'There's no limits to what we can achieve'
THE worst-kept secret in town became a reality last Thursday morning when Stephen Kenny was unveiled as manager of Dundalk in succession to Darius Kierans.
The appointment of the former Derry supremo, who was ousted from his position at Shamrock Rovers towards the end of last season, was delayed until he had reached agreement on compensation with his former employers.
Supporters have warmly welcomed the incoming manager who explained his vision for Dundalk during press conferences both in Oriel Park and later in the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Kenny patiently answered questions from the local media on a wide range of subjects, including the setting of goals, development of youth football, his style of football . . . and plastic pitches. Why did you decide to come to Dundalk when they had such a difficult season last year? 'It was the fourth time that I'd been approached by Dundalk.
'Enda McGuill met me years ago when I was managing Longford. He wrote me a really nice letter and was a real gentleman. But I was at Longford under contract and wasn't in a position, was only learning and probably wasn't ready then at that stage.
'I met at other stages when I was at Longford, Bill Flynn, and then a couple of years ago when Derry went into administration and were bankrupt I had an approach and the club and made a very good offer.
'But I decided to rebuild Derry from scratch from the bottom of the First Division. I didn't feel I was in a position to leave the club when it was on its knees.
'The difference this time was that I was going to take some time out and go and travel a bit and look at clubs because I had a lot of invitations to go to different clubs in the UK and Europe to study a bit more and look at different training techniques.
'So my initial instinct was not to get back in first of all because I haven't really had a week off since I started. I always moved and was never out of work for a week, but when I spoke to Ciaran . . . he rang me and said would I consider coming to Dundalk.
'A club is about its people and Dundalk FC should represent the town here in a positive way - that's what it should be about - and I think I did see it and was on the receiving end of it in the 2002 Cup Final when I was managing Bohemians and we lost.
'There was probably [a ratio of] 2 to 1 fans, from Dundalk to Bohs, and I think I realised then . . . that team got relegation that year, but if there was a successful period in the club there is that passion for football. Schoolboy football is strong right throughout, junior football is strong.
'There has been an up and down attitude towards Dundalk. I would have found a certain amount of apathy and so forth in the past and different things, but the difference was that Ciaran, Andy Connolly and Paul Browne actually travelled up to my house. I live in Inishowen peninsula and they travelled up and outlined their passion for Dundalk and said that they supported the club all their lives, loved the club, go every week and want the team to do the club justice and its people.
'That's my job really. It's at a low ebb at the moment. When you walk into the ground, the ground's antiquated. For people coming in, it's old, needs to be revamped and needs serious reconstruction. I think there's no doubt about that.
'These are things when you are coming to a club as a manager…. you are thinking, right, if you want to build a club that people want to come to every week, and families, you definitely need a better stadium. This is not somewhere where you would be so much inspired to bring families.
'But what I would say is that the things that attracted me coming here are the tradition of football in Dundalk, the success in the past, the teams in the past, the way people are proud to be from Dundalk. If Dundalk are successful, the fact that they relate that with the club and the town, and there is a correlation there and that's a big thing.' What thoughts and concerns do you have about the budget that you've been promised? 'I have managed in the SPL where I've had good budgets and players have earned a lot of money and I've managed with clubs in Ireland that have had decent budgets, and I've managed clubs that have had nothing.
'Even in Derry a couple of years ago when the club went to the wall, we basically only kept four players and brought the whole youth team through and won the First Division and nearly won the Premier last year, basically with a youth team we'd brought through. With three games to go we had a chance of winning the Premier.
'The budget is what it is. The main thing for me was that I wasn't going to argue with the board and say I demand this and I demand that. I think it's only important that they give me a budget that they can back up and afford to pay.
'Ciaran said that. 'There's no point promising something I can't deliver on' and I said I'm not going to ask for something you can't deliver on and I don't think there's any great arguments on that front.
'So we are looking to have a good team with what we've got because I think it's probably going to be the most competitive leagues in many years.
'You had a period where a lot of teams went to the wall because they over-extended themselves and a lot of those clubs have rebuilt and next year you've got Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers and St Pat's who have a lot of quality. Derry and Cork will be a lot stronger, and Limerick have a lot of resources coming up and seem to be paying players high salaries.
'Then you've got Drogheda who had a good season last season and Shelbourne as well, so you've got a real tough league and we've to make sure that we are amongst all of that and we don't have any inferiority complexes and that we bring in the necessary quality to be able to compete with those teams, and that's what we have to try to do.' What would be a realistic goal for Dundalk next season? 'There's two sides to this. You can adopt the Mark Hughes approach where he has been haunted now by saying 'we'll never, ever be in this position again' and they keep playing that, or I can set ridiculous goals and say I'm going to do this and that.
'But I wouldn't like to put limits on what we can achieve either. When I first took over Derry they were in the relegation play-off against Finn Harps and in our first year, 2005, we brought the league until the last day of the season.
'The following year we won the two cups and lost the league on goal difference and had six games in Europe, so I'm not going to say we're going to do that here, but I'm not going to say we're not. I'm an optimistic thinker. I wouldn't be thinking doom and gloom.
'Had Monaghan not been put out of the league, Dundalk might have went down, and I don't see any teams like Monaghan or Dundalk were last year in next year's league. I think there's not going to be that much between fourth and 11th.
'Those are the margins. I could really sign a good team and have everyone fit and be as good as anybody, or we could sign a very good team, get four or five injuries and not have the strength in depth. We have to wait and see.' Have you spoken to any players yet? 'I'm going to take my time. I'll see what players are available and good value for the club, and we'll make assessments on everybody. Overall, we would need to improve on the team from last season. You can't say all the players last year were bad players because they had a poor
season. Maybe a lot of them were young and inexperienced, and the weight of being at the bottom of the league was difficult as well.' You've been critical of artificial pitches in the past, so what's your view of the surface at Oriel Park? 'I'd be in favour of digging it up if I'm being honest and playing on grass, but there's two points of view. A player would say 'I don't like playing on the artificial surface', but then all of a sudden I say if Spartak Moscow came in with an offer for you to go and play, would you go, and I'm sure they would.
'When you look at the Irish League and the two teams at the top, Cliftonville and Crusaders, there's no negative comment locally and they're both playing on artificial surfaces.
'I'm not an expert on artificial surfaces. I have to learn a bit more about them. Apparently ours is an older one and maybe not as good as some of the other ones, so I'm not sure what work has to be done and how you improve it.
'What I would say is that I will insist that it's watered. There seems to be a big difference bringing teams here between when it's dry and when it's watered. When it's watered the ball zips across the surface and that's what you want.'
What way do you like to play the game?
'I think all my teams have always been attacking teams with the emphasis on individuality and players expressing themselves and trying to be the best they can be. You need to have a cohesive team unit, but you need individuals to express themselves and I want players who enjoy playing and enjoy their football coming in every single day wanting to improve and and wanting to be the best they can be for Dundalk.
'If they're good enough to have an opportunity to go on again and go to a top team in the UK, so be it.
'Players coming in here now should be thinking I want to go to Dundalk and play in the first team and become a full international. I saw it last week, in a four-year period with the players that came through at Derry City under my wing we had David Forde and James McClean playing for the Republic, and Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn and Danny Lafferty playing at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland.
'They should be thinking, I want to play for Dundalk, I want to show that I'm good enough to be one of the better players in the league, and if I do that there will be a lot of interest, so I want to come in and train every day, I want to live my life in a way that is conducive to being a professional player, I want a strength and conditioning programme, I want to make sure I work on my technique and apply myself right.' Do you see similarities between Dundalk and Derry?
'This is a tougher challenge [than Derry] and I'm under no illusions. I'm not saying it's going to be easy and I'm going to attrack this player and that player.
'We are going to achieve nothing without hard work, but I have to be optimistic and I want the people of Dundalk to get behind the team because history suggests that Dundalk are one of the most successful teams in terms of trophies.
'There's been a lot of good teams in the past and there's no reason why there can't be really good teams here in the future, but we need people to get behind the team and have great nights here and coming out after a victory and feeling good about themselves.' What plans do you have for youth development? 'There has to be an emphasis on youth development, the way it's going at the minute. I'm sure there's a lot of work being done at schoolboy level in Dundalk, so we have to get the players in and nurture them and give them reason to feel optimistic about breaking into Dundalk's first team and having a good future in football.' What are your thoughts going into the new season? 'It will be a very, very competitive league and it is a big challenge, managing Dundalk. There is a perception that last year was a real struggle, but this is a new season, a new dawning for the club, and it doesn't have to be a struggle.
'We have to be positive in how we think about it and how we approach it and not be fearful of how we play, not be too defensive in how we set up. Players have to be allowed to utliise their talents. You can't be putting them in defensive straitjackets.'