Eyebrows were certainly raised when, ahead of their 2020-21 campaign, the Melbourne Victory announced the arrival of former Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean.
More than a decade after making the transition from coaching in to management, the one time Premier League gaffer arrived in the A-League to join Grant Brebner’s backroom staff ahead of Victory legend’s maiden management campaign.
Despite being an experienced manager in his own right, Kean had no reservations in answering Brebner’s call.
“I go back a long way with Brebs” Kean told Kick360.
“Brebs was one of our players in the mid to late 90s when I was at Reading. I was first team coach having previously been in the Academy there. We go back a long way.
“Brebs had done all his coach education with us in the Scottish Football Association, so when he asked if I would be interested in the role I said yes straight away. I had no hesitations about being an assistant because I enjoy coaching on the field. Whether that’s a head coach, assistant coach, first team coach, Academy coach… whatever the opportunity is to work and improve players, I really enjoy.”
Following the end of his troubled tenure with Blackburn, Kean headed for Asia where he went on to enjoy a successful spell managing in Singapore and Brunei. Despite this time spent working in the Asian game, he admits he didn’t have a huge knowledge of the A-Leagues prior to his arrival.
The intensity and physical demands were to take him by surprise.
“I didn’t know too much. I spoke to a lot of people before I actually went and they told me about the physical nature of the league. I don’t mean tackles and headers and flying in to challenges, I mean just the actual ground that a lot of the boys can cover.
“I found it very, very physical in that respect, and quite demanding. I also felt that, having done a bit of research in to the import players that have come from all over Europe, that it really took them a year to adapt to the physicality of the league. Looking at the boys who’ve stayed, I always felt they looked better in their second year.
“Moving forward, if you’re in Perth, there’s all the travelling, if you’re in Brisbane, there’s the humidity… [for those unexperienced in the league] the intensity of the game would probably surprise them. It did me, to be honest.”
Kean is no stranger to the technical and cultural differences of the global game. During his playing days, the Glaswegian spent time in Portugal, while his coaching career has taken him from the Basque Country to Greece and everywhere in between.
However, he says the all out attacking nature he encountered in Australia was certainly a unique experience.
“I felt that if you were a fan, it would be really entertaining. Teams just keep going for it. They can be three up, and they’re trying to score four or five. Even if you’re losing a game, they just keep attacking.
“They don’t ever seem, really, to manage a game, or say, ‘listen, we’ve lost this game but let’s not let this scoreline become a silly scoreline’. It’s everybody is attacking, everyone is sending bodies forward… having been in a lot of different countries, that was really different. You could quite comfortably be winning a match and then five substitutions and the game changes.”
Unfortunately, ‘silly score-lines’ were something that would become an all too familiar sight for the Victory that season.
After stepping in to lead the club in their hour of need, seemingly against his better judgement, Brebner’s tenure was set to end in disaster. The multi-time Premiers and Champions campaign got under way with a 3-1 defeat to Brisbane and just continued to spiral.
Now, the former Victory assistant gives an insight in to what things were like behind closed doors.
“It’s horrible. When you know you’re in games and lose key players through injury… That’s not any excuse, the results are the results. But there are obviously factors, when you re-analyse the game and the season over all.
“To lose Marco Rojas for so long, to not have Rudy Gestede up to speed and available for vast amounts of games, it took time to get Callum McManaman up to speed in the league, and Robbie Kruse not firing on all cylinders until late in the season, when he was superb, they are big, big players.
“I think with Marco and Rudy and Krusey being up to speed, and Macca being able to see out games… we really had to look after him because we were afraid he was going to pick up injuries, and he did pick up a couple of injuries, not soft tissue but bad ligament injuries in his ankle which he struggled to shrug off, but when he was fully fit, I think he showed what quality he had…
“And Rudy is Rudy. He’ll miss chances, but he’ll always put himself [in dangerous spaces], he’ll tie other players up to create space for Krusey…”
Expectations were high for the big man from Benin, his claims to ‘be more dominant’ than former captain Ola Toivonen only adding further fuel to that fire.
But the striker that once terrorised Championship defenders for fun failed to recapture the form he had once demonstrated during a goal laden spell with Blackburn Rovers.
But as Kean reveals, the one time Premier League player’s time in Melbourne was dominated by injury.
“There were very few weeks where he actually could do a full week. He had problems with his knee that had to be managed medically, then he probably comes in to a game not having physically put in enough minutes in the week to fully sustain a full game and then picks up an injury or two, and it’s that vicious circle of wanting to play games, but not training enough to look himself, or his previous self. As much as he would have liked to, and everyone would have liked to…
“I think if he was physically able to train every single day and then maybe manage his minutes, get him off with 15/20 minutes to go, I think he would have been superb. He’s such a presence and it gives you that other dimension. You can play on the ground, you can play counter attack and get the ball wide to give him time to get in to the box… I felt sorry for him, because he didn’t train often enough to get himself to full match sharpness.”
With injury issues and on-field struggles mounting, things began to sour.
Supporters were incredibly vocal in their dissatisfaction, culminating with the now infamous banner being brandished by fans during a training session, and the pressure visibly weighed heavily on Brebner and the team.
“We had a bad run. You look at the table, it is what it is. If you pick up a run of bad results, certainly early on in the week it isn’t a nice atmosphere at any club. If you’ve lost a game on the Saturday or Sunday and you come in, it’s not nice. But that’s the job of the staff to pick the players up, pick the bones of the game, discuss initially what happened and why it happened and what we can work on through the week and move forward.
“I think it was probably more difficult at that club, in all honesty, because of previous really, really highs. To then look at the table and where the club was… I can only look back through the history books if you like and see where the club was a number of years ago. Why it got in to that position, I’m not really sure, but my time there, the players gave absolutely everything.
“Every single day we were there putting on sessions, they were giving it everything. Just sometimes you look back on it, and you find yourself in a bit of a bad spell and you’ve just got to keep digging away and try and find the positives.”
Things did begin to show signs of improvement towards the end of the year. Sadly, it was too late for Brebner, who was relieved of his duties in the aftermath of a second successive Melbourne derby embarrassment at the hands of eventual champions, Melbourne City.
“Towards the end of the season, the last few games, we were certainly in every game. There was never a time where we got smashed. I think we were really close, I remember back to when we lost 1-0 away at Sydney, we were really in that game, the Macarthur game, Central Coast when we drew, we should have won but Rudy got a perfectly good header disallowed.
So I felt near the end of the season, because we were able to get everybody on the training ground by that time, with the exception of Marco Rojas who really was a massive loss, he was probably our best player in the Champions League, to lost him for virtually the whole season was a really big loss.”
Kean was given the task of leading the battered and bruised Big V to the end of the season, alongside fellow assistant Jean-Paul de Marigny.
“We changed the way we played a little bit, not really as far as structure, but we sat off the game a little bit more. I certainly think to save the legs of Callum McManaman, Rudy, Krusey, Ben Folami…
“The young lads that came in, they came in as young boys with that nervous excitement, I felt sitting off the game a little bit, giving up the first third of the pitch, sitting back and winning possession and then really playing more counter attack really suited the players we had available and saved their legs for being more intense when we did go forward, as opposed to trying to press from the front and maybe getting picked off.
“When we did get the ball, with more players coming back to full fitness, Krusey doing more kilometres game of game, Rudy getting fitter, Callum McManaman playing more minutes and sustaining minutes, I just felt we were much more of a threat.”
Despite making some improvements and picking up a couple of big wins, it wasn’t enough to prevent Victory from picking up the wooden spoon come seasons end.
Despite all he went through during that turbulent time, he still reflects positively on the club and the time he spent in the city of Melbourne.
“I loved it. It is a fantastic club. I can’t speak highly enough of the Chairman, the Directors… I really felt for the fans. It was a really, really tough season and I could understand their frustration from being where they had been in previous years.
“Any fan that I ever met on the streets when I was out in Melbourne was always great with me.”
Towards the end of his time in charge, Kean told media that he had enjoyed his time in Australia and would be open to extending his stay.
While the impact of Covid has increased in Australia since he made those statements, he still insists he would love to have another crack at the A-League Men.
“I think that changed with more lockdowns and the fact that my wife and kids didn’t get out to Australia. It’s a long 10 months when you’re out there by yourself and if I did stay, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get back to the UK… that 10 months turns in to two years. Who knows in the future. I think I understand the league more, I know what the league is all about and if I got the opportunity, who knows? It’s something I’d definitely consider.
“Now that stability coming in to the league, I think it’ll be really good in the next few years and I’d certainly be open to a return.”