I'm very much not dreaming of a Black Christmas - just like the one that Steve Kean knows...
Strange things are afoot at Ewood Park. Blackburn Rovers being bottom of the league isn't one of them, of course – they look a team short on confidence and composure and this year the usual Yuletide winds of discontent are blowing harsher than ever. This week saw them face fellow north-west strugglers Bolton in the so-called 'relegation derby', but while their respective league positions make for distinctly unseasonal reading, it is the home side's off-field issues which are making for a particularly bleak mid-winter, especially if your name happens to be 'Steve Kean'.
I don't know any Blackburn supporters, but I'm worried about their collective state of mind. As the half-time whistle trilled, with the hosts trailing 2-0 to the only team (at that moment) with less points than them, the boos roared like a hurricane across the rain-battered pitch, prompting the gathered TV cameras to focus their gaze on the crowd in search of dissenters. They didn't have to look too hard. Held aloft by the dozen were the now-ubiquitous 'KEAN OUT' banners, as regular a fixture at Ewood Park as Paul Robinson is between the sticks, and yet as the cameras focused, a perplexing phenomena occurred. As the supporter's ire expelled itself from their lungs, the fans – angry and wrathful and tasting blood, their patience stretched to breaking point – looked towards the lens and what did we find on their sodden faces? Smiles. Grins. Laughter, even. The throbbing, fibrous rage towards the club's power-players just stood and waved and powdered it's nose for it's close-up.
Ok, I may be over doing it a touch here. There were vexed faces to be sure, and plenty of them, along with clenched fists, lashing tongues and bloodshot eyes, but there on our screens stood fans caught somewhere between vengefulness and just being happy to be there. “Look at us,” their faces seemed to scream. “We're angry – and we're on TV!' Drama loves a stage.
What to make of all this? The complex relationships at work around Blackburn would be enough to make Dear Deirdre dial up her own helplines. “Trapped in an abusive, joyless relationship with some Indian poultry magnates and a delusional Scotsman? Call 0800-KEAN-OUT.” The truth as I see it (which may therefore not be truth at all) is that Blackburn's hate-hate marriage with Kean is becoming a self-fulfilling tragedy. The cameras love the drama – the manager on the brink, clinging to the edge of the precipice as football itself steps remorselessly on his fingers – but so do the fas. It's why we're in this thing in the first place, if we're honest. And, as the coverage of 'the Blackburn situation' increases, so deepens the co-dependant nature of their loathsome tryst; the protests and the frustration and the venting at Venky's becoming part of a show in which Kean is merely the lead role. Hell, they may even miss him when he's gone. Especially if they get Alan Shearer for Christmas.
In fact, thinking about this for a second, it's a little surprising to the neutral that the owners are receiving as small a proportion of the protests as they are. Perhaps the media at large just prefers a good old-fashioned managerial sack-race. Perhaps the owners, having admitted to not exactly being from footballing stock, are enjoying the coverage and the column inches, if not revelling in them then at least appreciating the profile boost that such times bring, further proof still of the twisted intimacy at work here. Either that or they just don't give a shit. Actually, yeah, let's go with the last one.
All of which makes things rather rough on poor Kean. The man in charge (for now, at least) strikes me as an individual of almost unshakable self-belief, remaining as he does outwardly unfazed by the histrionics around him. To exhibit such stoicism when all around are calling for your head to be paraded through the city centre on a spike is admirable no matter what your profession, but such personal focus can inevitably leave blind spots.
Sometimes, when others are openly questioning your ways, your ideology and your talent, it's almost easier to stick to your guns with even greater gusto. “I'll prove them wrong”, Kean must be thinking. “I'll prove them all wrong.” But when this happens, it's the rational part of your mind which suffers, as gradually you become a glutton for punishment. Before you know it, you're sticking so rigidly to your own principles that each new word of criticism, each loaded jibe and vitriolic shriek takes on a smugly-satisfying, almost quasi-erotic feel. You start to relish it. You even start to get off on it. You begin to savour every cutting remark; each gobful of abuse leaving you thrashing about in a dark dream of hateful ecstasy, steadily driving you towards an increasingly lustful level of sadomasochistic revelry. Or maybe that's just me.
And yet Kean's optimism is undeniable affecting. He has repeatedly argued that, once his regular defence is back in place, we'll see a meaner, leaner, less-completely-fucking-hopeless Blackburn, and he might be right. There are some genuine causes for hope. Rovers certainly don't have too many problems finding the net – at time of writing, they sit as the league's seventh highest scorers, both their victories this term (at home to Arsenal and Swansea) arriving courtesy of impressive 4-2 scorelines. Unfortunately, only Bolton have conceded more. In light of these facts, Kean's assertions may hold water, and in truth most teams would struggle for frugality when deprived of Ryan Nelson, Gael Givet and Martin Olsson.
The grim truth remains, however, that until Swansea's defeat at Goodison Park the following evening, Rovers hadn't beaten any of the teams occupying the seven places directly above them, and from the season's seventeen fixtures a meagre ten points have been collected. In truth, Owen Coyle, Kean's victorious counterpart on Tuesday night, hasn't fared much better, his troupe 'boasting' only two more points and an inferior goal difference, and yet while he hasn't exactly been immune from criticism, Coyle hasn't had the mob beating a path to his door either.
This could be for a variety of reasons. Timing is probably the main one. Coyle was lucky enough to replace Gary Megson, a man whose arrival at a club is generally greeted with a level of celebration usually reserved for managing to fit all your shopping into the fridge without having to rearrange the vegetable drawer. Kean, meanwhile, took over from ex-Trotters commander-in-chief Sam Allardyce, the most misunderstood/startlingly delusional (delete as appropriate) manager in Premier League history, with Rovers sitting comfortably in 13th. It should be noted that Megson left Wanders exactly midway through the 2009/10 season, with a haul of 18 points from 18 games – a tally impossible for Coyle to replicate this year. Goodwill, it seems, can be as much inherited as it can earned.
Kean's other big problem has been his signings. He has by and large recruited players of skill and artistry, investments in potential with the aim of playing the kind of football needed to arrive at Venky's off-quoted, much-mocked fourth-place dreamland. But moving up the league is more often than not a gradual process, one requiring much graft and no little elbow grease and Blackburn, especially shorn of those aforementioned defenders, are currently in low supply of both.
The faintest of praise sprinkled on Blackburn this season has been that they haven't been playing too badly, a perhaps unwittingly backhanded compliment highlighting Kean's choice of signings as much as his apparent naivety towards the scale of the task now facing him. Whilst some of the play may have been pretty, the results sure haven't. Tellingly, following their 2-2 draw at Molineux the very same night, Norwich boss Paul Lambert appeared unmoved by the praise heaped on his skilful side, stating that he'd happily see his charges play ugly and stay up. “I don't want to get admired and get relegated”, he claimed. As things stand for Kean, the first part is very much in the bag.