The Demise of Blackburn Rovers – 2011-2012 Part 3 by Dan Eley
Part three looks at the events of December 2011 when the footballing hierarchy decided to turn on Rovers fans for wanting Steve Kean sacked.
December began with a spectacular game at Ewood which briefly lifted some of the gloom surrounding the club. Four goals from the unplayable Yakubu helped Rovers to a 4-2 win over Swansea on the 3rd December. It had still been a game where Rovers had needed to score more than two goals to win, but the victory in of itself was absolutely vital. It was Rovers' first league win since their match against Arsenal back in September, in which they had also scored four goals. Their only other win during this period had been the Carling Cup victory against Newcastle - which had also required four goals. The result lifted Rovers back off the foot of the table, propelling them to 18th and within a point of Wolves in 17th. One particularly notable moment from the match was Yakubu scoring, causing the fans to cheer, only for him to then run over and hug Steve Kean, which brought out a loud chorus of boos. Yakubu responded to this by saying "It’s a shame to see that reaction of the fans. Maybe we can change their minds after winning more games. They should give the manager a chance. It’s a shame to see it even when we’re winning."
Win or not, the BBC noted that "Rovers were ponderous in attack and offered little pace to their ventures when they did get the ball", and it was suggested that the fans were threatening to turn on the team as well as the manager, due to Swansea's "dominance" in the opening twenty minutes. It was also reported that "the home supporters again concentrated their chants towards their beleaguered boss, with around 200 staying behind to register their disapproval in an organised protest". Kean had continued to bait fans by telling the media that the owners were behind him "100%. That has never ebbed or quivered one day. They are fantastically behind everything we are trying to do. The owners are obviously concerned at the position we are in but I think they also understand that the selection process will now be tougher for myself because of the amount of players who are coming back."
Kean himself was in a defiant mood after the match. The Mirror reported that Kean wanted to "invite one or two of the dissident supporters into the dressing room to see the spirit among the players", quoting the manager as saying "We’re going to stay in the league. We have experienced players and I think we’ll be fine. All we can do is keep doing our job every week and maybe things will change. I would think it is unnecessary for fans to boo after we have scored. I prefer to call fans supporters, and supporters support the club through thick and thin, through good times and bad times. I would hate to think there were people in the ground wishing we had been beaten. If that is the case, I don’t think they are supporters. I don’t know if that’s the case, but if when you score, they don’t cheer but boo, it would be disappointing. But I hope with victories and performances, the minority - I don’t think there were 20,000 outside protesting - will get smaller and eventually they will feel too embarrassed."
Kean continued his attack on the protesters, saying: "I was thinking that the supporters support the club and they want it to progress and win and climb the table. I don't know how many are outside protesting, but I would imagine there are not 20,000. I would like the majority to maybe be vocal and say to the protesters, 'give the lads a chance'. We've got a lot of young players in the team and it can certainly affect them if there's a little bit of negativity aimed when you're ahead or when you're playing well, so I hope they can bear that in mind". Kean's comments were typical of his deflection strategy, bringing the players into an argument they were not involved in, whilst also trying to divide the fanbase between "true" supporters and protesters. Many in the media were all too happy to jump on board with this narrative.
BBC journalist Alistair Magowan was highly critical of Rovers' supporters after the match. In a blog, he wrote: "the dissenters calling for the head of Rovers manager Steve Kean seemed to cross a line. Perhaps some of the frustration after a poor run of results was understandable, but on Saturday on a wet and cold afternoon, Blackburn won their second game of the season, and still they booed. Their argument is that they are fully behind the team, not those in charge, but when Yakubu scored a fantastic first goal to give Rovers the lead, the cheers were tarnished by boos when the Nigerian ran over to celebrate with his manager on the touchline. At that point you had to question who they were booing. The evident union between the player and the manager underlines the fact that one cannot exist without the other and whatever the fans' gripes, their clearly-defined agenda is bound to spill over and affect the players. One thing is for sure, however, Blackburn's tactics or performances will not be helped by the continued anger from some supporters, especially if some boo in the midst of celebrating a goal".
Rovers travelled next to the Stadium of Light to face a Sunderland side who were also struggling. Having recently sacked manager Steve Bruce, Martin O'Neill stepped into the hotseat for his first match in charge. Rovers took an early lead through Simon Vukcevic in the 17th minute, but an 84th minute goal from David Vaughan drew things level, before Seb Larsson fired in a free kick in the 92nd minute to condemn Rovers to another late defeat. Injuries continued to prove a problem for the away side, as Gael Givet was taken off in the 22nd minute, and his replacement Martin Olsson was also injured during the first half and had to be replaced in the second period by youngster Adam Henley. Michel Salgado went off with a chest injury in the 51st minute and then Jason Lowe was stretchered off with a head injury at the very end of the match.
The BBC noted that Kean was subject to "the anger of the hardy band of just 316 supporters who travelled from Lancashire to Wearside" as his side slipped to yet another loss. After scoring early on, Rovers sat back for the rest of the match, with the BBC noting the home side's inability to break down the "blue and white wall of defensive resistance" set up by Rovers. Sunderland would ultimately have 12 shots compared to a measly 2 from Rovers, who had scored their single shot on target. Rovers could perhaps feel slightly hard done by when a decision for a second goal was ruled out due to an alleged foul on Sunderland goalkeeper Kieran Westwood by Chris Samba, although replays suggested it had been the keeper who had clattered into Samba, rather than the other way around.
As always, Kean spoke of a hard luck narrative. He told the BBC that "we lost Martin Olsson, we lost Michel Salgado with cracked ribs, we lost Jason Lowe at the end. We thought we could just hang in there and get a point, and we'd probably be disappointed with a point. I felt the work ethic and the work rate that the lads put in at least deserved something". It was revealed by Kean the day after the match that Givet had left the pitch due to heart palpitations: "His heart was pounding out of his neck and the doctor said there was the potential he might collapse. We had to get him off. He has had it before when his heart goes out of sync. If we hadn't done it at that time the doctor said he could have ended up with a much worse situation."
With Rovers still desperately struggling under Kean's stewardship, the national media began reporting that the manager had two games left to save his job. The Daily Mail reported that "Venky’s, the club’s owners, indicated that Kean was ‘unsackable’ when they handed him a long-term contract in January, but they now accept that a change may have to be made in order to retain their Premier League status". Considering Kean had only been handed improved pay terms a month earlier, this seemed highly unlikely, but Rovers' fans had learned that as far as Venky's were concerned anything was possible.
On 17th December, it was announced that official protests would come to a halt in order to fully support the team for two vital home games against West Brom and Bolton. The Daily Mail wrote "There will be no organised protests at Blackburn's next two home games. Organiser Glen Mullan has revealed that communication between protesters and the club have improved and the action will be brought to a temporary halt for the crucial visits of West Brom on Saturday and Bolton on Tuesday.” The paper quoted Mullan as saying "We are in advanced discussions with the club and we are very, very pleased with the progress that has been made. (Ewood Park stadium manager) John Newsham and (Blackburn deputy chief executive) Paul Hunt's attention to detail over the last couple of weeks has been exemplary. There will be no organised protests this weekend before, after or during the game. We are not cancelling the protests, we are postponing them for the next two games, after discussions with the club and with (director of Rovers sponsor WEC Group and Blackburn fan) Wayne Wild as well. We ask everyone to get behind the team for these two very winnable football matches. Six points is the most important thing, while we remain committed to trying to open up lines of communication with the club for the fans that can stay there for a long time. We want a line of communication that will be permanently open".
Despite well over 20,000 fans coming to Ewood Park in resounding support of the team, they were once again treated to a dire display against relegation rivals West Bromwich Albion. The BBC noted that "West Brom dominated possession in the opening period", and said that James Morrison's 52nd minute strike gave West Brom a "well-deserved lead". At this point the BBC reported that "when Morrison scored the anti-Kean T-shirts came out". With Rovers resorting to "route one football" - ironic as this was exactly the type of football Kean had promised would be left behind following Allardyce's departure - Rovers did get back into the game through a play straight out of the Big Sam handbook. A launched ball into the box from Robinson was knocked down by Chris Samba for Scott Dann to steer home in the 72nd minute.
It was the type of moment that would typically galvanise a home side to victory, but the BBC noted that "instead [Rovers] were almost immediately on the back foot as the visitors continued to dominate". An 89th minute winner from Peter Odemwingie handed Rovers another defeat as "boos rung out at Ewood Park" at the final whistle. It was West Brom's first win at Ewood in 20 years. Rovers had dropped 12 points from winning positions in the current season, were 11 points worse off than the same time the previous year under Sam Allardyce, and were still yet to keep a single clean sheet in the current season, having shipped a worrying 36 goals in 16 matches, an average of over 2 goals conceded per game. Rovers remained in 19th position on ten points, having slipped to being four behind Sunderland and Wolves, in 16th and 17th place respectively.
After the match, Kean remained steadfast in his optimistic view. He told the BBC: "When we did get the goal, I felt the momentum of the game changed. If anybody was going to score it was going to be us. Their goal seemed to wake us up, and what we've got to do now is show courage to get on the ball, dictate play and try to make some better clear-cut chances". On the fans reaction, Kean said "the fans are frustrated, the same as the staff and the players inside the dressing room. Next Tuesday's game against Bolton is massive. We'll get back on the training ground tomorrow and prepare. I consider myself a fighter, we have to earn the right and earn the points. The owners are fully behind me, and I've spoken to them extensively, but we look forward to putting points on the table on Tuesday evening".
Pressed in the post match press conference about Rovers' dire position, Kean said: "I need to get points. I'm under no illusions that my job is based on us being in a much better position than where we are now. I think we all feel the same - we want to win at home and get ourselves out of the position we are in, so I can understand why the fans are not happy - nobody is happy. We are disappointed today, but we look forward to playing Bolton because we feel as though we can turn it around. I have a good dressing room and when things are said, they [the players] take it on the chin. They respond, they back each other up, and we'll have to do that on Tuesday. We want to be getting the last-minute goal and going home with everyone happy. But it wasn't to be and we just have to make sure everyone is smiling on Tuesday evening."
Despite Kean's words, the abject performance against West Brom had completely deflated a fanbase that had been expecting much more from a team supposed to be fighting for Premier League survival. Things got worse for Rovers when it was revealed a groin injury suffered by Scott Dann in the defeat to West Brom would keep him out of action for six weeks, meaning he joined Gael Givet, Ryan Nelsen and Michel Salgado in defensive injuries or absences. On Salgado, who had barely been seen in recent times, Kean said "Michel won't be here next season. It is out of respect for the player to give him the heads up that this will be his last season."
Salgado, meanwhile, claimed that he did not want to move and that the club were freezing him out over contractual issues. The Daily Mail published an article quoting Salgado as saying "I want the fans to know all I want to do is help the team and help Blackburn survive in the Premier League, but the owners and manager aren’t allowing me to do this. I'm fit to play but I have been given five days off instead". The article stated that Salgado was "entitled to a new deal if he plays nine more games this season", but "is being left out to save cash".
On the 18th December, the Independent published an article on the aftermath of Rovers' defeat to West Brom. Reporter Tim Rich wrote: "Had Jack Walker been alive, it is likely Kean would have been fired immediately after a defeat that made West Bromwich look like a low-budget version of Barcelona. It was a fate endured by Roy Hodgson in the aftermath of a 1-0 defeat by Southampton in November 1998, and he drove away from Ewood Park in tears. Walker is long dead, John Williams, the chairman who saw Blackburn through the past decade, has been paid off and the club appear paralysed as the freight train bound for the lower divisions thunders on.
"Part of the reason there has been so much anger aimed at the Scot has been his refusal to publicly accept that the club are in a crisis that could wreck them completely. There was a hint of his usual self-delusion afterwards as he mused that he kept feeling Blackburn "were about to go on a long unbeaten run", but there was also an acceptance his time may be up after 37 games and 32 points. Blackburn's only ambition appeared to be to lump the ball up to Yakubu Ayegbeni, a tactic Albion expected and were prepared for. Their goal did come from a Route One ball from Paul Robinson, nodded down by the hulking figure of Chris Samba and turned in by Scott Dann's outstretched leg. However, apart from a desperate flurry near the end, the move for that equaliser was their only serious effort. Albion were altogether better".
In an unusual and controversial move, the typically neutral local paper the Lancashire Telegraph printed an article on their front page on 19th December, two days before the Bolton match, titled "Time To Go Steve". The article was blunt, stating: "Saturday’s humiliating home defeat to West Bromwich Albion was the last straw following a disastrous run of results stretching back months. If Rovers do manage to pull off a positive result against Bolton, in our view, further procrastination could take place and that would be wrong because we believe the club has passed the point of no return. It is now surely clear that Kean has to go and one good result shouldn’t be enough to save him. We are also calling for owners Venky’s to start running the club the way it deserves to be run or to put Blackburn Rovers up for sale if they are not prepared to protect its proud tradition.
"A year ago last weekend, Steve Kean was appointed Rovers boss after Venky’s inexplicably sacked Sam Allardyce. The club has been on a downward spiral ever since. Kean’s record of just seven wins from 37 league games tells its own story and, with managers ultimately judged on results, Venky’s have to take decisive action and change the manager now. Kean’s tenure has just been a symptom of the main problem at the football club and that problem is the inadequacy of Venky’s management. They threw a managerial novice in at the deep end and have systematically failed to provide him with the support, investment and suitable structure, to turn their undoubted gamble into a success. Large sections of Ewood Park once again called for Kean’s sacking after Peter Odemwingie’s late winner on Saturday and it is impossible to see how he would ever now get the crowd back on his side. He needs to go immediately to unite Rovers fans".
Jack Straw, former home secretary and MP for Blackburn, also called for Kean to resign, telling BBC Sport "All of us have been extremely patient with the owners and with Steve Kean, but having been at the game on Saturday and after listened to the one last night I think that there is no option as far as the owners are concerned but to ask Steve Kean to leave".
Henry Winter of the Telegraph responded to the Lancashire Telegraph's proclamation by writing: "The Lancashire Evening Telegraph rules in these parts. That is why the paper’s decision to demand Steve Kean’s sacking as Blackburn Rovers manager is so significant. Local papers value and nurture their relationship with the club at the heart of their community, almost considering them partnerships, and they rarely weigh in with such heavy criticism as Monday’s broadside. Unfortunately for all those clear-eyed people who can see that the only way forward for Rovers is without Kean, Venky’s have shown little appreciation of the calamitous state of affairs engulfing this famous old club. Dressing-room spirit drains away by the match day. Even the captain, Christopher Samba, a tireless servant, admits their belief is shredded. Rovers fans are rebels with a cause, a passionate one, a legitimate one, and Venky’s had better listen on Tuesday night.
"Even if the board still retains some faith in a lame-duck manager, the total breakdown in relations between dug-out and stands means that the manager is already dead man walking. The people have spoken on Kean, loudly, endlessly, even turning up with a banner at a Rovers match in India to take their campaign to Venky’s backyard. That relationship is fractured beyond repair, regardless of what happens tonight. It’s over. It’s not personal. Rovers followers simply believe the inexperienced Kean is out of his depth. Blackburn fans deserve better. It is not as if Kean can fall back on a development in playing style; Scott Dann’s goal against West Brom was as direct as anything produced under Kean’s predecessor, Sam Allardyce. Blackburn are simply a mess, a club lacking in leadership from the boardroom to the manager’s office. The alarm bells should have rung in the Premier League’s Gloucester Place HQ the moment such respected administrators as John Williams and Tom Finn left Ewood. Clubs are crying out for executives of their calibre. So for Blackburn to dispense with their services indicated a club losing its mind and soul. The Premier League can argue that the law of the jungle applies, that all clubs face challenges, particularly in an era of the perfect storm of high player wages and stretched fans’ salaries, yet events at Ewood are embarrassing to the image of English football. What is happening at Blackburn is an affront to the club’s traditions, to Walker’s memory".
Kean would respond by saying he "would never back away" from the task facing him at Ewood Park, telling reporters "When we win I come up and answer questions. If we lose or draw it is not something I would ever run away from. You have to face up to the responsibility. It doesn't keep me awake at night but it is a difficult situation. I won't turn my back on it, though. We had a late goal against us and we're all disappointed but, if [the fans] can stick with us, it can make a massive difference". He also continued to insist the owners were behind him, despite the press reporting that he would be sacked if Rovers were to lose against Bolton. He said: "The owners are concerned with where we are, as everyone is. But they have given me their full backing and given us full backing in the transfer window. We have been speaking about new players that we hope to bring in because it is important that we are active now so as soon as the window opens, we get some players in". Interestingly, the Independent reported that Kean "was joined by his young son at yesterday's press conference", in a move which appeared designed to engender sympathy and force journalists to avoid asking tough questions in fear of upsetting Kean's child.
The day after the Lancashire Telegraph's plea for Kean to resign, the manager would participate in a "Q&A" with the paper. When asked if he would walk away, Kean unsurprisingly said "I will not walk away because I believe I can turn it around. I believe once we can get a couple of wins under our belt, once we get a settled side we can get some wins". Kean rather amusingly claimed "I’m not making excuses because I don’t like to make them" then went straight on to say "we have to look at the injury position we are in and it is tough to get a settled back four out for two games on the bounce. Players are getting injured and accept that as a reason why we are letting in goals. The back four of last season when we were picking up results all over the place, the back four was the same every game". Considering the horrendous form Rovers had suffered during much of the 2010-11 season after Kean had taken charge, this was an incredible statement to make.
When pushed on the owners' silence, Kean said "The backing I have got from the owners is clear. There will be funds available in the window". Despite having taken jabs at the negativity of the supporters affecting players in numerous previous interviews, when asked whether the atmosphere was affecting the players, Kean bafflingly answered "No I don’t think it does. The lads are 100 per cent with me. I think that shows in their play". On the transfer window and the squad being very thin, Kean said "The owners know that and with the transfer window opening soon I am sure we will get players in because we have to, we are thin on the ground", but then admitted "I don’t know the ins and outs of the financial side", despite earlier in the interview saying that funds were available.
The night of December 21st 2011 is one that very few Rovers fans will ever forget. The crunch home fixture against Bolton had an extremely tense atmosphere, but a poor start from Rovers led to a goal being conceded in just five minutes, and after thirty minutes the home side were 2-0 down and looking dead and buried. This unfathomably bad start to such a crucial match led to the mood turning vicious - the BBC calling it "an atmosphere increasingly laced with poison". Henry Winter of the Telegraph wrote that "Apoplexy consumed Blackburn’s fans when Bolton doubled their lead", with the BBC noting that the first goal had been "greeted with chants sweeping around the stadium demanding Kean's removal". Rovers managed a consolation goal through Yakubu, but there was to be no equaliser as Rovers once again lost 2-1 at home to a relegation rival, dumping them to the bottom of the Premier League and keeping them four points from safety.
The Guardian live match feed of the match made for sobering reading, calling Jason Lowe "staggeringly useless" after twelve minutes, it continued with such quotes as "Blackburn can simply not play under these conditions. Their fans are booing anything that moves, chanting against the manager and they're holding up copies of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, the local paper that called for Kean to resign yesterday. Oh, and they're losing 2-0 at home to the bottom side", "Blackburn are cordially invited to join in this match whenever they fancy", "I've watched West Ham under Glenn Roeder and Sam Allardyce but I've never seen fans turn against their manager to such an extent before. You should feel sorry for Kean, but he's so delusional and should have resigned long ago", "This has been utterly morbid", "Blackburn haven't got anything beyond some very ineffective long throws from Pedersen. It's pathetic", " Hoilett doesn't deserve to be on the losing side but he can't do it all on his own".
The BBC wrote that "Steve Kean felt the full fury of Ewood Park. Kean stood alone in his technical area amid periods of sustained abuse and such was the level of personal animosity aimed at the Scot it is hard to see how he can turn the supporters around and survive after 12 torrid months in charge. Noisy protests continued outside Ewood Park after the game as Rovers' position becomes even more perilous". Once the second goal had gone in, the BBC reported "a storm of abuse was directed towards the technical area where Kean stood and one fan was even allowed to advance towards the dug-out while the manager watched". At the final whistle, it was also reported that "a scarf was thrown in the direction of the manager".
Henry Winter reported that "the vilification began early and rarely ebbed, the derision rolling down from the stands like toxic waves, exploding at a final whistle that must have rung out like the Last Post for Kean. Rancour chased him down the tunnel, awaited him outside the main reception where hundreds of protesting fans had gathered and will leap from hostile headlines today", whilst recalling the chants including "stand up if you hate Steve Kean", "we want Kean out", "getting sacked in the morning" and "there's only one Jack Walker". Winter also reflected that "Shamefully, none of the Rao family who run Venky’s were here for such a huge game, a match riddled with all the fear and significance of an end-of-season showdown. Ewood Park seems painfully lacking in direction from dug-out to boardroom. Venky’s should have been at Ewood, should have heard the animosity towards them and towards their controversial choice of manager."
Tim Rich of the Guardian wrote: "There was an element of Macbeth in the way that Steve Kean snatched power at Blackburn Rovers and there was a Shakespearean quality about what was almost certainly his last match as their manager. Sam Allardyce, who was sacked after a 2-1 defeat to Bolton Wanderers and felt that his deputy had betrayed him, was at Ewood Park to see Kean's downfall. "Big Sam," yelled the home and away ends at the club's owners, who were thousands of miles away. "You should have kept Big Sam". As Kean and Coyle turned down the tunnel, one received a hug from his chairman, the other had a shirt thrown in his face by a supporter. Kean's wife was among the crowd and she would not have been human had she not wondered if any job was worth this".
After the match, Kean claimed there were "a few choice words" spoken at half time. He said that he had "expected to pick up a couple of points" from the previous few matches, but that the team were "very close" to getting results, before listing various injured defenders. He was not questioned on why young midfielder Jason Lowe was forced to ineptly play at right back whilst Michel Salgado had publicly declared himself fit and ready to play. Kean was uncharacteristically reticent towards the fans, meanwhile, telling the BBC reporter "I can understand. The fans come and they expect, a home game, for us to be getting at Bolton - and we didn't. It's not nice, it's not nice to lose any game irrespective of what the fans are saying. I hate to lose games and so do the players. We'll get a team together and we'll try to be positive. It would be very different for me if I had my full squad available for most of the time. I spoke with the owners before the game, they know the position we're in with the injuries, and I'm sure everybody will stick together and we'll work through it". He would also tell the press "I expect to be here boxing day. I would be completely shocked if they (the owners) decide to replace me."
The fallout from this match was severe, as the footballing world united in condemning Rovers' fans for their treatment of Kean. After the match, Bolton boss Owen Coyle said "'I do not think [Blackburn fans] have given Steve Kean any chance from the outset. They have their own reasons for that and ultimately, those who want to be heard shout the loudest. Steve Kean is a terrific coach and manager. All you want is an opportunity. We have the best league in the world, but we don't have the 20 best managers in the world, someone has to fill the dreaded places where no one wants to be. I hope he is given the time to do that because he is a genuinely nice person".
Everton boss David Moyes, who had attended the game, branded the treatment of Kean "disgusting", quoted as saying: "I walked out at half-time. I couldn't believe the criticism they gave their manager. If they had supported the team as well as they had shouted at their manager I think the team might have got a result in the game. I am a football manager and it could quite easily happen to me. I was disgusted with how football supporters treated Steve. The only way I could show it was by leaving at half-time. Steve stood on the touchline the whole night and took the barracking, never hid from it. He was big enough to stand there and take it and that says a lot about him. The Bolton supporters really got behind their manager and their team. If Blackburn supporters had done that it might have helped them".
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had his say, too. Despite at the time of Kean's appointment being quoted as saying "You’ve got that issue at Blackburn of an agent involved and deciding the future of the club, Jerome Anderson [of the SEM Group], he couldn’t pick his nose. It’s baffling and it’s a serious threat to how clubs get run and how they conduct themselves", Ferguson now apparently considered Rovers' fans concerns over SEM client Kean over the top, telling reporters "I have never seen anything as bad. For goodness sake, give the lad a break. It doesn't say a lot for society. I feel for the lad. I tried to phone him but he probably quite rightly had his phone switched off".
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew echoed many of Ferguson's comments, with Sky Sports quoting him as saying "If [Blackburn fans] want to carry on like they are doing, all they are going to do is harm their own team. I can't see the logic in that. It's a sign of the game. I don't know whether 20, 30 years ago, it would have been quite as vicious to Steve Kean. I know him well - he's a personal friend of mine - so I have great sympathy for the position he is in. There are a lot of factors in why he's receiving that. I don't go along with it and I don't think any member of the LMA (League Managers' Association) would go along with it in their right mind. He's trying to do the best job he can do. He has been given the job to do and that's what he is trying to do. He should be left alone to do that and it will be beneficial to the team if the fans take that view."
Spurs manager Harry Redknapp would also call the fans reaction "horrific", whilst Kean's fellow Scot and Celtic manager Neil Lennon told reporters "For me, it seems like he has never had the chance to do his job properly. For whatever reason, the support have never taken to him. Even when they were winning games like the other week, there was no pleasing supporters then. I know Steve from being on a few coaching courses and I know his assistant Iain Brunskill, who was with me on the Pro Licence. They are good football guys. At the end of the day it is a results-driven business and I just hope they start picking up positive results because there is a danger they could get detached from the rest of the clubs there. But in terms of the treatment, it's not on, it's not fair and I would hate to work in an environment like that". Even former Rovers' title-winning manager and at the time Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish said "Results aren't purely down to what the manager does, he needs support from the players, owners and certainly the crowd".
Former Liverpool and Manchester United striker Michael Owen would write on Twitter: "I get the feeling the Blackburn fans want Bolton to win. This is the side of football I hate. He may or may not be good enough but regardless, nobody deserves the abuse he is getting. He is probably a nice fella, no doubt twice as decent as the so called fans abusing him". The LMA also weighed in with their view of the situation, releasing a statement which said: "the aggression and abuse levelled at Steve over recent weeks has stepped well beyond the mark and is as unacceptable in football as it would be in any other profession. It is to Steve's significant credit that he has shouldered this continued onslaught with dignity and professionalism and has continued to work with his players to try and improve results on the pitch".
Michael Grant also wrote a piece in the Scottish Herald condemning the treatment of Kean. He penned the following incredibly one-eyed analysis of his fellow Scot: "It's gone beyond being just about Blackburn Rovers any more; about goals, misses, tackles and runs. There isn't the impression that it's only about the relegation battle in which they find themselves at the bottom of the Barclays Premier League. How can it be, when there are images of young fans unloading vicious abuse on their manager then looking at each other with broad grins? Something unusual and ugly has taken hold in Lancashire. Desperate managers get hounded all the time, but it's gone way beyond that with what's happening to Steve Kean at Blackburn. What's going on there isn't far removed from bear-baiting. Kean's record is awful and seven victories in 38 games is all ample grounds for him to be sacked. Blackburn supporters are right to expect far better than that, but it's hard to argue that they deserve it for the cruelty many of them have shown to Kean. They're having fun with it.
"There have been banners, chants, demonstrations, even a plane trailing a message. The psychological pressure has become relentless. Stewards and security staff had to repel a mob who tried to get at him at full-time after the defeat by Bolton . If he's a poor manager, fine, but what has Kean done to bring himself to the point of being in physical danger? Before Blackburn, Kean had a reputation as an intelligent and perceptive coach, well-respected within football and with no shortage of job offers. Right now, he is perceived only as a loser and victim being subjected to a long and humiliating execution. There is sympathy for him too, of course, and not least in Scotland given the pride taken in having seven managers from the Glasgow area working in the top flight of English football. But how easy will it be for any club in a few months' time to wheel out Kean as their new manager and try to convince supporters that he is the way ahead?
"Throughout it all he has remained respectful towards the club, supporters and even the media who have trained their guns on him. Even while being kicked from pillar to post, Kean has acted like a decent human being. His mantra has been that the club has been unfortunate with injuries, especially to defenders, and that results would improve when he has more of his best players available. Fans don't buy that. They regard him as an uncritical figurehead and patsy for the Indian owners, Venky's. They've made up their minds that they cannot stand him."
In the wake of this outpouring of support, Kean would respond by saying "My phone's been going hot all week with people phoning with messages saying 'Hang in there'. No disrespect to local MPs or local journalists or ex-players, but when you've got vastly experienced managers that are phoning up and saying under the circumstances you're doing a marvellous job, then I'll listen to them". Kean would also go on to say "It would be silly not to be concerned about where we are but the belief is there that I can lead this team away from trouble without a doubt. I am sure the owners will give me time. I am convinced they will. They understand the injury crisis we have, all in the one position. I can't do any surgery on them. I don't make excuses. It is a fact."
This outraged reaction was to be entirely expected. The football fraternity is well known for banding together when it came to events on this nature, with David Moyes pointing out that other managers in particular had a self-interest in backing Kean - because it could be any of them taking the heat in future. Not only this, but keeping Kean at Rovers was a benefit to other managers as it increased their chances of defeating Rovers in future matches. It wasn't difficult to understand why they were lining up to defend the beleaguered Scot, although it was hard to take anybody who called Kean a "terrific manager" particularly seriously, as his record suggested nothing of the sort. All evidence pointed to Kean being utterly incompetent, regardless of any personal attributes his friends claimed he possessed.
Yet, at the same time, the reaction at Ewood on the 21st December should not have been a surprise to anybody following the club closely. This toxic undercurrent of frustration and fury had been building for close to a year, with Rovers' fans forced to endure torrid performances alongside some outrageous spin from a manager who was frighteningly out of his depth. Their desperate pleas for change and engagement had been met with almost total silence and defiance, with Kean happy to point out time after time that the owners were fully behind him and "what we are trying to do here". Venky's absence for huge portions of their tenure thus far had left Kean as the face of the regime, and the only person available to vent frustration at. When his failure was awarded with a pay rise in November 2011, it only further incensed fans who could not dream of getting a pay rise for doing their owns job as badly as Steve Kean was doing his.
By this juncture, almost all Rovers fans equated Kean with Venky's. They were seen as two parts of the same poisonous organism that was sucking the life out of the club. There were deep suspicions over the nature of Kean's appointment, and the influence of Kentaro/SEM within the club. Strange transfers, good players being frozen out, respected backroom and administrative staff suddenly leaving, illogical backing of a patently poor manager and attempts by the club to silence protests had left supporters feeling like their club was being stolen from them - and Kean was a big part of that. He was not solely responsible for what was happening to Rovers, but there was no other visible target to aim at, with the owners being thousands of miles away and refusing to come anywhere near Blackburn.
The vitriol directed at Kean could not be seen as simply a group of fans throwing abuse at a poor manager. It went far beyond this. Kean symbolised the entire disastrous regime which had hijacked a stable, well-run club and dragged it into the fire. He personified everything that was broken and rotten at Blackburn Rovers. The anger thrown at him was a message to Venky's, SEM, Kentaro, Jerome Anderson and all others that had been complicit in Rovers' demise that the fans were not willing to sit idly by and watch their club fall into the abyss. It was a narrative that was simply beyond the majority of observers, whether that was other managers, pundits or fans, who were defending Kean through a combination of friendship, loyalty, agency links and downright ignorance of what was happening at Blackburn Rovers.
Phil McNulty of the BBC wrote a somewhat more balanced article in the aftermath of the Rovers-Bolton clash. McNulty said that Kean was "defying logic" by suggesting he could get the club out of trouble, "as furious protests provided background noise to his words, with hundreds of supporters gathering outside the stadium's reception area demanding his sacking. It is hard to see how Kean can keep his job, not just because of results but as a consequence of the naked hostility and anger directed at him. The vilification started early and continued long after the game as fans waited in the rain to see if their wish to see Kean out of a job had been granted. Such an outcome would seem a merciful release given the treatment he was subjected to from his own support, who turned on him en masse once Davies and Nigel Reo-Coker had given Bolton a lead they never relinquished.
"Kean has become a lightning conductor for the disapproval of Ewood Park since Blackburn's Indian owners Venky's appointed him to succeed Sam Allardyce, a decision taken in haste and one they may now repent at leisure. It is hard to know what reward Kean currently gets from his post. He is being deserted in droves, from his paymasters preferring to watch a live feed in Pune rather than be at his side in his hour of need to calls from his local newspaper and local MP Jack Straw to step away before Blackburn tip over the precipice. No matter what passions are aroused by football, watching Kean stand alone in the dugout with the abuse of thousands ringing in his ears made for an uncomfortable experience.
"Blackburn's supporters have every right to express discontent at a dislocated ownership dictating policy from afar as Kean presides over what appears to be an increasingly dysfunctional club. But it is a hard heart that could not feel for Kean in the poisonous atmosphere that pervaded Ewood Park, not a stadium known for such naked hostility until the Scot was appointed. Blackburn managers did win approval at Ewood Park - but none was Kean. Hughes, linked with a return, received the most vociferous support and even Allardyce, a taste plenty failed to acquire during his time at the club, was flavour of the night for some. From "Stand Up If You Hate Kean" to "You're Getting Sacked In The Morning" (from both sets of fans), to unfurled banners calling for manager and owners to leave town and finally some Rovers colours flung in his direction at the final whistle, it was unrelenting.
"Kean was asked, with genuine concern, in his post-match media inquisition whether it was really all worth it and whether his family - his wife was in attendance - should have to suffer through his own misery. He was unmoved, reeling off the casualty list he feels has caused the crisis, and maintaining that the return of men such as Ryan Nelsen, Martin Olsson, Scott Dann and Gael Givet will add ballast to his squad. Sadly for Kean, though, the statistics stack up against him. Blackburn are 11 points down on their total after 17 games last season and have failed to keep a clean sheet since beating Bolton in April - their worst sequence in the top flight for 80 years. He remains convinced he will be in the technical area at Anfield on Boxing Day. The coming days will determine whether his apparently endless reserves of optimism are misplaced".
Undeterred by the hysterical media criticism, on the 23rd December a group of fans protested outside Rovers' training ground. The BBC reported Glen Mullan as saying "It is aimed at the mismanagement of the club by the owners". Other fans were quoted, calling the current situation "an absolute scandal" and saying that they were "desperate", facing a scenario where "we obviously have a manager in place that shouldn't be there". The article also noted that the protest had the backing of the Lancashire Telegraph, which was quoted as saying "The supporters simply don't deserve to be witnessing the awful, and growing, chaos at their beloved Rovers. That's why their protests are now so right - and so justified".
The rumour mill, meanwhile, was in overdrive. In between the continuous stream of quotes condemning Rovers' fans, journalists speculated that Kean would surely be fired after losing both home matches against West Brom and Bolton. General consensus was that former manager Mark Hughes was being sounded out to replace Kean and save Rovers from what was becoming an inevitable drop out of the Premier League. The Telegraph reported that "Kean is understood to retain the backing of Venky’s chairman Anuradha Desai. However, Desai is being urged by advisers and associates to make a swift change and bolster moves to tempt Mark Hughes to return to the club for a second spell in charge. Dave Jones and Avram Grant are also being considered by influential figures close to Venky’s".
This article also suggested that the administrative staff at Rovers were struggling to do their jobs effectively, reporting: "Venky’s continue to be absentee owners, with deputy chief executive Paul Hunt and sporting director Simon Hunt the most senior figures based at Ewood Park, yet all decisions are made in India, with club personnel regularly bemoaning the inability to contact the Venky’s hierarchy or act without their prior authority. John Williams, the widely respected former chairman, left his post in February after being marginalised by Venky’s to the point where he was left to order the club’s training kit. Williams has since been recruited by Manchester City. The club’s transfer policy has also led to bewilderment and confusion. Having promised substantial funds to previous manager Sam Allardyce prior to his dismissal last December, money has been slow to trickle down from Venky’s to the transfer pot. Under Venky’s, Blackburn have raised £22.8million from player sales and spent £19 million, ensuring a surplus of £3.8 million. Of greater concern to supporters, however, is the club owing at least £21million to Barclays Bank. Fans voiced fears that Blackburn could be heading for the same kind of financial meltdown experienced by Leeds United after the emergence of documents that revealed that money had been borrowed from Barclays and secured against future Premier League earnings".
Steve Kean's prediction that he would be in charge of Rovers on boxing day to face Liverpool at Anfield turned out to be correct. Venky's did not move to get rid of the manager, and Rovers battled to a 1-1 draw at Anfield. Liverpool had struggled at home under Kenny Dalglish, having won just three of nine matches at home, whilst failing to score more than a single goal at home since September. They had drawn matches to Sunderland, Norwich and Swansea at Anfield, but even with that in mind, failing to beat Steve Kean's Blackburn Rovers at home was a devastating setback for the Reds. Liverpool's 28 shots to Rovers 5 made it clear who the better team was, but unusually for Rovers, their defence held strong and picked up a much needed point. Rovers remained bottom of the table on eleven points, still four points away from safety.
As expected, Kean was extremely happy after the match. He told the BBC "I'm proud of the lads, because we're quite thin on the ground. We've got so many defenders injured, and five of the team today played in the reserve cup final last year. We showed that we can come to places like this, and if we can keep our discipline, then we can go and dig results out. Overall I thought Liverpool probably edged it. You come to a place like this, you get a good performance and a result, considering where we are on the injury front, with all the defenders that are injured..." - Kean would keep coming back to injuries and the young age of the team, which was strange considering his insistence that he never used excuses. It also suggested that perhaps he had not been as well backed by the owners as he had claimed in numerous interviews beforehand, but journalists appeared unwilling to press him on that point.
Mark Bunn would also speak to the press after this match and claim that the players were behind the manager, saying: "There is definitely togetherness. We have been together all season and obviously we have not been getting the results we would like but we are behind Steve Kean. He has given most of us our chance and we have to start repaying him and moving up the league. It is hard when you change your back line as often as we have, but the young lads have come in and done really well. We can only take that as a positive".
Rovers club legend Tony Parkes was not swayed by the result against Liverpool, however. Just a day after the match, he called for Kean to leave. The Mirror quoted Parkes echoing many Rovers' fans thoughts: "Steve Kean will never turn the fans in his favour. That chance went a long time ago. The fans are the people who ultimately get managers the sack, so surely that has to happen with Steve Kean? It's all very well saying, 'It's only a minority who are against him', but it isn't. As a Blackburn Rovers fan through and through, it is very difficult to see the club in this situation. You wonder what is going to happen at the end of all this. We have people running the club who know nothing about football and have got rid of all the people who could have helped them. It beggars belief how people who know nothing about this football club have come in and taken apart everything that was good about it. Venky's have to get real. They may like the manager, but he is going to take the football club down.
"There are three groups of people to blame for the situation the club are in - the manager, Venky's and the Walker Trust. It has to be remembered the Walker Trust were the people who brought them [Venky's] in. They wanted to get out and were taking anyone's money to do that. All three have a lot to answer for. It's now about the next 20 games and Venky's proving themselves as owners. Are we going to have enough quality to win enough games to stay up? This is the big test for Venky's. We need new players. I'm not talking about players worth £500,000 or £1million - we have already signed them - we now need three of four players of real quality and they cost [a lot of money]. Venky's have to start putting their money into it. If they are going to back Steve Kean, which I fear they are going to, then they need to back him with money. They have yet to show they are prepared to do that."
The final day of 2011 would see an even more unbelievable result. Rovers travelled to Old Trafford in a match nobody gave them a chance of getting anything out of. Due to injuries, Rovers lined up with reserve keeper Mark Bunn, 17 year old left back Adam Henley, 19 year old centre back Grant Hanley, 19 year old midfielder (shoehorned into right back) Jason Lowe, and 20 year old midfield Ruben Rochina in the starting eleven. Misfits Mauro Formica and Radosav Petrovic also started the match, with Rovers' bench including youngsters Josh Morris, Jake Kean, Jordan Slew and Nick Blackman. It was an incredibly weak Rovers team that Manchester United should have absolutely wiped the floor with.
But Alex Ferguson was evidently feeling generous on his 70th birthday. United were dealing with injuries of their own, but rather than give highly-rated youth prospect Paul Pogba a chance in midfield, Ferguson inexplicably opted to play Brazilian right-back Rafael and South Korean winger Ji-Sung Park in the centre of midfield. This decision enraged Pogba and pushed him firmly towards the Old Trafford exit, with Pogba stating afterwards in an interview "It was the match against Blackburn in December 2011 at Old Trafford. Paul Scholes had retired, Darren Fletcher was injured. There was no one left to play in midfield. And I was training and I was beginning to get better bit by bit and the coach never stopped telling me, 'You're this far'. And I didn't understand. This far away from what? Playing? From having some playing time? From getting on the field? Or what? And there was Rafael in midfield and I was disgusted. I was disgusted and I didn't get on either."
Wayne Rooney, Darron Gibson and Jonny Evans were also missing from United's team due to ill-discipline relating to an unauthorised night out, but even with all of the above in mind, United could still call upon the talents of David De Gea, Patrice Evra, former Rover Phil Jones, Michael Carrick, Nani, Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck. The match should not even have been a contest, but for whatever reason United failed to impose themselves on a Rovers side that had taken some confidence and belief from their 1-1 draw at Anfield a few days prior.
Yakubu opened the scoring on 16 minutes after Berbatov had fouled Chris Samba in the United box, resulting in a penalty. The BBC noted that "Rovers would have been expecting to weather a storm from the restart, but there was no storm". Rovers held onto the lead until half time, and then amazingly doubled their lead on 51 minutes, with Yakubu striking again. This goal finally sparked Manchester United to life, and two goals from Berbatov in the 52nd and 62nd minute set up what appeared to be an expected comeback from the home side against a fragile, inexperienced Rovers team with a manager who had become well known for being unable or unwilling to make changes during a match that could positively affect the outcome.
But then the unthinkable happened. Ten minutes from time Grant Hanley headed in from a Rovers corner to put the away side back into the lead. Despite pressure from United at the end, Rovers held firm to give Steve Kean's side an extraordinary victory against the current champions. The BBC noted that the odds had been 28-1 on a Rovers win pre-match, and called this result "arguably the greatest victory of [Kean's] managerial career". This unexpected result lifted Rovers off the foot of the table, moving them ahead of Bolton and up into 19th, three points behind QPR with a superior goal difference. What had appeared to be a hopeless situation had suddenly changed completely within the span of two matches which had yielded four points from a possible six.
Speaking after the match, Grant Hanley told reporters "the boys worked hard. We got the organisation and our shape right, and in the end we probably deserved the result. The boys are up to the task, you see today we put a great effort in. All season our performances have been brilliant, we've just been unlucky with results". Steve Kean praised the younger players, saying that they "played with courage" and the way the team "passed their way out of defence" was a lesson learned from the defeat to Sunderland in December. Few would have been surprised at Kean's assertion that "the best form of defence is attack". Kean insisted that the club was still in a "transition period", and predicted that the club would "come through it and be stronger" and that developing young players would be "the backbone of this club for years to come".
On 28th December 2011, before the Manchester United game, the Telegraph produced a 'year in review' for Blackburn Rovers. The article stated that 2011 would be remembered "As an unmitigated disaster and, potentially, the year that Blackburn Rovers supporters will look back on the one which sparked the club’s sad decline into meltdown". It continued: "Steve Kean’s appointment as manager in Dec 2010 appeared a bewildering move by the club’s Indian owners, Venky’s, but the fears of Rovers fans on day one of Kean’s reign have been realised and then some. The Scot now ranks alongside the likes of Ian Branfoot (Southampton), Alan Ball (Manchester City) and Roy Hodgson (Liverpool) as the most unpopular club manager of the Premier League era. During the 2-1 defeat against Bolton earlier this week, the vitriol and hatred heaped onto Kean surpassed acceptable levels and the mood at Ewood Park is now rancorous and far removed from the family spirit that has always been the club’s badge of honour."
As far as 2012 was concerned, the Telegraph predicted: "Relegation, financial problems and dwindling crowds. Unless the current situation is arrested quickly, the doomsday scenario looms large for Blackburn. With one of the lowest average attendances in the Premier League, the loss of TV money and a drop in crowds would leave the club dangerously exposed in the Championship. But with the likes of Junior Hoilett and Chris Samba likely to leave in January and no sign of quality replacements on the horizon, there is little hope to cling on to. The only hope is for Venky’s to realise the peril that the club is in and throw money at new players in January. If they don’t, they will have a Championship club on their hands next year and they will quickly discover there will no little resale value on Blackburn Rovers in that situation."
After a largely horrendous 2011, the year had ended on an unexpected high note. Rovers were still entrenched in the relegation zone, but big results against two top teams had given a section of the supporters some optimism that they could still get out of the mire. Major issues had not been addressed, though, and supporters knew that fluke results against big clubs would not be enough if the club could not beat their relegation rivals in the months ahead. Despite the final two results of 2011, most fans still believed Steve Kean needed to leave if Rovers were to have any chance of playing Premier League football in the 2012-13 season.