Caretaker Kean keen on points – not Popa’s preferences

Full story first published for SBS’ The World Game:

The scope of the rebuild required clear, incoming Melbourne Victory boss Tony Popovic will receive a wide-ranging ambit to mould the fallen A-League giants as he sees fit for 2021-22. But for now, caretaker coach Steve Kean says that securing points – and not preparing for a new coach’s arrival – is the priority at AAMI Park.

Popovic was named as the eighth full-time coach of Victory last week; club chairman Anthony Di Pietro declaring he would be “responsible for the entire A-League program overseeing support staff, recruitment, list management and our A-League playing style and performance,” upon his contract’s commencement in July.

Installed as caretaker following the ousting of Grant Brebner, Kean was in the main chair of the dugout for the second time on Tuesday evening as Victory fell to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Big Blue rivals Sydney FC. 

Rivalry defeats are never fun but, given it came without the services of the suspended Callum McManaman, Jake Brimmer, Robbie Kruse, and Adama Traotre and injured Ryan Shotton and Marco Rojas, the performance defied the low expectations that were carried into the contest by pundit and Victory fans alike. 

Perhaps the players had heeded the words of Kean and Di Pietro, who have reiterated on a number of occasions in recent weeks that players are auditioning for their future in a Victory shirt for the remainder of the season. 

In his time in charge, the former has also spoken of his willingness and desire to reward the performances and endeavour of the squad’s younger players with more gametime – Lleyton Brooks earning a first ever senior start against the Sky Blues. 

Future-minded as this thinking may be, however, the former Blackburn Rovers boss told reporters on Friday that his word remained the final one when it came to squad selection, minutes allocation, or the provision of opportunities for youth. 

“[I] don’t need to factor [Popovic’s preferences] in at all,” Kean said. 

“A Lleyton Brooks, [for example], will play if Lleyton Brooks deserves to play. Any of that type of reshuffling will be done at our discretion. 

“That’s no disrespect, but we’ve got a season to finish and we want to finish as high as we can. We’ve been working with the players, we know the players. 

“Obviously Tony will have his own slant on who he wants next year, as you would, and I think next year is next year. 

“We’re only concentrating on these remaining games and giving the fans something to scream about and cheer about because we want to finish the season really strong with the players that have done really well in training and in the last few weeks. 

“They deserve and are merited to start and be involved. There’s no bones about it. That’s the way it’s going to be.”

With Central Coast Mariners set to visit AAMI Park on Sunday afternoon, the 53-year-old Englishman said that he and his staff were focusing on building on the positives that had come from Tuesday evening. 

McManaman, Brimmer, and Kruse all returning from suspension for that encounter, he welcomed the headaches at the selection table that the fighting loss had brought. 

“We take the positives from every game, and there were many [against Sydney],” Kean explained. 

“The pleasing thing for us as staff and also the players is that there [are periods] of the game this season where we’re normally a little bit weak – at the start of the second half and around the 80th minute. Taking aside a couple of counter attacks that they had, that was our strongest period of the game.

“From that perspective, it was very positive and I felt that we were in control for most of the second half. 

“I felt the goal was coming, you get that feeling for the players that we’ve got something here, we’ve got some chances, they can’t get out of their own half, so that was very pleasing. Obviously the result isn’t, but the performance was very good. 

“I think the good thing is that the members and the fans will get a look at young Lleyton Brooks [against the Mariners]. He performed and did well. Jay Barnett came into the team and played well. 

“We can see that we can put Broxy [Leigh Broxham] in at left back and he’s solid – it shows us that he can play at that position until we get Adama [Traore] back. Elvis [Kamsoba] as well, he deputised for Robbie Kruse and does well.

“We’ve got competition for places, which is important with these three players coming back.”

Kean, for his part, has already made it clear that he doesn’t expect to return to Victory under the new Popovic administration.

Having coached across Britain, Iberia, Crete and Southeast Asia, the former Premier League gaffer is no stranger to traversing the globe for employment but, for now, he says that he’s paid scant thought as to where his journey might continue next. 

“I’ve only thought about the next number of games, getting as many points for the club as possible,” he explained. 

“Where I’ll be next… I’m sure that will present itself. 

“I’ve not thought about it too much because I’m too busy. There’s too many games, there’s too many sessions. It’s just head down, get the lads ready, roll them back out to the next game and let’s finish strong. 

“Hopefully fans can see us really pushing for it from the first minute [against the Mariners] – not like the last game against Sydney where we were a bit slow off the blocks. 

“We want to be right out quick and get after them.”

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