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Kean and the cult of personality

It's probably something of an understatement to call Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean 'unpopular'. After all, lots of managers have been 'unpopular' with their supporters throughout the years. But very few managers have caused such disaffection as to lead one fan to hire a plane in order to fly a banner over the ground demanding the manager be sacked, as happened to Kean during the recent defeat to Chelsea at Ewood Park.

It's natural to suggest Kean's unpopularity is intrinsically linked to Blackburn's lowly current position in the table - 19th, with six points from 11 games - but that doesn't seem to tell the full story. After all, Ian Holloway's popularity didn't plummet even as Blackpool struggled to win a game during the second half of last season, just as Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho still has a phenomenal number of detractors for a two-time Champions League winning coach.

The correlation between victory and popularity has never been a direct one and the hatred for Kean seems so much greater than even his limited list of achievements warrants. It is hard not to sense that perhaps that's not entirely where it stems from; there's something else that irks us about the 44-year-old.

Perhaps we don't just dislike Kean because he's a bad manager - rather, we loath him because he is the (bad) manager we all fear we would be.

Perhaps it is our own insecurities that are reflected back at us every time we see Keen on screen. Modern football has seen a trend towards younger, more elegant touchline trawlers - led by Pep Guardiola and Mourinho - whose tactical expertise has, perhaps inevitably, come to be linked with their youth and sartorial style.

Club stalwarts like Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have a similar self-assurance borne out of their achievements, but among the next generation of touchline warriors there are different expectations. Just as the biggest clubs (Chelsea, Manchester City) have opted for urbane, confident foreign managers to take them to the top, so the league as a whole has seemingly come to value those same characteristics.

In that respect, Kean could hardly be more different. We can see it in his eyes when the camera pans to him on the touchline; we can read it in his facial expressions during his press conferences. The bullish statements about his future lack real gravitas, while what we see - in those honest, momentary flickers where his guard drops - is a very real insecurity, one we aren't used to managers expressing.

It's that, when coupled with the murky manner of his appointment - replacing Sam Allardyce at Venky's behest, seemingly on the recommendation of controversial agent and advisor Jerome Anderson - that leads to the uneasy feeling that Kean is undeserving and ill-equipped for his current role, one earned not by merit but by the agendas of the others at Ewood Park.

What is interesting, however, is that his public perception is at odds with his standing within the game. Allardyce was vocal in his praise of Kean's coaching record when he first joined his backroom team (although he might be more measured in his comments now), while the likes of Harry Redknapp and Wenger have ridden to Kean's defence in recent times.

"I have a lot of sympathy for Steve Kean. He is a young manager and you want to give him time to do his job," Wenger said last month. "A lot of the time you complain that the English managers do not get a chance and I can understand that, but when they do get a chance you must give them time."

Kean is, and presumably will always remain, resolutely Scottish - but Wenger's overarching point survives. We talk about the need to give homegrown managers a chance, yet the ones that are, generally struggle to gain any support in the court of public opinion. We have instinctively come to respond positively to Mad Men, but Kean appears much more Holby City.

On Saturday he will come up against Roberto Martinez - a man who could have walked straight off whatever the Spanish version of Madison Avenue is - when his side face Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium. In just over two seasons, Martinez has claimed 83 points from 87 Premier League games, an average of 0.954 points per game. Kean, from the smaller sample size of 33 games (and with the disadvantage of inheriting a squad, built by someone else, midway through a season), has claimed 28 points - a minor statistical difference that would basically be eroded with a Rovers win on Saturday.

Yet Martinez has never faced an organised and public show of disapproval from Latics fans (a glib writer might suggest that is because there are not enough of them) and was even approached by Aston Villa during the summer to become their new manager.

It might be suggested that expectations at Wigan are not the same as at Blackburn, but if that is the case then the expectations at one are, to put it bluntly, unrealistic. In the last three seasons Wigan have finished 16th, 16th and 11th in the Premier League. Blackburn, in not-so-stark contrast, have finished 15th, 10th and 15th. The difference of one league place that exists now should not be that surprising.

The arrival of Venky's has led to a series of PR disasters - the unrealistic boasts about signing the likes of Ronaldinho and David Beckham doing the owners few favours, while the cringe-worthy adverts and sudden breakdown in communication between club and supporters all seem to have become in some way Kean's fault - but it does seem to have sparked a perception that the club suddenly has a bit more money to spend. The club's summer transfer activity, though, hardly backs up that theory.

After all, the initial £17 million the club received from Manchester United for prodigiously talented defender Phil Jones was more than Blackburn spent on all acquisitions combined. Relegated Birmingham City centre-back Scott Dann (£7 million) was the biggest splash - a necessary move, to try and fill the hole left by Jones - but other signings were made with a more economical approach in mind.

Simon Vukcevic, Mauro Formica, Radosav Petrovic and David Goodwillie all arrived with encouraging reports from exploits in foreign leagues, but have so far taken varying degrees of time to adapt to the Premier League. They follow Barcelona graduate Ruben Rochina, who joined in January but has only sparked into life (becoming the club's top scorer, from midfield) after six months of acclimatisation.

The only notable signing that didn't fit that mould was striker Yakubu - who has vast experience of the league with Portsmouth, Middlesbrough and Everton. But it is worth remembering that the Nigeria international spent much of the season on loan at Championship side Leicester City, having been frozen out at Goodison Park.

Brought in for barely £1.5 million, Yakubu (along with Formica and Goodwillie) effectively replaced Nikola Kalinic as the club recouped around £4.5 million on the patently unhappy Croatia striker. Yet, while Kalinic never made a consistent impact in England, he did have a happy knack of scoring crucial goals - something Yakubu (a double against Arsenal this season aside) still has to prove he can replicate. His sale, coupled with that of Jones, also ensured Blackburn made approximately £7 million profit on their summer activities.

Richer in finances but poorer in talent, Kean has thus had to rely on an unstable alliance of experienced older names and hungry, promising youngsters in his team selections. The results have been inconsistent, but not for the reasons you might expect - while the likes of David 'Junior' Hoilett and the aforementioned Rochina have earned great credit for the attacking responsibility they have taken on, the side has occasionally been let down by ageing figures like Michel Salgado and Gael Givet - liabilities Kean has few viable alternatives for.

Given that, the poor start to the season is perhaps understandable - such an uneasy balance is always going to take time to settle into something more reliable. Fans might find results so far unacceptable (as is their right), but there seems surprisingly little willingness from others to understand that some things have been beyond Kean's control (much like the outrageous handball decision against Norwich that denied the side a big three points).

"I've got the full backing of the owners, so we will grind through it," Kean said recently. "And then I think when we do grind through it, we will say, 'There was a spell which was not fantastic in terms of results, but we played ourselves out of it with determination and trying to win games'."

Martinez, in contrast, has had three years to build a team in the style he desires. Yet Wigan remain as ineffectual as ever, mired at the wrong end of the table in perpetuity. Despite that the Spaniard remains frequently lauded; just as Kean is almost universally loathed. Yet the statistics suggest there is remarkably little to choose between the two - they are both just as bad as each other.

The difference in perception, it seems, is all in our minds. One is the sort of manager we have come to admire, the sort we hope we would be - while the other is the manager we all fear we would actually turn out as. But is that really relevant? More importantly, is it fair?


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