When Steve Kean left Hibernian to manage in Georgia, he discovered a home from home. The people were warm and welcoming, the obsession with football reassuring. Referees earned danger money and, from time to time, passions spilled over. It felt just like Scotland.
Appointed manager of Torpedo Kutaisi in May, the Glaswegian arrived midway through a season going nowhere fast.
From being 13 points adrift of a European slot, a run of one defeat in 14 league games now offers a realistic chance of Europa Conference League football. The Scot is a contender for manager of the year.
Currently back in Edinburgh for the international break, the former head of the Hibs academy won’t make Thursday night’s Euro 2024 qualifier in Tbilisi. Yet the next time he bumps into his old London mucker Steve Clarke, he plans to shake him by the hand and thank him for improving the job prospects of Scots overseas.
Steve Kean has been manager of Torpedo Kutaisi in Georgia since his appointment in May
Once a coach at Chelsea (left, with Frank Lampard), Steve Clarke has been an invigorating force for Scotland’s international prospects
Before the move to Georgia, Kean worked in Australia’s A-League with Melbourne Victory
‘We have been at many games together and scouted so many of the same players and chatted post-match after games.
‘He is a really top coach and, when he was at Chelsea, guys like Frank Lampard and John Terry lived in the same area as me and never stopped telling me how good a coach he was.
‘I think his work on the training ground has created a club culture inside the national team. They all love going to get-togethers and they turn up. And what a job he has done. It’s fantastic.
‘It’s great for me as well, actually. It’s always good when you are working overseas and the national team keeps winning. That changes how people look at you.
‘I was coaching in Spain (as assistant to Chris Coleman at Real Sociedad) when their national team were running away with every trophy going. At that time, we (Scotland) kept getting gubbed.’
Grinning, he added: ‘The national team keeps winning now and I’m enjoying a little bit of the credit and reflected glory…’
Being a Scotsman in Georgia hasn’t always brought such highs. In 2007, an agonising 2-0 defeat effectively cost Alex McLeish’s side the chance of reaching Euro 2008. In 2015, under Gordon Strachan’s watch, another loss sunk the national team’s prospects of returning to a major finals at Euro 2016.
Fears of another Tbilisi nightmare receded when the Scots secured their place at Euro 2024 last month. Dismayed by their fourth-place standing in an underwhelming qualification campaign, however, Georgia’s national team are gunning for three-in-a-row on home soil.
Scotland had less luck travelling to Georgia in 2015 after the national team shattered their hopes of Euro 2016 qualification
The last time the two sides faced one another was at a shockingly wet Hampden Park in June
Georgia are looking to make it three home wins in three after beating Cyprus in October
And Kean expects another hair-raising night for the Scots.
‘Scotland can be grateful they’ve already reached the finals because Georgia will be going for it,’ he told Mail Sport.
‘It doesn’t really matter to them how the campaign has gone.
‘As Scotland will know from past visits, it’s going to be a really hostile environment. They love getting on to the referee and they will do anything to win.
‘They are very passionate about their game. Even though the national team have had a bad qualification campaign, the Tbilisi crowd are incredibly passionate.
‘When the national team go there, they get right up for it. They’re very like Scottish people actually.
‘They are so proud and passionate and patriotic that the previous games and results won’t come into the equation. Dead rubber or not, Georgia will be up for this.’
The great success of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia at Napoli has transformed perceptions of the Georgian league. Kean is confronted by a painful reminder of the national game’s heritage every time he walks into Torpedo Kutaisi’s Ramaz Shengelia Stadium.
Shengelia, playing for the Soviet Union, famously took advantage of a mix-up between Willie Miller and Alan Hansen to race in on goal and end Scotland hopes of progress at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain.
More recently, Kvaratskhelia’s brilliance has forced Serie A teams to reassess the talent in the Georgian league. Kean has advised his old colleagues at Hibs to do the same.
‘This is a nation producing very good players,’ said Kean. ‘Giorgi Mamardashvili is the goalkeeper at Valencia and is attracting serious interest. Kvaratskhelia is excelling at Napoli and, when you see Georgian players at clubs of that size, you think there must be more of them — and there are.
The white-hot rise of Napoli’s Kvicha Kvaratskhelia has shone a light on Georgian talent
Valencia’s goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili has also attracted interest from European rivals
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if English clubs started scouting as hard as the Italians. I also said to Ben Kensell at Hibs that he wouldn’t believe the technical quality of these lads out here.
‘Most of the international players don’t play in the Georgian league, but they all started here. So there is a lot of quality here and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Italian clubs have serious competition for players from here. I’ve already had a few managers on asking me about players and I am always honest with them. We have some great young players, including a very good 19-year-old centre-back, Saba Goglichidze, who is away with the Under-21s.
‘He is a top player. He will be a big name in years to come. He’s tremendous, quick, aggressive, a good defender. He is top drawer.
‘I don’t think we will be able to keep him because all the Italian clubs scout aggressively in Georgia. He will end up with one of the big hitters.
‘Giorgi Arabaidze, our right winger, could play at the top level. Kvaratskhelia is magnificent, but there are a lot of technical players like that in the league.’
A former manager of Blackburn, Kean has never been afraid to vacate his comfort zone. As well as his spell with Real Sociedad, he also managed DPMM FC — a club owned by Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah of Brunei.
There was a spell as assistant manager to former Hibs midfielder Grant Brebner at Melbourne Victory before heading up the Easter Road academy for 18 months.
‘It was going to take something good to persuade me to leave Hibs,’ he admits. ‘I loved my time there. It’s a great club and we were managing to get players really close to the first team like Rory Whittaker and Josh Landers.
Kean has previously managed at clubs such as Blackburn Rovers (pictured) and Real Sociedad
One stint saw him manage DPMM FC – a club owned by Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah of Brunei (pictured in 2014)
‘I never really took the job at Hibs thinking I would return to first-team football. But then came a chance to manage a team playing European football.
‘We managed to win the Georgian Cup last year and playing European football, going back into first-team management, felt just right.’
While defeat to Kazakhstan’s FC Aktobe ended hopes of facing Bodo/Glimt and Besiktas in the Europa Conference League, Kean’s impact is such that media now tout him as a potential manager of the year.
‘I haven’t seen that,’ he claims, ‘but that would be a nice accolade. I have never regretted the decision.’