NEW: STEVE KEAN INTERVIEW!
Steve Kean is the manager of Brunei DPMM, who play in Singapore’s top division. The 46-year-old managed Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, and was assistant manager at Fulham, Real Sociedad, and Coventry City. As a player, he spent four years in Portugal. Here, he talks about working with royalty, his chance to join Chelsea, and why he had no regrets about Blackburn:
Before I took the job, I met the owner – the Crown Prince of Brunei – in his palace. The club had contacted my representative last year, and invited me over. Although I was open-minded about moving abroad, I never expected to come to this part of the world. But I did my research, flew out, and met the directors in a hotel. We went for dinner, and then I went to see the crown prince.
As soon as I spoke to him, I could see he was passionate about the club. He’s an ex-player himself (playing in goal for DPMM). We spent a long time talking about football, where he wants to take the club, and whether I could help. At the moment we’re playing in the Singapore league – we’re committed to it for the next three years – but he wants to take it to the highest level possible.
I sat down and thought: “This is perfect for me.” The club wanted me to sign a long contract but I said: “I don’t know you, you don’t know me, let’s keep it to one year.” I’d love to stay longer, but I felt as if the directors were offering me a huge deal just because I’d been in the Premier League. I said: “Listen, don’t be under pressure – let’s keep it to one year, but hope it goes much further than that.”
The prince comes to training every day. He’s so passionate about the club – he’s got a wicked schedule, working for the government and the country, but he still finds the time. Is it extra pressure? Not at all! I meet him every two weeks at the palace, so he knows what we’re trying to achieve.
I watched all of last season’s games on DVD, and I wanted to change one or two things. We were conceding too many goals in the last 20 minutes, getting too stretched, and there was a little bit of fear. No disrespect to anyone who came before, but I felt we needed to address the fitness levels. So we brought them into the gym, and had more five and six minute intense games. Before, there had been more 11 v 11 games, long runs, and one-paced training. The players have responded well.
The standard of the local players is very good – much better than I thought. I saw the last game of last season live, and I thought: “These really are decent.” There are one or two in particular, 21 or 22 years old, they could play at such a good level. They just need the exposure. We’re allowed five import players: two of them are Irish lads, Roy O’Donovan (ex-Sunderland) and Joe Gamble (ex-Hartlepool). The imports must be role models for the local players. You don’t want guys here for three or four months, who don’t want to be here, and who leave as soon as they get another offer.
I’ve watched more Premier League games since I’ve been in Brunei than I’ve ever watched. They show every game, and they keep showing them until the next game starts. Most of the guys at our club – most people in Brunei in fact – are Liverpool fans. So, because they’re having a good season, I use that as a reference. I tell the players: “Did you see the way they pressed?” or “Did you see their penetrating passes?” And because they watch it round the clock, they know what I mean.
At the moment, I’m in Brunei on my own. My wife – who has always been a massive support to me – is still in England with our kids because it’s a very important time for their schooling. We decided it was better to keep the kids in their current school, as my daughter is doing her A Levels and my son is choosing his GCSE subjects. We see each other every half term when they fly out to Brunei.
I’ve heard horror stories about footballers having to move their families all over the place. You move from club to club, country to country, and your kids end up going to nine or ten schools. When I went to Fulham, my family and I were based in Weybridge, and we thought: “Wherever I work, the family will stay here, and I’ll do the miles.” But it’s difficult, working away. In my year out, I got to do things I’d never done before – parents’ evenings, school events, things I’d missed out on.
After I left Blackburn, I spent a year visiting clubs across Europe. Rather than seeing clubs in England, or putting “I went to Barcelona for a week” on my CV, I visited smaller clubs in Spain, Austria, Poland. I went back to Portugal. I saw youth development in the Basque region. I thought: “Why is Belgium producing all these players? What are they doing differently?” So I went to Belgium.
I was very impressed with Standard Liege. They’re not spending massively, but they’re very very selective in the players they take. It’s a good model. I spoke to the owner (Roland Duchatelet), who’s also taken over Chalrton, and he’s a very intelligent guy. Standard are having a great season – above Anderlecht, above Club Brugge – so hopefully they have the same success at Charlton.
I first moved abroad when I was 20. I was at Celtic as a young player, but I found it hard to break into the first team. I went on loan to Swansea – Chris Coleman was an apprentice there at the time – and then I got a call from an agent, asking me about spending a week on trial in Portugal. Very much like Brunei, I went there with an open mind and I liked it. I spent three years at Academica de Coimbra (then in the second division) and then spent a year at Naval (also second division).
Going to Portugal had a huge influence on me. I’d been at Celtic since I was 13, learning the Celtic way, so to see a different style of play was massive. The game was much slower, with much more possession. I realised you didn’t always have to finish with a shot or cross – sometimes you could go backwards. I had some very good coaches, and I learned the language, which was great.
I could have been Luiz Felipe Scloari’s assistant at Chelsea. They approached me when I was assistant at Coventry – I spoke to Chris Coleman, the manager, and he said: “Speak to the chairman (Ray Ranson).” So I spoke to Ray, and he said: “You’ve got a contract here.” So it didn’t happen, but it’s always nice when you’re approached by a club of that stature. It shows people rate you.
There was also contact before Jose Mourinho arrived this summer. This time it wasn’t as strong – I was sounded out by an agent asking whether I was up for an assistant’s role, and whether I was available. I said I was taking time out, and that, when I came back, I wanted a manager’s job.
Do I have any regrets about my time at Blackburn? Not one. Decisions were made above me about selling players, which made it difficult. It’s much harder to win games in the Premier League when you’ve got so many young guys, players just starting out. But it meant we gave opportunities to guys like Martin Olsson, Junior Hoilett, Grant Hanley, Jake Kean. Really, we had a great dressing room, and I can count on one hand the number of games when we were really, really poor.
I don’t feel my reputation has suffered because of Blackburn. Speak to anyone who’s ever worked with me – because the best people to ask are the players. Ask Andy Cole, Edwin van der Sar, Paul Robinson, Bradley Orr, Grant Hanley, Scott Dann, whoever. It’s the players who matter. It’s your job to make them better. They’re the ones who’ll decide whether you’re good, bad, or indifferent.
As a coach, you always have to get better. You can’t put on the same sessions you did five or six years ago. You can’t say: “We had a great season in the year 2000, we’ll do those sessions again.” The game’s always changing. Remember, anyone can put on a session. But it’s no good walking off the pitch thinking: “That was a worldie session” if the players are walking off thinking: “That was torture.” They have to think: “I’ve learned something today, I can take that forward.”
Moving to Brunei has given me a lot of energy back. The players are so hungry for information. Everything I ask of the boys, they give me. The (English) Premier League is a special league, but I’m here for the long haul. It’s an up and coming region and over the next five or six years it will be massive.
Interview by @owenamos for britishcoachesabroad.com. There will be no interview for the next two weeks as Owen is away for his 30th birthday.