The boy prodigy is now his own man
JACK COLLISON was 16 when he joined West Ham’s academy. More used to the rough and ready surroundings of Cambridge United, he was so overawed by the standard he almost turned tail.
“It was a shock to the system,” said the midfielder, now 26 and playing for Peterborough. “But, thankfully for me, I was working with a great coach in Kevin Keen.
“He’d been in and around the first team and he said to me ‘You are a good player.You can do this. Work hard and you’ll get your chance’. For me that was massive.”
Collison, who went on to play 100 league games for the Hammers isn’t the only young player to benefit from Keen’s wisdom.
James Tompkins, Mark Noble, Saido Berahino, Raheem Sterling were all guided along the rocky route to stardom by the 48-yearold.
And it’s why, when Colchester chairman Robbie Cowling went hunting for a manager who’d put his trust in kids, Keen’s name sprang from a pile of CVs.
“People may not know Kevin as a manager, but everybody in football knows his abilities as a coach,” said Cowling.“His experience is second to very few.”
Keen’s determination to see young players succeed stems, in part, from his own status as a schoolboy prodigy.
Victory with High Wycombe in the English Schools’ Trophy was followed by caps for England Under-16s.The son of QPR’s legendary skipper Mike Keen, he was just 15 years and 206 days old when he made his debut for Wycombe Wanderers – then managed by his old man – in 1982.
A grainy black and white photo, shot by the local paper, shows Keen grinning at the camera, cherub-faced without a hair on his chest, shoulder high to the men on either side.To this day, he remains the youngest player ever to represent the Chairboys.
Next came an apprenticeship at West Ham, where, under the tutelage of coach Tony Carr, he cleaned Trevor Brooking’s boots and progressed through the youth ranks before making his debut at 19.
Yet Keen the player, a slightlybuilt, mercurial winger in an era of bullies and bruisers, could have used the comforting arm of Keen the coach as he struggled to win over the Boleyn Ground crowd.
“I always gave my best and tried to play football the West Ham way,” he said in 2004.“But I think they thought of me as being a bit of a softy.
“I just wish I’d had the confidence and that little bit of arrogance that comes with playing 600 games. Someone like Paul Ince had that, even as a kid, and it made him a much better player. Perhaps I feel I didn’t fulfil my potential as a professional because of that.”
Keen was far from fragile, though. In ten years at Upton Park, he scored 21 goals in 219 League games and finished second to Steve Potts for the 1993 Hammer of the Year award.
But, even that season, Julian Dicks recalls a man who needed a bit of love.
“Harry Redknapp would go mad at people like me and Johnny Hartson,” he said. “But he also realised some players go into their shell if you rant and rave. So, with Kevin, he’d always put an arm round him and say ‘Come on, son, this is what we need from you’.”
Later, at Wolves and then Stoke, Keen came out of that shell.
“He was a very clever player and a great leader who made others look good,” said former Wolves player Robbie Dennison.
“Off the pitch, he was great as well.We called him ‘the entertainments officer’. He’d organise the card schools and board games. Anything to stop us getting bored on away trips.”
For Stoke, he was one of the few bright sparks in a dismal decade spawned by a move to the Britannia Stadium in 1997.This paean in Potters’ fanzine, The Oatcake, gives an insight.
“We knew he’d never stop running for us or probing for space down that right touchline,” it read, “and when he was on the pitch we always had that ‘bust-a-gut’ creative spark going for us.
“Keeno was never a player with blistering pace, nor a direct winger as such, but, when he wore a Stoke shirt, there was always that feeling that something could happen.”
Yet Keen never forgot the obstacles of those early years and, in 2002, after two years as playercoach at Macclesfield, he began work at the Hammers’ famed academy. Noble, who made his West Ham debut in 2004, recalls how he was nurtured. “Lots of coaches pick big boys because they’re scoring six goals a game and running kids over,” he said. “But Kevin didn’t care about results. He just wanted you to play the right way and, if you did, size didn’t matter.”
Keen would go on to work with Gianfranco Zola at Upton Park before following the Italian’s assistant, Steve Clarke, to Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish. He was instrumental in pushing Raheem Sterling through.
Now, after stints as No.2 at West Brom and Reading, it is time to see if he can make a No.1.Tony Gale,a former team-mate at West Ham , is convinced he can.
“The only way to gauge a coach is when you talk to players,” he said. “Literally everything I’ve heard about him has been good. He’s also a great guy. I’m sure the players will love him.”
TOP COACH: Now Kevin Keen aims to make his mark as a manager
SMOOTH OPERATOR: Keen was a mercurial figure at times but had to work hard to win over Hammers’ fans