Steve Kean and his Blackburn lessons help create Brunei success in S.League
A career that includes being the party pooper on Alex Ferguson's 70th birthday, and being tasked with helping the Prince of Brunei's club "grow up", cannot be described as ordinary.
Steve Kean has gone from masterminding Blackburn Rovers' victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford on Ferguson's big day in 2011 to trying to turn Brunei DPMM into one of Southeast Asia's top teams.
As the Scot enters the fourth year of his tenure at Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah's club and approaches his 50th birthday in September, he can express great satisfaction with his achievements on the pitch, including the development of his local players.
As an invited club in Singapore's S League, Kean led DPMM to League Cup glory in 2014, and followed up this success with the S.League title in 2015. The club were disappointed to come third in 2016, but they are ready to mount a title challenge again this year.
A tough experience at Blackburn -- the club was in turmoil during his time there -- helped Kean to identify his strengths and weaknesses in management, and he admits he learned valuable lessons that he can apply in Asia.
"At Blackburn, because it was my first job as a manager, sometimes I got pulled into things that I probably wasn't qualified to be talking about," Kean told ESPN FC from DPMM's preseason camp in Bangkok. "When I was at Fulham, and when I was at Real Sociedad and Coventry, in the assistant manager's role, I didn't really get involved with other things.
"But at Blackburn, I was being pulled into meetings and being asked about things like, in three years, what colour is the third strip going to be? I think there are people who are better qualified to be in those kinds of meetings than me. Now, looking back and reflecting on it, I'm quite strong. If I'm invited attend a meeting about the football side of the club, I'll come. If it's not and it's about marketing, anything else about the club, I don't really get involved."
As well as leaving the more operational and market-focused aspects of the club to other people, Kean feels right at home in a developmental role as he helps DPMM build -- from youth levels to the first team.
"One of the first things the prince said to me was, 'will you come and help the club grow up'," said Kean. "And that kept ringing in my ears. At that time, they only had one team, so they wanted to build some younger teams, and that goes back to my development days at Reading, and when I first went to Fulham as academy director, starting to build the club."
While Kean is relishing the challenge in Brunei, he admits there are certain things he misses about football in England's top flight.
"With the exception of two years ago -- when we were getting 27-28,000 as we won the league -- the crowds are small in Brunei, so you miss the buzz and the atmosphere at the games," he said.
Such atmospheres would have included the time his struggling Blackburn side went to Old Trafford and won 3-2 on Dec. 31, 2011, a week after claiming a 1-1 draw away to Liverpool.
Those two results were not enough to prevent Blackburn's relegation at the end of the 2011-12 season. However, Kean remains proud of his achievement in sparing Rovers from the drop after taking over from Sam Allardyce the previous year when victory at Wolves on the final day ensured their survival.
"I think staying up in my first year was the highlight of my time at Blackburn," said Kean. "Beating Manchester United at Old Trafford, and drawing with Liverpool at Anfield were big games, and brought in points at the right time. But staying up is probably the highlight because at one point we looked doomed."
Kean believes the experience has been of great benefit to his development as a coach, and DPMM are now reaping the rewards.
He said: "I'm a better manager because I'm spending time doing to the things I think I'm good at -- on the training ground, improving the team. We have a small population, and there's only 23 professionals in the whole country, and that's our boys. We've got what we've got, so I've probably spent many hours really looking at the players and then building the system and the shape and the style of play around them."
As an invitational side in the S League, DPMM do not qualify to play in AFC tournaments, but Kean hopes there may be a way around this in the future.
"I think if we could somehow devise a way to play in the AFC Cup, for example, it could mean our second team winning the domestic league or the domestic FA Cup, we could take that place, and play in some qualifying matches. I think we could do well in the AFC," he said.
For now, Kean has his sights set high for the season ahead, and sees success in the championship as the only option.
"We need to win the league," said Kean. "At the beginning of last season, we went from five to three imports so there was a lot more responsibility on the local players, and they struggled to start with. But they're ready now because we had a great finish to last season.
"We want to regain the title, and we'd like to win a cup and do better in the Singapore Cup because we've always struggled in that competition for some reason. So we're trying to win the three competitions that we're in because I think we're good enough."
Kean has added the firepower of former Tampines Rovers striker Billy Mehmet to the squad. He hopes Mehmet will form a deadly partnership with Rafael Ramazotti, who was top S League scorer for the last two years.
"Any time Billy played against us when he was at Tampines, he caused us lots of problems," he admitted. "Other teams have put one man behind Rafa, and one in front, and boxed him in. It's going to be difficult to do that this year because we're going to play with two up front. It gives us more goals and all we need to do is make sure we work at the defensive side."
Mehmet admits Kean played a big role in his decision to move to Brunei after turning down a new contract at Tampines.
"Obviously, I knew the gaffer from England so that was quite a big help," Mehmet told ESPN FC. "When I first met him, I got a good impression. I've worked with Scottish managers in the past so I know what they're like. They're hard and they're tough, and it's good to work with people like that because in the previous three seasons, I've been working with Asian coaches, which is a little bit different to what you're used to back home. He's got his own ideas and I'm looking forward to a new challenge."
Moving into his fourth year in a faraway land in a footballing outpost, some might think Kean would be ready to try something new. But the former Celtic youth player is in no rush to plan his next move.
"I've signed a contract for another two years. Provided we keep moving forward and keep expanding the club, I'm happy to stay," he said. "I never expected to be in Brunei in the first place, but football makes the world a small place. I'm enjoying it here but I don't have any target area. I don't have any specific goal to get back to to the Premier League or to go to China or the MLS. I'll just keep working and if opportunities come, you can say yes or you can decide to stay.
"Working with a team in Asia that is in AFC competitions would be an interesting challenge, but I'd like to think that could be us."
Kean's turbulent years at Blackburn now seem like a distant memory. Brunei DPMM will be hoping that the possibility of playing on a bigger Asian stage will keep Kean in Bandar Seri Begawan for the long term.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK