Kenny's Indian summer
QPR 'keeper gives Trap plenty of food for thought
FROM Ziggy's Spice House to the Premier League. Paddy Kenny's road to redemption is almost complete.
The in-form Irish 'keeper made his 500th appearance in English football on Tuesday and marked the occasion with his 18th clean sheet in the league for QPR this season.
Kenny can reflect on the landmark with particular pride, given that his career has twice threatened to go off the rails in recent years. In fact, when he takes the field for the Championship leaders at Middlesbrough this afternoon, he will be just 63 miles away from his hometown of Halifax, where his life seemed to be unravelling on an October night four and a half years ago.
An ill-advised night on culminated with Kenny having part of his eyebrow bitten off outside Ziggy's, a late-night Indian curry house, by a man who claimed that he was having an affair with the goalkeeper's wife Karen.
The front page headlines didn't stop there. It turned out that Karen had left Kenny for another man, a friend who had been a guest at their wedding. "I was a baddy to my Paddy," screamed the headline in 'The Sun.'
Such public humiliation perhaps puts any football shame in comparison, but those personal issues came only a few weeks after he was the man between the sticks in Ireland's 5-2 thrashing at the hands of Cyprus. Hesitant that evening, Kenny pulled out of the following game with Czech Republic and hasn't represented the country of his parents since.
Indeed, in the turmoil that followed, he asked then boss Steve Staunton not to consider him for international squads. He changed his mind in 2008, but no subsequent call has been forthcoming.
There is a clamour for Giovanni Trapattoni to extend that invitation in the wake of Shay Given's latest setback, yet it seems that goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly -- who was part of Staunton's backroom staff -- was leaning towards other options when he spoke earlier this week.
After the Cypriot debacle, there were repeated murmurings in Irish football circles that his withdrawal from the Czech game was less to do with injury and more to do with his desire at that point.
Perhaps the stigma remains, yet Kenny has the appearance of a reformed character now, a physical shadow of his former self who looks in better shape than he did in some of his burlier days at Sheffield United.
His eight years with the Yorkshire club ended last summer in controversial fashion, when he accepted a double-your-money offer to move to London on a £20,000-a-week contract.
The outrage in Sheffield derived from the fact that the Blades had supported Kenny through his second major controversy, an incident with grave implications in 2009. He tested positive for ephedrine in a routine drugs test which followed a play-off semi-final with Preston. Tablets bought to cure a chest infection were blamed, and a nine-month ban was the punishment. Sheffield United stayed loyal, and the supporters felt it was thrown back in their face when a key player walked out for a better offer.
The other significant factor, of course, was Neil Warnock. The ever-divisive manager -- nicknamed Colin W***er by opposition fans (work out the anagram) -- gave Kenny a chance at his first senior club, Bury, and then splashed the cash to bring him to the next level with Sheffield United. When Kenny was coping with headlines about drug shame, Warnock, then with Crystal Palace, vocally spoke out on his behalf.
"It's a tragedy," he said. "He's a big softy who has got no malice in him whatsoever. But it won't stop him from getting a club because he's a good 'keeper, the best in the Championship."
In the end, Warnock waited until he moved to a club with the cash to move for the 32-year-old and secured his man. His unique style of management strikes a chord with the player. Famously, after the incident outside Ziggy's, Warnock praised his 'keeper for not having dessert. "That's the positive for me," he said. "The other guy must have been hungrier." Behind closed doors, the approach would have been different, but in a testing period, he kept the player on-side.
The bottom line is that Kenny has emerged from his travails to a new happiness in a Warnock dressing-room packed with characters, of which the goalkeeper is one of the more vocal members. Earlier this week, in a piece with the QPR programme to mark his 500th outing, Kenny suggested that he hasn't reached his peak.
"I don't think being the other side of 30 is a big issue, particularly for goalkeepers," he said. "With age comes experience and I don't actually think you really gain that decent level of experience until you are in your late 20s or early 30s. I hope my best years are still to come.
"This has got to be the best form of my career now. Team spirit is so important -- and the gaffer makes it happen.
"All the players love him, love playing for him and he knows what to do to get the best out of every individual."
Certainly, Kenny can vouch for that, as he prepares to embark on an exciting chapter in his tale, even if the suspicion lingers that the desire to revive his Irish ambitions may remain unsatisfied for a little bit longer. Either way, he's on track for an Indian summer rather than an Indian supper.