Unable to walk down the street for fear of attack from his own fans, Steve Kean is… under siege
'I couldn’t believe the criticism they gave their manager. Steve Kean stood on the touchline and took it all. He was brave enough and man enough to do that. If they had supported their team instead they might have got a result. I left at half-time because I was so disgusted.'
David Moyes after Blackburn’s match against Bolton last month.
As the only child in a Catholic family living in a tenement in a predominantly Protestant area of East Glasgow, Steve Kean had to be brave enough and man enough just to walk to school.
‘I was born about a mile from Celtic Park but where we lived was a strong Protestant area,’ he says.
‘My parents worked, hard. My dad drove a van and my mum worked as a dinner lady, and when you’re part of a family that’s not the same as everyone else you just have to survive.
It never rains, it pours: Blackburn manager Steve Kean is feeling the pressure at Ewood Park
‘In Dalmarnock you had to have your wits about you. You needed a sixth sense for danger and trouble and developed the kind of survival instincts that I think have stood me in good stead.
‘The main objective was getting to and from school in one piece. I would get the occasional hiding but I would find different ways to get there. You couldn’t walk the most direct route.’
On Saturday, more than 30 years later, the manager of Blackburn Rovers cannot walk the streets of Blackburn. Not without the company of the security guard the club have now assigned to him, anyway.
‘It’s sad really,’ he says. ‘I live in the area but I don’t go out in Blackburn because I can’t. You just never know who you might run into. I hope the situation changes and against Stoke last week it did feel like things were improving. The fans were excellent. But it’s not ideal.’
Making their point: A group of Blackburn fans staged a 24 hour protest against the Venky's and Steve Kean
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It is far from ideal when supporters continue to stage demonstrations calling for Kean to resign and for Venky’s, the club’s Indian owners, to go too.
Friday marked the start of the latest such event: a 24-hour marathon sit-in at Ewood Park that will run until supporters start arriving for today’s match against Fulham. It is a game, Kean points out, that could see his side climb off the bottom of the Barclays Premier League table and out of the bottom three.
Amid the chaos, the threats to his personal safety and criticism that has come from politicians, former Blackburn players and the local newspaper, Kean somehow continues to lead the youngest side in the history of the football club; a team who beat Manchester United on New Year’s Eve with an average age of just 22.
Outside Blackburn, Kean is commanding enormous respect for conducting himself with such dignity under an avalanche of abuse. His peers, he says, have been ‘fantastic’; from David Moyes to Sir Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis, to name a few.
They have all been in touch, offering the kind of support that helps Kean shut out the dissenters. The 500 letters he receives every day, from all around the world, also lift his spirits.
‘I try to reply to all of them,’ he says.
Support: Newcastle Manager Alan Pardew has backed Kean
'Jack Straw should focus on keeping the roads gritted so we can all get to the training ground'
But it is Kean who continues to act as if today is just another game, even after receiving information from police that has made it necessary to have a security guard close by, whether he is sat in the dug-out, giving his post-match press conference or at the club’s training ground.
‘I don’t go anywhere feeling any fear,’ he says. ‘But, unfortunately, you never know where a flashpoint might occur.’
For a football manager living such an extraordinary existence, he looks remarkably well when he walks into the bar of a smart hotel-restaurant in The Ribble Valley.
He discusses certain subjects for the first time in this interview, responding candidly to his most high-profile critics but also explaining exactly how he copes.
He pays a moving tribute to his wife, Margaret, his ‘rock’, while also acknowledging that he must possess the hide of a rhino.
‘I think I need one,’ he says, again with a broad smile.
Protest: A Blackburn fan holds up a copy of the Lancashire Telegraph calling for Kean to go
'My wife was at the Bolton game. That was really tough for her, it was a bit lively. I’m glad the kids weren’t at that one'
‘I feel that I don’t owe anybody anything,’ he then adds, adopting a more serious tone. ‘I feel anything I’ve got I’ve had to work for.
‘I was never gifted anything as a player. I joined Celtic as a schoolboy but I got to a stage there where I wasn’t playing and I wanted to play, so I went to Swansea on loan.
‘I hoped to get a pro contract there, but it didn’t work out. Then I got the opportunity to go to Portugal. I remember people asking me what on earth I was doing going there. But I just wanted to play.
‘I had to hunt for a playing career, and then I had to hunt for a way to stay in the game when I finished playing at Reading. I didn’t want to stop, so I would coach in the evenings, drive people to the airport — do whatever Mark McGhee needed as the manager at that time, because he didn’t have a lot of staff. I’ve paid my dues, and if you’ve done that you deserve a go at it.’
Like so many managers, Kean did not enjoy the playing career he might have imagined for himself when he was walking the long way to school. But he says it is probably part of what drives him to succeed as a manager.
Backing: Tony Pulis empathised with Kean's position
'I will be better for this experience at Blackburn, whatever happens'
When Sam Allardyce recruited Kean as his first-team coach at Blackburn he raved about how much the Scot had impressed him at interview. /01/13/article-2086359-0F356AED00000578-500_634x372.jpg” width=”634″ height=”372″ alt=”Point made: Blackburn fans have held protests against Kean and club owners the Venky's for weeks” class=”blkBorder” />
Point made: Blackburn fans have held protests against Kean and club owners the Venky's for weeks
His credentials have, of course, been overlooked at Blackburn. In the eyes of the protesters he is simply the Venky’s man; the guy who betrayed Allardyce and got the job because his representatives at SEM were acting as advisers to the new owners. He dismisses the conspiracy theory.
‘First of all,’ he says, ‘I have been with SEM for years. I was with them when Sam hired me and, the fact is, they were hired by The Walker Trust to find a new owner and, when they came back with three or four options, Venky’s was one of them.
‘SEM were working for the club. People might say it looks a little bit cosy but I’m proud to be associated with SEM and I’ve done nothing wrong.’
Support from the top: Sir Alex Ferguson has backed Kean in his job at Blackburn
He is referring, in particular, to this accusation that he betrayed Allardyce; an accusation he feels has come from the now West Ham manager and one Kean seriously objects to. It seems he will never forgive Allardyce for something he believes has besmirched his reputation.
‘Sam’s got the hump with me but I can sleep at night,’ he says. ‘I never did one thing to harm him. I worked my b***s off for Sam.
‘For anyone to say I stabbed someone in the back kills me. I was offered jobs before in similar circumstances and said no. When Chris (Coleman) left Real Sociedad they offered me the chance to stay and I said no. I thought I was getting the Blackburn job for one game. They were talking about bringing a big name in. Zico, Maradona. I thought I’d be paid up and sent on my way after that.
‘I phoned Sam the day he was sacked. I said I’d organise for him to come into the training ground and see the players. I said I’d pick him up and drive him in. I couldn’t have done that if I’d known anything about it beforehand.’
The writing is on the sign: Blackburn fans make their feelings clear
I suggest he call Allardyce again. Clear the air. ‘I won’t because he’s left so much on me,’ he says.
‘Obviously Sam was tender. He was bitter at the way it happened, and I can understand that.
‘But he’s said what he’s said to people and that’s it. Enough’s enough. For him to leave something on me when I did nothing wrong, that’s enough.’
Understandably, he does not have a great deal of time for Jack Straw and Kevin Gallacher either. Straw, the MP for Blackburn, called for Kean’s dismissal, while Gallacher has done the same in his role as a media pundit. Their criticism fuelled abuse that became so severe the Bishop of Blackburn intervened, calling for tolerance in his Christmas message.
‘Kevin Gallacher’s never been a coach or a manager and, to my knowledge, Jack hasn’t either,’ he says.
Backing from the rivals: Owen Coyle, manager of relegation rivals Bolton, has given his support to Kean
‘Their comments were not helpful. It would be better if Jack could just keep the roads gritted so we can all get to the training ground.’
He bristles briefly but prefers to talk about his own support network. About the people taking care of him while he tries to take care of business at the football club.
‘I’ve got a very strong wife,’ he says. ‘And after every game I go home, whether my family is down in Surrey or up staying with me. Even if it means going down to Surrey and coming back the next morning for training I’ll do it.
‘Margaret’s different class. Rock solid. We met when we were kids, in Glasgow. She was at the Bolton game and I think that was really tough for her, because it was a bit lively.
New year's cheer: Kean celebrates beating Manchester United at Old Trafford
‘I’m glad the kids weren’t at that one. That’s when it gets difficult. When the kids see it. My daughter is more sensitive to it than my boy. She’s older, nearly 15.
‘But my wife makes sure it doesn’t really affect them. She talks to them and she’s good at putting things into perspective when you need to hear it.
‘She came into my office after the Bolton game and she basically said: “OK, we’ll take that one on the chin and move on”.’
From the players, too, he draws encouragement and inspiration, and the evidence of that win against United and that draw at Anfield would suggest they are still fighting for him. Even if Chris Samba has now expressed a desire to leave.
Nothing wrong: Kean says he had nothing to do with former Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce's sacking
‘It would be more difficult to take that stick on the touchline if you didn’t think the players were responding,’ he says. ‘But players have always responded to me and you can tell the atmosphere in the dressing room is still good. I’ve been in enough to know when it isn’t right.
‘I shut it out during a game but I know the abuse has been bad. I know it’s not just directed at me but I’m obviously the guy who’s here; the one they can have a go at.
‘Like I say, things have been better. Tony Pulis remarked on it last week. But I think it has affected some of the younger players in certain games. It’s good that I’ve finally got some more senior players coming back from injury. We haven’t had any defenders. I hope to get some players in too, and a new assistant.’
He’s right. It isn’t all about him. It’s about Venky’s and what supporters feel are too many broken promises. A lack of investment for a start.
Loyalty: Kean claims he was offered the chance to stay at Real Sociedad when friend and manager Chris Coleman was sacked, but he declined
Kean has played extremely fair with them. Despite the fact that they make him travel to Pune in India once a month to provide them with an update. He gets the overnight flight to Mumbai, is driven for four hours for a three-hour meeting and then heads straight back to Mumbai for the overnight flight home.
‘I’ve supported them because they have given me the opportunity to manage the team, and I believe the funding will come,’ he says. ‘And I don’t mind going out there once a month. It’s not as bad as it sounds and I’d prefer to meet the owners face-to-face.
‘But you wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen. In Mumbai you really do see the extremes of wealth and poverty. The first time I went there we were sitting in a traffic jam. In front of us was a white Rolls-Royce, in front of the Rolls-Royce was a rickshaw and in front of the rickshaw was an elephant.
‘I think I will be better for this experience, whatever happens.’
He could still use a bit less abuse.