Brian Kerr: Inquisitive, intense and smart - Stephen Kenny is a future Ireland senior manager
Published 05/11/2016 | 15:00
The game was in Fairview Park. A Sunday morning in 1990. A day that changed Roy Keane's life. Until then, he'd bizarrely been overlooked, which was why he was here, playing for Cobh Ramblers against Belvedere in a FAI Youth Cup replay, doubtless frustrated not just by the fact his team lost the match 4-0 but also that no club in England had taken a chance on him.
Now they would. This was the day a scout called Noel McCabe, who worked for Nottingham Forest, stood on the sideline and saw enough to be able to advise Brian Clough that there was a lad here who was, at the very least, worth bringing across for a trial.
He wasn't the only Noel impressed that day. My pal, and former assistant manager Noel O'Reilly, chatted away to me the following week about Roy. "Belvo beat them easy," Noel said, "but wait till I tell ya, Cobh had this fella playing them practically on his own. He was f*****g brilliant. He was the boss of everything."
What is less well known, though, was that another boss featured in that game as well. Stephen Kenny was born within a couple of months of Keane. One fella grew up in Cork, the other in Tallaght. Their paths would briefly cross at tournaments and games as they tried to make their mark on the game but in the aftermath of that match in 1990, they'd veer in different directions: Keane to Forest, Manchester United and stardom, Kenny, initially, to St Pat's.
He was one of three players I signed from that Belvedere youth team in 1990 - a steady defensive player, neat and tidy on the ball, who always had an inquisitive, intense but courteous manner about him. Plus he wanted to improve - but it was hard for him because the League of Ireland then was physically tougher than it is now. Only the exceptional youth players made it through to the first team straight away.
And while Stephen had a bit about him, and asked a lot of questions about the position he was playing, which was unusual from young players of that generation, I found it interesting when I heard he was going to try his hand at management from a very young age.
Remembering my own frustrations as a player, when I was unable to adequately deliver what the manager required, I can recall drawing greater satisfaction from coaching and extracting results at a higher level than I was capable of playing at.
Was this the reason Stephen started out in management with non-league Tallaght Town when he was still only 22 years old? You'd imagine it was.
Early on with his new club, he gave me a call to arrange a pre-season friendly between us. It was up at their place, on the side of the Dublin Mountains, and Stephen walked up and down the line like a madman, cajoling his players to get stuck in. And they did, beating us in the game, which, I have to admit, I wasn't too impressed by.
I was thinking here was one of my recent players, now making his own way in the footballing world, and doing everything he could to get the win, including the re-introduction of a substitute for the closing stages of the game.
"What the f*** are you bringing him back on for?" I said to him. Stephen stood his ground. And I admired him for that.
A few years would pass before our paths would cross again. This time Pat Dolan was the one who brought him back to St Pat's to manage the club's U-21 team and as soon as I heard he was in the club again, I was delighted. By now you could see that he wasn't just developing teams but also personality traits within his players.
You sensed he was drawing an excitement and buzz from management and when Longford Town called him in 1998, they were struggling, having finished bottom of the First Division that particular season.
Yet for Stephen, just 26 at the time, it was a good move because the profile of the League of Ireland manager was vastly different to what it is now. Back then, there was not a tendency for clubs to trust rookies and especially ones with no past as a first-teamer in the League.
So with all this in mind, getting a break was a big thing. And if the team happened to be bottom of the league then that was just something you had to put up with. In any case, it wasn't long before Stephen had them flying. They won promotion within two years of his arrival, played in Europe within three, and just before his first year in the Premier Division, he formed part of my backroom staff for the finals of the U-16 European Championships.
Now the reason for bringing him there might sound complex and a little airy-fairy. Nonetheless, it was something myself and Noel thought we should do, because during the Charlton era, the international scene felt like a closed shop. Nobody from outside Jack's tight circle learned anything. Information was closed, tutoring people didn't go on.
So when I got the Irish Youths job I felt it was my job to open that up a little bit. Pete Mahon, Gerry Smyth, Tony McGuirk all came on board at different stages. And so, in 2000, for this tournament did Stephen. He was great to have around - co-operative, disciplined, organised and the possessor of good communication skills.
As the years went by, we'd stay in touch regularly, speaking to one another as he went from Bohs to Derry to Dunfermline and after he was prematurely sacked by Shamrock Rovers. He was at a low ebb then so Dundalk's offer came at a good time even if I had reservations about him taking it at the time.
What convinced him, though, was the fact that he considered the guys in charge to be good fellas and was excited by the fact that there was passion for football in the town, a history of success and, in the context of attracting players, a relative proximity to Dublin.
What he, and they, have achieved since has been remarkable because their success hasn't been based on the back of him identifying the best, established players in the league and then going to his board and asking them for the money to sign them up.
Instead he spotted uncut gems. Dane Massey was a player I liked but didn't think was as great as he has become. Chris Shields - at Bray - was like a policeman, waving his arms, directing traffic. He too has developed enormously as has Brian Gartland, a player I hardly knew. Andy Boyle and Sean Gannon were underrated. Stephen O'Donnell was supposedly on the way out. But Stephen's eye for talent and ability to nurture that is obvious from the sensational improvement in Richie Towell, Dave McMillan and, most of all, Daryl Horgan.
Together they've been moulded into a team who have won three successive League titles and are in tomorrow's FAI Cup final.
More strikingly than any of that, though, has been their adventure in Europe. To be able to have the confidence and the quality to take on teams like Zenit home and away, has been breathtaking.
Until now we were used to Irish teams winning a couple of rounds here and there. But while Dundalk have won only two games on this European run, they have caught the imagination of the public because of the way they have played, both home and away, against teams who have a real European pedigree.
And it makes me think. Men have come from this league before to manage international football - Liam Tuohy, Eoin Hand, myself, Michael O'Neill - while Lawrie Sanchez and Sam Allardyce took their first managerial steps with Sligo and Limerick respectively as well - and Stephen can go to that level too.
The question is where should he go next? A club in the English Championship - where managers are given on average only a year in the job - is fraught with danger. Maybe he should take a road similar to the one I went down and manage at youth level with the FAI. After that, he should - at the very least - be considered for the top job.