Last on MOTD: Local relations

SAY what you like about Steve Kean. (I like to tell people he was brought up by bears on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, that he once claimed to be “delighted” after winning £750 on Deal Or No Deal and that he’s the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats.) But the Blackburn manager has shown dignity in his dealings with the local paper.

Three months ago, the Lancashire Telegraph told him to step down in a heartfelt comment piece. Local papers are generally seen, and expected to be, supportive of the football clubs on their patch. The relationship between club and paper can be mutually beneficial – the club get levels of publicity and exposure that national media cannot provide, the paper sells more copies.

It can be a fraught relationship, and I will come back to this later. Apart from anything else, the local media do have to be prepared to criticise if they wish to maintain editorial credibility. But even so, the Telegraph’s call for Kean’s head was flagged up in several national papers as the point of no return.

This article was published the day before a home match against Bolton, the only team below Blackburn in the Premier League.

“If Rovers do managed 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,” stated the comment piece. “It is now surely clear that Kean has to go and one good result shouldn’t be enough to save him.”

As it turned out, Kean didn’t even get a good result against Bolton. Rovers lost 2-1 and spent Christmas Day bottom of the Premier League. And with the exception of West Brom in 2004/05, no Premier League team has stayed up after being bottom at Christmas.

Through all of this, Kean has continued to co-operate with the Telegraph. Perhaps he realised that he needed to go on a charm offensive. The manner in which he willingly stepped up from the assistant manager’s role after the baffling dismissal of Sam Allardyce went down badly with Rovers fans, as did his insistence on being absurdly positive about terrible performances, along with a refusal to criticise the owners’ lack of investment and a tactical outlook during the second half of last season that seemed to consist almost entirely of playing for goalless draws.

Since Christmas, Kean has ploughed on, taken the flak, kept on speaking to the local paper and – slowly but surely – dragged Blackburn away from the bottom three. Today, Rovers sit five points clear of the relegation zone. This Saturday, they face Bolton again. Win that one, and Kean might just be able to start planning for next season in the Premier League.

Kean is a good example of how, if you keep your head, take the criticism and plough on, you can start to turn public opinion in your favour. It’s a lesson that has gone unheeded at Bournemouth.

For some time, Bournemouth’s relationship with the Daily Echo has been on the skids. The back story to this has been better covered elsewhere, but in short: Chairman Eddie Mitchell and manager Lee Bradbury have become increasingly aggressive towards the paper over their coverage of the club.

Mitchell – credited with saving Bournemouth from extinction when he became chairman in 2009 – has cut an increasingly bizarre figure this season. In September, he told a fans’ forum that if they didn’t like the way he was running the club, they should “go and support Southampton”. Around the same time, there was also a confrontation with supporters after a home defeat against Chesterfield.

With fans raising concerns about the level of investment in the club, Mitchell brought in Russian businessman Maxim Demin as co-owner in November. Over the last month or so, things have started to get really strange. So strange, that Mitchell has started making national headlines for the wrong reasons.

Following a home defeat against MK Dons last month, reports emerged that Demin’s wife had given the half-time team talk.

Only those who were in the Bournemouth dressing room will know whether Mrs Demin merely popped her head round the door to say “good luck” or was explaining the complexities of the false No. 9 while hurling tea cups at players’ heads.

In any case, it was a sufficiently eye-catching tale to persuade Radio Five Live to get Mitchell on to 6-0-6 afterwards. But even by the standards of the average 6-0-6 caller, Mitchell proved staggeringly inarticulate, swearing three times and forcing presenter Mark Chapman to cut him off.

The Daily Echo faithfully reported all of this, as a paper should do. Mitchell took umbrage. So too did Bradbury, who was upset, among other things, about the fact that the paper had splashed the headline ‘IMMATURE’ across its back page after the manager had used that word to describe his players after a defeat at Sheffield Wednesday 12 days ago.

And so the Echo’s reporters were first banned from asking questions at Bradbury’s post-match press conferences. (This reminds me of a music journalist recounting a story of interviewing Prince, and being told that he couldn’t ask any questions or make any tape recording. But, you know, that was Prince, not Lee bloody Bradbury.)

Then the Echo were told, ahead of Saturday’s match against Carlisle, that they couldn’t even stand in on his interviews with other media. Finally, four hours before Tuesday’s game against Brentford, the Echo were told their reporters and photographers were banned from Dean Court altogether.

Jostling between local papers and football clubs goes on more often than you might imagine. I once had a bizarre phone conversation with an official at one club, who informed me that the chief executive wanted my paper banned over a story claiming that their pre-season tour had been a shambles. Which might have been a fair argument, but for the fact that I’d never written such a story and neither of us could find it anywhere in the paper. Maybe the chief executive dreamt it.

There’s another tale of a friend, who sports edited a weekly paper, going for a meeting with his local lower-division club to discuss coverage.

“Your paper needs us more than we need you,” the chairman began.
“Well, in that case, there’s no point me being here then,” the sports editor replied, and got up to walk out. At which point, the chairman lost his nerve, and called him back into the room.

This jostling is common, but it rarely goes as far as it has done at Bournemouth this week. The Echo published a strongly-worded editorial criticising the club’s conduct. Fans on the message boards – often, in my experience, quick to side with club against paper in any such dispute – have come down more in favour of the Echo than against. Mitchell and Bradbury, it seems, have yet to realise what Kean noted: Sometimes, a charm offensive does no harm.

Last on MOTD: Blackburn 2 Sunderland 0
Commentator: Alistair Mann

I’m not kidding myself, though. Ultimately, charming the local paper isn’t what has turned things around for Kean, and it won’t do for Mitchell or Bradbury. The Blackburn manager’s reputation has improved thanks to a series of important victories at the right time.

When Kean looked to be heading for the sack at Christmas, Rovers drew at Liverpool and won at Manchester United. When they capitulated 7-1 at Arsenal early last month, they followed it up by beating fellow strugglers QPR. Twelve days ago, victory at sinking Wolves suggested that survival was a real possibility. But never, during Kean’s reign, had Rovers managed back-to-back Premier League victories. Until Tuesday.

Junior Hoilett and Yakubu scored the goals. Just as significantly, Blackburn didn’t concede any. Having gone through their opening 27 Premier League games this season without a clean sheet, Rovers have now kept two in a row. Such success must be an odd feeling for their manager, who must have wondered at times this season if his full name was actually Steve Kean-Out.

I wouldn’t go as far as the Guardian columnist who claimed, possibly with tongue in cheek, that Kean should be named manager of the year. Blackburn, after all, might still be relegated yet, and even if they stay up, the Venky’s stewardship hardly offers great optimism for the long term. But surely the fact that the local paper are no longer calling for his resignation represents a personal progress of sorts.

Gubbometer 2011/12

1. Fulham: 7 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
2. Aston Villa: 6 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
3. Wigan: 5 (2L: 8, 3L: 4)
4. West Brom: 5 (2L: 4, 3L: 4)
5. Norwich: 5 (2L: 3, 3L: 3)
6. Stoke: 5 (2L: 2, 3L: 6)
7. Sunderland: 4 (2L: 6, 3L: 0)
8. Swansea: 4 (2L: 5, 3L: 4)
9. QPR: 4 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
10. Blackburn: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 5)
10: Wolves: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 5)
12: Liverpool: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 4)
13. Tottenham: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
14. Chelsea: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 5)
15. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
16. Everton: 1 (2L: 7, 3L: 4)
17. Bolton: 1 (2L: 4, 3L: 6)
18. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
19. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)

2L = On second last (Everton 0 Arsenal 1)
3L = On third last (Tottenham 1 Stoke 1)

(Teams receive one point every time they are last on Match of the Day. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)


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