Steve Kean has managed to get wine from Blackburn Rovers' poisoned chalice. It might not be of the title-winning 1995 vintage, but he has removed much of the sour taste left by the distasteful ousting of Sam Allardyce.
In terms of PR, the December putsch was a bit of a disaster. The media were quick to round on Venky's, the new Indian owners of Blackburn, and Allardyce's standing in the game meant that one by one his fellow managers lined up to give their views.
Nobody seemed to buy the line that his dismissal was a decision to bring more entertaining football to Ewood Park, and being linked to Diego Maradona only furthered the ridicule attracted to a club suddenly thrown into crisis. The casting of a villain was needed. Someone to hold the knife which had been so unexpectedly plunged into the back of "Big Sam". A few chose Kean. An accusation the new manager is quick to deny.
"I've spoken with Sam, and I've spoken to him about that," Kean says when we meet up at the Blackburn training ground this week. "Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn't do that. It's not in my make-up." Those who do know him will point out that when Chris Coleman departed Real Sociedad, Kean turned down the opportunity of succeeding him as coach, preferring to stay loyal to Coleman and turning his back on a lucrative three-year contract.
Kean found out about Allardyce's departure in a phone call from chairman John Williams just half an hour before the story broke. "All he asked me was would I look after the team for the next game. I expected that there was someone else to come in right away. I'd done it before at Fulham, when Jean Tigana left. Then there were five games left and whilst I was putting on the training sessions the chairman was upstairs in the office interviewing prospective managers. That's football."
He may not have been angling for a long-term appointment at Blackburn, but he inherited a mess few managers would have been happy to take on. Rovers players were popping up all over the media trying to respond to questions they did not know the answers to. For many all they could do was reflect on the success enjoyed by Allardyce in keeping the club in the Premier League and the irrationality of sacking a man who had lost neither fans nor players.
All had heard the news only after it entered the public domain. With a player revolt a possibility, Kean gathered the senior pros together in his office. "I said to them, 'Listen, I don't know what's going on at the moment, I don't know if I'll be looking after the team for one game or two games. I don't know who will be coming in, but I'll make the commitment to you to feed it back to the other lads.'"
In order to get answers Kean called the new owners in India the evening after his first game in charge of Blackburn, a 1-1 draw with West Ham. "They asked me when I would like to come out to see them, and I said, 'What about tomorrow?'" He made the 20-hour round trip the next day. What he said must have impressed. After initially being handed the job until the end of the season Kean this week signed a contract keeping him as manager until 2013.
"I wasn't going out there to pitch for the job," says the 43 year-old Scot. "I would have felt very uncomfortable standing in front of the players again with them asking me what's happening and me not knowing. I needed to know from the owners what their plans were. Who would be coming in, what we would be doing in the transfer market. Did we have money to spend, did we have to sell anybody? All my questions were answered and I went and told the lads the next day."
Those answers were that Kean would be given a minimum of £5m to spend in the January transfer window, with further funds to follow in the summer. He was also assured that no players would have to leave the club. He hopes the signing of his new long-term contract will also bring stability. "I'm delighted to be committing my future to Blackburn. The owners have always shown a great deal of faith in me and I intend to repay them."
So far he's brought back striker Roque Santa Cruz from Manchester City and midfielder Jermaine Jones has come from Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga, both on loan. Rovers are looking to sign one or two more players in this transfer window, most likely to be a defender and a midfielder. Kean also confirmed right-back Pascal Chimbonda has left the club by mutual consent in a deal agreed under Allardyce.
He has spoken with Chris Samba, who has been linked with moves to both Arsenal and Aston Villa. Kean states that his captain has not made a verbal or written transfer request. "He made a very good point, he said that probably every single player at the club would be interested in a move if a top-six club came in for them, but as for actively seeking a move away – that never happened." The Congolese defender is believed to have been offered a new contract by Blackburn.
El Hadji Diouf is another cause for concern. The Senegalese winger was recently branded "lower than a sewer rat" by the Queen's Park Rangers manager, Neil Warnock, over alleged comments he made to Jamie Mackie while the Rangers striker lay on the ground with a broken leg during the FA Cup tie between the two sides. Diouf vehemently denies making any of the remarks attributed to him by the QPR players. Kean investigated the matter and appears to be backing his player.
"At the time when [Mackie] was on the ground nobody knew that he had a broken leg," Kean said. "A lot has been quoted by the lads from QPR saying this happened and that happened – it's going to be very difficult to verify what was actually said and when it was said. Hopefully, [Mackie] gets back and us as a club will send our best wishes to him."
Kean admits Diouf's reputation makes him a target for opposition fans and players, but says it is part of what makes him the player he is. "You can go back to Everton last season when there was an incident there, and it's not a case where it bothers him at all. When we played Liverpool, he was warming up and Liverpool fans were having a right go at him. He is certainly a target, they think that it's going to affect him, but it doesn't, it actually motivates him."
Diouf is known to want to leave, but Kean says he would like to keep him. "It's not about making a list of players that we want to get out. Any players we bring in will be to help the squad. It's not to replace anybody. I would like to be able to rest some players, take them out for a couple of games to allow them to recharge and come back with a bit of zeal. We haven't been able to do that because it's been constant pressure. I have a group of lads who are getting battered and I'm having to adjust training because we just can't afford for any of them not to be fit."
David Beckham and Ronaldinho being linked to Rovers were widely viewed as publicity stunts, though Kean says both were legitimate targets and he's been assured by the new owners that they are willing to put that sort of cash into the club. "These were players that we genuinely wanted to bring to the club. It has been a lot of years since this club was associated with the type of players who could command that sort of salary. Unfortunately [those transfers] didn't happen, but we'll move on and try and help the squad because we've been decimated with injuries recently. We've lost Phil Jones, Keith Andrews, Vince Grella, Steven Nzonzi in the middle of the pitch all at the same time."
Much has been made of the involvement of the sports agency SEM at Blackburn, but Kean says that he's the one calling the shots. "It's new to me, the mechanics of the transfer window, but we have a very good scouting department here. I tell them the type of player I'm looking for and they come back with a list of players of that type. Then it's like a filter: Are they available and at what price? Eventually you come to a smaller list and you look at who'll fit in best with us as a club.
"We are looking everywhere. UK, Europe, even South America. We'll look wherever we need to to get the players we need for this club. We have a definite list and I think the fans will be very excited by who we bring in. There is a buzz about the place."
During the fallout following Allardyce's dismissal, Venky's chairwoman, Anuradha Desai, said that she thought Rovers should be a top-five club who play exciting football. "I think she was more than a little misquoted," says Kean, who has set himself the target of ninth place or higher. "We'd like to play the sort of football that entertains and be scoring three or four goals, but this is a vicious league. Yes, it's about winning, but hopefully if we can combine both, like we did in the Liverpool game [a 3-1 win two weeks ago], we can leave the fans excited."
Kean's philosophy does differ from that of Allardyce. The lone-striker role is something many Blackburn fans will be glad to see consigned to the past. "Two up front," says Kean. "I'd like to see us be a little more dynamic in the wide areas, add some pace and a few more passes, because I feel if you are going to exploit a team you don't always need to be so direct."
Kean's rise to the Rovers
1994-2003: Reading (Under-15, Under-16, Head of youth development)
2003-07: Fulham (assistant manager)
2007-08: Real Sociedad (assistant manager)
2008-09: Coventry City (assistant manager)
2009-11: Blackburn (assistant manager, caretaker manager, manager)
*Kean's modest playing career began at Celtic, where he failed to make the first team. He also had spells at Swansea, Bath and Portuguese team Academica Coimbra, before his career ended after breaking a leg when at Reading in 1993. He was then handed a coaching role by manager Tommy Burns.
*Kean's first senior position was as assistant to Chris Coleman at Fulham (above), and he followed the Welshman to Real Sociedad and Coventry. Coleman introduced him to Sam Allardyce who made him his assistant at Black-burn in 2009. Kean then took charge after Allardyce's sacking last month.Reuse content