Saturday 21 September 2019

'It does not get any more special than this job' - Kenny

Stephen Kenny looks around the Aviva Stadium at his unveiling as Ireland’s under 21 manager. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Stephen Kenny looks around the Aviva Stadium at his unveiling as Ireland’s under 21 manager. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

As he settles into his chair, Stephen Kenny is asked to reflect on his 20-year journey from the gig that nobody wanted to the hottest ticket in Irish football.

"That's a question," he says, nervously laughing as he tries to consider his response. "It hasn't always been an upward curve, that's for sure, but I never doubted myself."

This occasion is the validation of that. Ostensibly, this is the announcement of his appointment as U-21 manager, with the added responsibility of a role overseeing all of the other men's underage sides.

But one didn't have to read too far between the lines to find the confirmation that the 47-year-old wouldn't have accepted this brief without the written agreement that he would be senior boss two years from now. Otherwise, he would still be the manager of Dundalk this morning.

Now he's broadcasting to a different audience, some of whom are unaware of just what an incredible story this is. The Dubliner who fell just short of League of Ireland level as a player, but made it there as a manager aged 26.

He had been running a meat producing business and coaching at amateur level at Tallaght Town before making the leap to a club which was barely functioning as semi professional. Kenny brought Longford Town to the Premier Division and to Europe and went from there to Bohemians, Derry, Dunfermline, back to Derry again and then an inglorious spell at Shamrock Rovers that left him on the brink of quitting his new full-time trade.

After Bohs and Dunfermline, that was his third sacking. As a father of four children, he was contemplating a future out of the game when Dundalk came calling. Six years and one week later, he's Mick McCarthy's anointed successor.

"I've made a lot of mistakes along the way," he mused, "But you learn from your mistakes. What you have to do is continually evolve. I'm a different manager than I was two years ago. You just cannot stand still. You have to continually try to improve different aspects of what you do.

"I think this year I was better than I was last year. So next year I have to be better again."

This was all part of that initial long answer. To the regulars on the Irish football beat, this is familiar. We know the quirks, the mannerisms that might shock a first timer. The emotion crackling in the voice as he launches into a response which destroys the myth that 'football people' are programmed to stock answers.

Those attributes will be scrutinised heavily in August 2020 when he officially assumes control, although the arrival will be brought forward if McCarthy fails to bring Ireland to that summer's Euros.

And that attention will be the next part of his journey. There have been tears along the way - and the facial expression frequently makes it look like he is welling up mid-sentence - but he generally succeeds in getting his message firmly across by the end of it.

For all that he describes a journey of self-improvement, he's retained the same core principles. A newspaper clipping which was circulated by Longford Town during the week featured a Q & A interview with a young Kenny.

He discussed his first job, in Brigit Burke's pub in Tallaght, working as a lounge boy for a fiver per night, and explained that he didn't buy any eircom shares because they weren't 'hungry enough as a company.'

Accolade

The dream job? "In footballing terms I can think of no better accolade than managing your own country."

"Outside of football," he continued, "I'd love to be in a position to eradicate homelessness."

Twenty years on, he's still talking about the latter; he used the platform of collecting his Manager of the Year gong at the recent PFAI Awards to praise the work of Fr Peter McVerry.

But he is within touching distance of his professional peak, the beneficiary of an unusual succession plan which was borne out of his confidence in his ability - and perhaps the FAI's desire to satisfy those who wanted Kenny to be O'Neill's immediate replacement.

Kenny has proposed the idea of spending the intervening period travelling around Europe to bolster his knowledge, while he indicated that he will not be getting in the way of the respective managers working below him. Instead, it's all a part of communicating ideas.

"International football is different," he said, "The detail is huge in terms of how you prepare teams for two quickfire games in these blocks.

"I want to see how other countries do things, to compare my own ideas. I've a huge work ethic, and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into it."

The pace of the challenge will be different from the club scene. He plans to stay living in Louth, where his former employers are still coming to terms with his exit.

There are a few laughs about whether he plans to change his phone number, and also when the automated voice on an audience member's phone announced 'You've arrived' just as he was confirming the 2020 handover was signed and sealed.

Kenny is conscious his movements will be tracked more closely now. "I have a lot to learn in that regard," he said, "I understand that it won't be the same. I do understand that."

In Dundalk, he was adopted into the community. One local newspaper once ran a news story about how he'd left his jumper behind in a cafe. That was about as hard hitting as it got from an off-the-pitch perspective.

The 47-year-old could do no wrong, but he is now visibly excited by the possibilities of how much more can be achieved

"To leave Dundalk, it would have had to be something special," he stressed, "And it doesn't get any more special than this."

Kenny on...

Interaction with Mick McCarthy

"We've not had any meaningful meetings yet, that was just an informal dinner (on Sunday). I will be very much focusing on the U21s and other teams in the next couple of years. I'll be very much out of the picture in terms of the senior set-up."

Pursuing Northern Irish-born players

"I know the area better than most. My Derry team - seven went on to be capped between Northern Ireland and the Republic at senior level. I think it's up to the individual players, it's a very personal decision."

League of Ireland talent

"There's players in the League of Ireland right throughout the country. You look at UCD, players like Neil Farrugia, Liam Scales. Will Fitzgerald in Limerick. Trevor Clarke at Shamrock Rovers and Darragh Leahy and Ali Reghba at Bohs."

Leaving Dundalk

"It was a real wrench. We had unprecedented success. The players and staff were amazing to work with and there was a tremendous bond. It was a unique period in Irish football history and I was reluctant to leave that to go anywhere, particularly to be seeded in the first round of the Champions League next year. But this is a fantastic opportunity you couldn't turn down."

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