Focus on Blackburn

Kean struggling to match ambition

March 10, 2011
By Norman Hubbard

Mid-table anonymity is underrated. Or it was, anyway, by the Rao family who constitute the Indian poultry firm Venky's and the board of Blackburn. Their grand plans for Rovers extended far beyond the quietly impressive 10th place finish Sam Allardyce secured last season. Their vision of attractive football purveyed by a marquee signing with global renown did not include the man who represented the safety net ensuring Blackburn did not drop out of the Premier League.

Steve Kean
GettyImagesSteve Kean has won four, drawn two and lost nine since replacing Sam Allardyce in December

Three months later, firing Allardyce appears as silly now as it did then. Steve Kean's is a thankless task; first-time managers can struggle for credibility without being seen as the frontman for an unrealistic regime, but the Scot has both been deemed "unsackable" by Anuradha Desai, Rovers' chairwoman, and the subject of speculation he will be fired in the near future.

Venky's stated intention to enter the top five, preferably with one of Ronaldinho, Juan Roman Riquelme or David Beckham illuminating Ewood Park, attracted predictably mocking comments. That none of the supposed superstars got close to joining highlighted the implausibility of their schemes: these seemed the plans of people who had only heard of about 10 footballers, rather than those with an interest in skilled team-building.

Yet, when Rovers reached seventh place in January, it was an interpreted as a sign that a more attacking blueprint was paying off. With four wins in six games, Kean appeared the more progressive antidote to Allardyce. However, an examination of those victories suggested Blackburn benefited enormously from circumstances. Two were against a West Bromwich Albion team with marked defensive difficulties (and Gabriel Tamas in especially generous mood on both occasions), one against a self-destructive Liverpool in what proved the final humiliation for Roy Hodgson and the other came at the expense of a depleted QPR side who were more concerned by Jamie Mackie's broken leg than their elimination from the FA Cup.

In other words, it was false dawn. The subsequent six matches have brought five defeats, including Rovers' own departure from the FA Cup, a solitary draw and a descent to 14th place, just two points above the relegation zone. Even the one seemingly positive result, an awful stalemate with Newcastle, wasn't exactly an endorsement of the new ethos.

Besides recognising that the emerging Junior Hoilett is both more exciting and more productive than the undistinguished Mame Biram Diouf and parting company with El-Hadji Diouf and Pascal Chimbonda, Kean's achievements are limited.

Blackburn did indeed feature in an unlikely classic, but as that was a 4-3 defeat to Wigan, that is no feather in the cap. Moreover, with 14 goals leaked in their last four away games, the hard-earned reputation for solidity is being lost, along with Rovers' greatest asset. The football under Allardyce could be unedifying - and the manager overbearing - but results could be procured without playing particularly well. That is a useful trick.

Kean's attempts to ape Allardyce have been unsuccessful. The sequel to the seven-goal thriller at the DW Stadium was a trip to Villa Park. Fielding a trio of defensive midfielders - Vince Grella, Keith Andrews and Jermaine Jones - flanked by men who are more midfielders than wingers (Morten Gamst Pedersen and Brett Emerton) in a 4-5-1 formation appeared unadventurous even by his predecessor's standards. It did not work: Blackburn nonetheless conceded another four goals.

Moreover, Kean's post-match comments gave the illusion of incompetence. Suggesting he could not get his second striker, Nikola Kalinic, on to the pitch before Aston Villa scored their second goal ignored the 13-minute gap between their first two strikes. Incoherence was an accusation, too, in the 0-0 draw with Newcastle when a supposed midfield diamond formation seemed to contain no-one on the right.

One consequence is that Blackburn have failed to score in their last two home games. Given their abysmal away form, their fate may rest on their remaining matches at Ewood Park. As they include visits from both sets of Mancunian high-flyers, the other three games - against Blackpool, Birmingham and Bolton - assume seismic proportions.

Sam Allardyce and John Williams
GettyImagesJohn Williams and Sam Allardyce's departures have let Rovers rocking behind the scenes

Under Allardyce, Blackburn displayed a ruthless efficiency on their own turf, especially when their peers came to visit. Under Kean, that has not been apparent. Under Allardyce, Blackburn never lost three successive league games; if damage limitation was his prime aim, it was accomplished. Under Kean, however, a setback against Blackpool would be a third straight reverse.

Given his lack of managerial pedigree, Kean would make a convenient fall guy. The reality is that problems run deeper: a well-drilled defence is becoming porous without Allardyce's guidance, the lack of a high-quality centre-forward has undermined the attempts to be more aggressive and Blackburn are plummeting at a faster rate than at any time since Paul Ince's ill-fated reign.

With well-respected and long-serving chairman John Williams leaving, there is chaos behind the scenes. It all suggests that, rather than the top five, Blackburn are heading for the Championship, either this summer or next. Kean's personal journey from unsackable to unemployed may be brief; so too Rovers' transition from Premier League overachievers to relegation, ridicule and then the comparative obscurity of the lower leagues.