, Bobby Robson, Roy Hodgson and John Toshack.

Kean said: “Definitely I would encourage more British managers to give coaching abroad a go. I was fortunate enough a long time ago to have played abroad in Portugal and also to have coached in Spain before coming to Brunei DPMM.

“It opens up a whole different perspective and a different way of life and you have to embrace it. I was hired by DPMM to bring in a different perspective and different approach.

“It is very different from the UK, but if you ask Paul Clement, who I worked with at Fulham before he went with Carlo Ancelotti to first France and then Germany, he would echo what I have said: that going abroad has helped him become a better coach.

“Coaching abroad your communication has to be better and the delivery has to be spot on as in the UK you might only work with a handful of foreign players. The players’ mentality is very different and you have to understand their culture and work out what they understand and how they respond to it.”

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QUIZ: Can you name all 20 of these obscure 2000s footballers?

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Kean is now preparing for his fourth season at DPMM – their first game is on March 3 at home to the confusingly-named Home United – and could barely be happier in Brunei.

He has good reason to be pleased, having recorded three top-three finishes so far and only missed out on Asian Champions League football because playing in a foreign league renders the club ineligible for the competition. It’s the far cry from the barrage of criticism he received at Blackburn.

Kean says: “I enjoy being here. I have been here for three years and signed for another two years. You never know where you might end up, and the footballing world is a small world.

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“Last season we struggled early on, but we finished strongly winning 14 out of 17 games and I am sure we can be right up there again this season. They have changed the rules from five import players to three and that will benefit the local players.”

Ah, yes, the local players. With the huge sums of money that have attracted the likes of Carlos Tevez, Graziano Pelle and Oscar to China over the past year, the rest of the football world has suddenly begun to pay attention to Asia, but the improving standard of the homegrown players has been largely overlooked.

We may find that harder to do over the coming years and decades: the enormous population base and appetite for the game is now finally being matched by financial investment.

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Kean says: “I definitely feel we are not far away from seeing Asian sides challenging at World Cups. Recently I was at Bangkok United against Johor Darul Takzim in the AFC Asian Champions League qualifying and the quality on show was excellent.

“But it is not just countries like Thailand and Malaysia; it’s countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. The money and effort they are putting in to try and improve it is massive.

“Obviously there is a lot of money going around the Chinese Super League bringing in some world-class footballers and that can only help to improve the local players and the standard of football, so Asian countries are doing all they can to try and improve and close the gap on the rest of the footballing world.”

Words by Steven Chicken. Interview conducted by Pete O’Rourke.

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