Steve Kean: One-on-One
As Steve Kean strides into the lobby of the Empire Hotel and Country Club at Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of oil-rich Brunei Darussalam, he extends a warm handshake to FFT with a smile. He proceeds to head to his usual seat where he orders his usual café latte, as per the norm in his previous visits here.
The former Blackburn Rovers manager is an instant hit in his first managerial job outside Europe following his departure from Ewood Park. Under his guidance, the sultanate’s sole professional club, Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota Football Club (DPMM FC) sit at the top of Singapore’s top-flight, the S.League, when we catch up with him for this One-on-One.
Thanks to the Crown Prince of Brunei as the chairman of the club and heir-apparent to one of the richest monarchs in the world, the 46-year-old Scot is the highest-profile foreign football coach in the football-mad nation, where their main football obsession, aside from their home team, is the English Premier League.
Well-known but without any airs of superiority surrounding him, he is greeted with courtesy and respect by the local staff as he settles down to tackle questions on various aspects of his coaching life – and not surprisingly, Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s and Shebby Singh…
You worked with your mate Chris Coleman a few times since retiring as a player. How was like it working with him and did he ask you to help him with the Wales national team?
Alexander Lee, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
It was great working with Chris. My first contact with Chris came long before we met at Fulham, when I went to Swansea for a short time on loan from Celtic in 1987. It was a long, long time ago and he was a young player there. We then met again at Fulham when he was the captain at the club and I was the academy director. Chris was unfortunate to have a bad car accident and couldn’t play any longer, so he came to work within the club football structure. Then, he got the manager’s job and I helped him – and we worked together for a very long time.
He is a fantastic man-manager, very good with the players and media and very passionate with great football knowledge. It is no surprise that he is doing a great job with Wales at the moment. He never asked me to work with him at Wales, but we are still good friends.
Have you ever been mistaken for Smashing Pumpkin frontman Billy Corgan or British comedian Karl Pilkington?
Richard Augustin, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
[Chuckles] I don’t know who they are, but I will go to the internet as soon as I can to get a look! Maybe I have been, but not to my knowledge.
Why did you take up the Blackburn job in the first place? Did you for one second see what was coming?
Azman Khairy, via Facebook
I first had the job at the caretaker capacity. At that time, I know the owners were speaking to some high-profile managers and expected one of them to come in. There were many names mentioned in the press – not to me directly – such as Zico, Maradona and so on. I was expected to look after the team for a game or two. Then, I was asked to look after it longer and it got longer. It was like many caretakers initially. You are supposed to take the team for a game or two, but you don’t know whether it will be a hundred. That’s exactly what I had done, to take it game by game.
Blackburn tried to sign Ronaldinho and David Beckham after the Venky’s takeover. Were those rumours true?
Allen Breach, Portsmouth
I think the owners were being advised by different agents. Obviously when they bought the club, they were speaking to different agencies about trying to make marquee signings. As soon as the press found out that they were talking on the possibilities of making these signings, things were sensationalised because they had played at the highest level and were at the top of the world at one point. However, none of them materialised and I did not even get down speaking to those players.
The main thing I was proud of during my time at Blackburn was giving the opportunity to the young players to come through when the seniors left”
How did it feel being under much scrutiny when you were managing Blackburn? Why didn’t you leave even when the fans were calling for your head?
Kevin Bekon Jenet, via Facebook
You are always hoping that you can turn things around if you are in a bad spell. If you have lost a few games, you are always making sure the players try to improve and win the next game. We had a great dressing room, but we also had a lot of players leaving the club. The decisions to sell players happened above me, but it gave young players an opportunity.
Young players like Junior Hoilett, Martin Olsson, Grant Hanley and Jason Lowe came into the team when their seniors were sold. That’s just the process of what happens if players are sold – young players get their opportunities. I am proud that a lot of those players like Jake Kean, Lowe and Hanley are now playing on a regular basis; Hanley is even the captain of the club. All these players came through the academy system at Blackburn and they have all established themselves as very good players.
Why do you think the Blackburn fans dislike you?
Radzi Omar, via Facebook
As soon as there is a takeover, fans will be hoping for vast investment like what has happened at Manchester City, something like a huge injection of capital to propel the club at a different level. That’s what they hope for. If that happens, great; if it doesn’t happen, obviously they will vent their anger. I was in charge of the team at that point and obviously at the receiving end [of their frustration]. What I had to do in my position was I had to take it.
The decisions made at any football club are above the manager’s head, but my job is to try and put the best team I can put on the pitch and try to win the matches. If that means a very young team on the pitch, so be it. We had the youngest average team ever to play in the Premier League. We won at Old Trafford, drew with Liverpool and defeated Arsenal. All those youngsters were playing.
You left the club after managing them for almost two years. What was the turning point?
Marcus King, via Facebook
When we got into the Championship, we started very well; we were in a very strong position and near the top when I left. There were some things still happening inside the club, and it got to a point where I did not know if all inside the club were pulling in the same direction, which was to return to the Premier League as soon as possible. So, I thought it would be better for the club if I stepped away. It had nothing to do with the players, they were great.
What was your proudest or fondest memory at Blackburn, if any?
Dennis Yuean, Selangor, Malaysia
I had a few. The first season where I was in charge, we managed to survive on the last day of the season. There was big hype on us playing away at Wolves, and we managed to beat them. We were very comfortable in the first half and ahead, almost running away with the match. We had a great chance that Jason Roberts just unfortunately did not manage to score, but we held out and survived on that day. During that season there were lots of players leaving the club. In my second season, we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, when Sir Alex Ferguson was still in charge, and drew with Liverpool at Anfield on New Year’s Day. But the main thing I was proud of was giving the opportunity to the young players to come through when the seniors left.
Did you really mean it when you described Blackburn striker David Goodwillie as a ‘young Wayne Rooney’?
Kenneth Tan, via Facebook
No, I was asked what type of attributes he had. I said he likes to drop off and play just off the front, not one who runs in from behind. He had certain attributes similar to Rooney, but I wasn’t saying he was Rooney. David unfortunately found it difficult to adapt to the Premier League because it’s a very difficult league, especially when he just came down from Scotland to that level quickly. However, he has got good attributes, so I think he just has to find a place where he can play often enough.
How would you describe your working relationship with Blackburn’s global advisor, Shebby Singh?
Sivan John, via Twitter
I have no problem with Shebby personally. The only thing I thought that was wrong was he publicly criticised some of the players when he was working at the club. When you are a pundit or reporter, you can have an opinion about a player, but when you are working for a club, I do not think you can say any derogatory things about the players. That was my one and only problem that I thought it was wrong and I actually told Shebby that after he gave a negative interview on the players. It was poor because [those players he criticised] were players that I was trying to get the best out of.
According to rumours, Shebby Singh used to strut up and down the training ground with a specially made track suit with his initials on it. Any truth to that?
Tammy Koh, Singapore
Like any staff member out at the training ground, he had training equipment, so I would not say he strutted up and down. He would sometimes watch first-team sessions with the other staff, but he mostly watched academy sessions.
Have you actually tried Venky’s fried chicken before? How does it compare to other fast food restaurants?
Lee Seng Foo, FFT Malaysia/Singapore Managing Editor
[Bursts out laughing] I have. When I used to go to India to meet the owners, they sometimes would take me to some of the outlets. We also had it when we did an advertisement at Blackburn. I do not eat too much of that type of chicken, but I must say it’s actually very good.
What has been your best managerial/ coaching role in football so far?
Daniel Strachan, via Facebook
I could not really separate them because I have honestly enjoyed every coaching job I have had so far. They all have different positives. I enjoyed it when I first started out with Reading many years ago and took in really young kids and guided them. I was given a great responsibility of running the academy at Fulham. At Real Sociedad, it was amazing and fantastic, as the Basque area has always been a very passionate region. Coventry as well, and Blackburn – just the coaching side.
According to various news reports, you once drew a cartoon squirrel for the Save Our Squirrels charity. What’s the best thing you’ve drawn recently?
Darren Goon, via Twitter
What was that? Did I? I cannot remember that one.
What did you do after you resigned at Blackburn and before you joined Brunei? How did the move to Brunei come about?
Ethan Goh, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I took time out to go all over Europe and went to see different matches and club training. I was contacted by my representative to go to Brunei – and that’s how it happened.
You never really had the backing of fans during your time with Blackburn Rovers, so how does it feel to have a club and fan base fully supportive of your work now?
Ben Wright, via Facebook
At Blackburn, the fans were obviously swayed by who was coming and who was leaving the club. Once they saw that a lot of their senior favourites were leaving, it became a difficult time. All I can say is, I hope now that the young ones that came through will be there for many years to come and the club can hold on to them.
Brunei is different because it has a different starting position. The DPMM fans have seen the club coming from a lower position to a very high position, as we are putting in place players who have played at a very high level. We are bringing them to the club and are not selling players. It’s great to have the fans seeing the club doing well at the moment, and see more fans turning up every week.
Maybe I have been mistaken for Billy Corgan or Karl Pilkington, but not to my knowledge”
How is it like working under the Crown Prince of Brunei?
Maurice Hoon, Perak, Malaysia
It has been fantastic working with him. He has a very public position, which I respect very much, but I get to see another side of him. I can tell from just speaking with him that he is very excited about the future. He is a man very passionate about his club and country and hopes the country can progress in football.
Former Everton and Arsenal striker Francis Jeffers was supposed to join you at Brunei. Why did the move fall apart?
Jonathan Gan, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
When Francis came, he picked up an injury on the second or third day and did not manage to participate in a few games. There was a bit of reservation [about signing him] because the club previously had former top-level players that failed to maintain a physical level required of them to play in the league. We had to look at his injury record and be confident that he can play in a majority of our games. So, Francis went back home. We had planned to try and get him again once his injury cleared up, but then we managed to get Roy O’Donovan [former Sunderland striker]. By the time we signed him, Francis already had something else [so it worked out for both parties].
You have coached in Brunei for some time. Do you see any future for Brunei football?
SK Chan, via Twitter
Yes, a big future. The percentage of improvement in the Bruneian players have made in the last six months has been staggering in all aspects of their game. I think there is still more to come. If we can spread the net a little bit further and try to put in some development programmes to get people involved in football earlier and longer, we can have a good team despite being a small country.
What is the greatest factor that contributes to the dearth between the quality of football between Europe and Southeast Asia? What would be good measurable steps for the countries in that region to take to quickly close that gap?
Jason Wong, Selangor, Malaysia
I can only speak about Brunei at the moment because DPMM is the first team in Southeast Asia I have coached and I do not know if every Southeast Asia country is the same. The biggest difference I can see is the age that the players begin their careers. From what I have seen, the players in Brunei tend to get their contact time much later. If you look at the top clubs in Europe like Ajax and Arsenal, the ones that have produced sensational elite players, they have young players at six and seven already in the academy.
Each young player there has a driver that goes to his school to pick him up and take him to the training centre every day after school, so that there will be no pressure on the parents. The contact time in Europe in all the elite clubs are much younger. By the time they reach 16 or 17, they would have been in the programme for around 10 years. So, you have 10 years of continued development.
The players in Brunei develop much, much later because we do not have an academy that has contact time with the kids. We have to find ways to make more contact time for young players to bridge that gap.
If S.League were played in England, which division would it be?
Jason Wong, Selangor, Malaysia
S.League would probably be League One, while DPMM as a squad could compete in the Championship. We would have competitive games in the Championship because we have a good group of players. For instance, Roy used to play for Sunderland and went to Coventry and Northampton.
Can I be part of your coaching staff? I am from Australia and have a FIFA B Licence.
Bale Kuzmanovski, via Facebook
[Laughs] I have got many different coaches who have asked to be part of what I am doing here, but the Crown Prince has asked me to work with the local staff and help them. Just keep coaching, keep progressing, keep setting goals, and move up the ladder, Bale.
Do you have a particular footballing philosophy that you would like to implement?
Izmir Fariz, Selangor, Malaysia
I like to see attacking football, which is what I am trying to implement here. I want my team to be aggressive when we do not have the ball, and play open and attractive football when we do. If anybody comes and sees DPMM play, they will know that we are very attacking. We are always trying to create lots of chances and are probably the team in the league that shoot the most. When we are attacking, we create an organisation shape behind the ball to try and prevent any quick breaking attacks. By the same token, when we lose the ball, we press very well and form a good defensive shape.
What are some of the things you miss about the UK?
Syed Rafie, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I do not really miss the UK, but I do miss the people especially my family. They are only able to get out here once in a while because my kids are at a critical point in their schooling.
Would you ever like to try your coaching skills in Malaysia one day?
Xavier Ambrose, via Twitter
I would like to be in the region for a long time because it’s going to be an up-and-coming big region. I am very happy here in DPMM, so who knows, maybe in the future we as a club will join the Malaysian league.
Where would you like your current role to take you to next? Would a move back to English football interest you?
Daniel Polley, via Facebook
I am not here to try and generate a move back to England. I want DPMM to progress as a club and try to win the league and cups. Plus, I can do my job to the best of my ability here. There probably will be interest from England or from somewhere else in Europe, but it only comes through with success. But still, I am not trying to agitate a move and I am very happy here.
This interview was originally published in the September 2014 issue of FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore.