The boy prodigy is now his own man

The Football League Paper - - PROFILE ON - By Chris Dunlavy

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.”

De­ter­mi­na­tion

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.

Ob­sta­cles

“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.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

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

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