Steve Kean: Building an Academy to compete with the best at Hibernian
Written by Simon Austin — March 3, 2022
AFTER a quarter of a century in coaching, taking in spells in the English Premier League, Spain, Australia and even Brunei, Steve Kean has returned home to take his first ever club job in Scotland.
The 54-year-old, a native of east Glasgow, was appointed Academy Director of Hibernian in November. He’s worked for the Scottish Football Association as a coach educator, but never before for a Scottish team.
“Football has been very kind to me,” Kean tells TGG. “I’ve been all over the world and had so many good experiences. Now I find myself back in Scotland, which is amazing.”
Kean has always been a globetrotter, since he was a player. He was a winger for Academica in Portugal, playing alongside Fernando Couto, and went on to work as assistant to Chris Coleman at Real Sociedad in Spain.
After a turbulent spell in charge of Blackburn Rovers in 2011/12 (more of that later) he went to Brunei to lead S League side DPMM and then to Australia to become assistant and later manager of Melbourne Victory.
The move to Hibs might mark a return home, but Kean insists he hasn’t come to put his feet up. He says he had offers from other clubs and it was the ambition at Easter Road that attracted him.
“When I came up and spoke with first the manager (Jack Ross at the time) and then the Chief Executive (Ben Kensell) we shared a passion for the development side of the club and it seemed a perfect fit.
“After I spoke with the Chairman (Ron Gordon) and his son (Head of Recruitment Ian Gordon) everything seemed in the right place and it was an easy choice to come here.”
HIBERNIAN’S ACADEMY AMBITIONS
Kean might be best known for his roles at first-team level, as a manager and assistant, but he also has a strong background in youth development.
“I was Academy Director at Reading and at Fulham in 2000, under Jean Tigana,” he explains. “I have always been involved in development, even when I went to Blackburn Rovers as first-team coach.
“My main role outside of working with the first team was that elite development group, bridging the gap between the Academy and first team. We managed to get Phil Jones, Grant Hanley, Junior Hoilett, Martin Olsson and Jason Lowe up from the Academy to the first-team squad.”
Hibernian’s Academy has required rebuilding after Covid.
“Pre-Covid we had a good amount of staff in the Academy, but during Covid staff lost their jobs and everything was stripped back," Kean explains. "Now we are building it up again and hopefully taking it back to what it was and beyond.”
Former Hamilton and Dumbarton assistant Guillaume Beuzelin has just been hired to coach the Under-13s and U14s and physios, a sport scientist, operational staff and player care have also been added to the Academy.
The ultimate aim is to take provision close to that you would find at a Category One Academy in England, like Blackburn’s or Fulham’s, where Kean has first-hand experience.
“Category One status in England is expensive and highly resourced, but provides great pathways for players to get into the first team,” he says. “We are certainly striving to get to that level, so we can get a lot of players who are of the standard to be selected.
"That’s the objective and the owner and CEO are right behind that, which makes my job a lot easier.”
A major focus has been launching a Development Squad to bridge the gap between the U18s and first team. Unlike England, Scotland does not have U23s competitions or teams.
“We’ve seen the Old Firm playing B teams in the Lowland League, but what we are going to do at Hibs is play a middle team between the 18s and first team,” Kean explains.
“We are going to play some domestic games, some in Scotland. It’s not going to be a competitive games programme, but we will look to play about 28 games next season and hopefully bridge the gap, because it’s too big a gap from the 18s to the first team, way too big.”
Hibs do have partnerships with Charleston Battery in America’s USL Championship and with Edinburgh City in Scotland’s League Two - and will continue to loan young players to a range of clubs - but the Development Squad will offer an opportunity to keep the best young players ‘in-house.’
“If you are the parent of a U18, if there is no team they are going to be part of that’s inside the club, we might end up losing players,” Kean says. “Now we will have a whole other team we will be able to coach them in-house longer.
“There will always be a place for a loan, but it will be very individual. The loan shouldn’t be because we don’t have a games programme, which has been a subsequence of what has happened in Scotland - ‘it has to be a loan because there isn’t anywhere else for them to play.’”
Hibs have been recruiting heavily for their Development Squad, including taking a player from Standard Liege (defender Allan Delferrière) and two from FK Bodø/Glimt (winger Runar Hauge and forward Elias Melkersen, pictured below).
The latter two signings made their first-team debuts for the club yesterday at Dundee United. Their arrival was aided by the relationship that CEO Kensell has with Bodø’s Academy Director Gregg Broughton, with whom he had worked at Norwich City.
They were also helped by the Scottish Exceptions Panel, which appears to be more generous in granting work permits post-Brexit than its English counterpart, as outlined in this excellent article by Andy Watson.
“Every player that comes from abroad, if they don’t qualify we have to go to the panel and apply,” explains Kean. “One recently we failed but a couple we managed to get in, because we made a good case and showed we have a good pathway, that there’s a genuine pathway to the first team.
“The panel picked up on that and granted a couple of work permits. We only really scout for a position where we don’t have anybody in our system. We are very good at looking at the whole depth chart all the way through and being very specific in our recruitment, looking for qualities we don’t have.”
Kean, who hails from the Scottish footballing heartland of Glasgow, says he has been impressed with the talent on offer in Edinburgh.
“I’ve only been in Edinburgh for a few months, but it’s certainly a hotbed too,” he says. “The boys’ club teams are really well organised and coached and there are a lot of good players in this part of the world.”
Hibs have a pre-Academy and run a structured programme from 11 to 18, but Kean says the local boys' clubs have an important part to play too.
“If you feel a young player is not managing in the Academy we can release them back to the boys’ clubs," he says. "It has still been a good experience, without the stigma of ‘they’ve been released.’
“That’s something we are going to really actively develop - relationships with local boys’ and girls’ clubs, because we’ve got a very good girls’ programme at the Academy too.
“If we bring someone into the building and they don’t make it as a first-team player, we want them to think it was a positive experience still and to take the best bits from it.”
REFLECTIONS ON TIME AT BLACKBURN ROVERS
Kean is passionate when he talks about the plans for the Academy and clearly prefers to look ahead instead of dwelling on the past. However, it would be remiss not to ask about his time in charge of Blackburn Rovers. This was from January 2011 to September 2012 and featured unprecedented levels of vitriol from Rovers' fans towards their own manager (certainly unprecedented in my experience, until Steve Bruce’s time at Newcastle United, anyway).
Kean became a lightning rod for the supporters’ dissatisfaction with unpopular owners the Venkys. The fact the manager was represented by Jerome Anderson, who had helped to broker the purchase of the club, generated suspicion and anger too.
‘Kean Out’ banners were a regular sight at Ewood Park and during one game, against Chelsea in November 2011, a plane was even flown over the stadium carrying a banner bearing those words.
The club, the English champions in 1994/5, were relegated from the Premier League in 2011/12 and have not returned to the top flight since. Kean, who resigned from the job in September 2012, insists the experience didn’t scar him.
“You grow and every experience helps you, good or bad,” he says. “You reflect on every club, positive or negative, and have to keep learning. Sometimes it goes with the territory (to get criticism) if there’s nobody who’s a spokesperson at the club and you’re doing press conferences every week.
“You become that spokesperson, even if that’s not actually your job. I tried to keep speaking about the football and never really got involved with the buying and selling or what was happening financially. That was above me.
“There was negativity sometimes but also positivity, when we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford (on New Year’s Eve 2011) and drew at Liverpool the week before at Anfield. You take the good with the bad, that’s part of the job.”
Surely it must have hurt to face such vitriol from your own fans though?
“The noise that’s in the stadium, good, bad or indifferent, you’re really just looking at what’s going on on the pitch,” he says. “For every single minute I was there in charge of the team the players were superb. You can tell if they are sightly losing concentration or not carrying out a tactical plan. They were fantastic.
“I think it’s easier for the manager, it’s more difficult when you can see it affecting your family. I’m not saying I’m some big guy but it didn’t affect me. When you see it affecting your kids then second hand it affects you.
"That’s the hard bit, maybe when your kids are going to school, that’s the difficult part of the job we do.”
Kean says he is also proud of the work he did in helping to develop some of the club’s best young players, several of whom have gone on to have big careers, either at the club or elsewhere.
“The captain (Darragh Lenihan) was a very young boy before I left,” he remembers. “We brought him over from Ireland. I remember meeting his parents at the stadium when he was signing his first contract. It’s nice to see him playing and the club doing well.
“Phil Jones and Grant Hanley were two centre-backs we brought through from the Academy who went on to represent their countries. Jason Lowe went on to captain the club. We brought so many through.”
Whatever his experiences, good, bad or indifferent, they would never dim his love for football.
“A lot of people say, ‘What do you do to get away from the game?’ And I say, ‘I don’t try to get away from the game.’ I watch games on TV, I go to watch the first team, the reserves, the youth teams. I get immersed in it and a lot of people reading this will be able to relate to that.
“I’ve come home before and explained to my wife about a goal we’ve conceded and said, ‘You stand there and I’ll show you.’ She’s said, ‘I don’t want to be the centre-half, I don’t need you to tell me how I should open my shoulders.’
“That might sound crazy, but football is a labour of love.”