How Steve Kean revived Blackburn Rovers
It was one of the season's defining images. Five days before Christmas, Steve Kean stood in his technical area as Blackburn fell two goals behind against Bolton and vitriol from his own club's supporters poured forth. The Rovers fans displayed copies of the local newspaper that was demanding the end of the Scot's tenure.
On Tuesday, in the exact same spot, Kean and his players were hailed as Blackburn beat Sunderland to move six points clear of the relegation zone. Kean looked as if he was inhaling the moment, and the sea change in public opinion towards him. But how did the Blackburn manager turn it around?
1. Not criticising the dressing room
Kean was a respected coach before he took the reins at Ewood in controversial circumstances. It meant he had a good understanding of the dynamics that go on inside a dressing room. Significantly, throughout everything, he has never gone anywhere near launching an internal attack on the only people who could actually save his job.
Kean has insisted throughout that he was sure he had the backing of the dressing room. Key figures came out in support, David Dunn urged supporters to believe, John Jensen, the former coach, insisted there was no unrest in terms of the team and all pundits have agreed that, with the exception of the 7-1 defeat at Arsenal, the players have stood beside their manager. As a statement, they led 3-0 against relegation rivals QPR in the next game by half-time.
"It would be more difficult to take that stick on the touchline if you did not think the players were responding," he had said. "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."
2. Getting Robbo on board
Paul Robinson got so irked by the treatment he received from Fabio Capello that he called time on his international career. What a contrast to the person Robinson has emerged as this season for his club side.
Six minutes of injury-time had been played at Wigan in November and they were behind. Goalkeeper Robinson had been culpable, letting a simple shot from Albert Crusat, slip in. Thus, when a corner came, deep in stoppage time, Robinson went up for it, and when the boot of Wigan's Dave Jones came his way he took one in the face in an attempt to steal an equaliser. With blood dripping down his face, Robinson watched as Yakubu sent Ali Al Habsi the wrong way from the resulting penalty to cap a stirring comeback.
Captain Robinson was back in the visiting penalty area after the 90th minute on Tuesday night. The game had finished this time, but he was stood, fists clenched and arms aloft in celebration with home fans. It felt deserved.
3. Junior Hoilett and Yakubu
It is difficult to pinpoint which of the two players has been the most important in hoisting Blackburn off the foot of the League. Yakubu has proved to be an inspired signing, coming from Everton as he did, for an undisclosed fee, late in August. Then it was felt his best days might be behind him. Only his record at Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton and Leicester suggested that this was a player who had always retained that instinct to score goals. Rovers simply needed to give him service, and in that respect at least, they have been fairly consistent this season. Yakubu's late goal against Sunderland was the 15th goal he has scored for Blackburn this season, 14 of them coming in the League. It is rare for a team to be relegated with such an influential and in-form striker. Pairing him with Hoilett has released the potential of the youngster as well, whose goal earlier in the victory over Sunderland was his seventh of the season. Hoilett has been given more licence to attack since he was moved up front and the pace and natural invention of the Canadian automatically allows more space for Yakubu to play in.
Blackburn have an in-form front pair scoring goals. It is why there is such growing confidence that they can now pull further away from the foot of the table to safety.
4. Being more politically savvy than the politicians
"I'm afraid that whatever talents Mr Kean may or may not have had, he simply can't turn this around," said Jack Straw before that defeat to Bolton. "I've held back from saying there ought to be a change of management because you have to give managers a chance to see their strategy through, but I think Mr Kean has had that."
Kean has chosen wisely, unlike Straw, to keep his counsel. From the outside, he appeared to prioritise. First came the players, who would not be criticised. Then came his relationship with the owners, which he has wisely steered well clear of public utterances over, despite a lack of support, either verbally or financially. Any criticism as fans' campaigns raged against the Venkys would have been professional suicide.
Relationships with supporters, former players and now politicians was simply something that would not be touched. His players and his bosses mattered. With a recent run of one defeat in five, the others begin to take care of themselves, notably by their silence.
5. Keep calm and carry on
Kean has had to call on security guards this season for his own protection. There have been sit-ins by fed-up fans at Ewood. There have been protests through the streets of Blackburn. His wife had to hear the abuse he suffered during the Bolton defeat. The Lancashire Telegraph had a front page editorial calling for his resignation. Chris Samba, such a potentially key figure, jumped ship. Meeting his bosses for a debriefing each month involves a flight to Mumbai, a four-hour drive before a three-hour meeting, which might, on his next trip, prove a bit more enjoyable than most of those that have gone before.
"I think I will be better for this experience, whatever happens," he said. "I sat saying I would never give up hope that the fans would go home happy and everybody would be singing and cheering. That's certainly been the case of late. Let's get to the required points total as quick as possible and enjoy the summer."
That sentiment alone still sounds remarkable.