Paul Kimmage meets Stephen Kenny: 'I realised, I don't care what people think, I know as much as anyone'
The future Ireland boss on being adopted, growing up in Tallaght and his philosophy for managing Ireland
In the summer of 2006, on the eve of the French Open, I was sent to Paris to interview a prodigiously gifted tennis player. There wasn't a lot of joy in my heart. Andy Murray lived on his PlayStation, had a reputation for being stroppy, and had just turned 19. What were we going to talk about?
We sat for a moment, staring at each other across a table: the tennis player who didn't read and despised journalists, and the journalist who despised tennis players and wished he was someplace else. I wearily unwrapped my tape recorder and was reminded of a passage by Gene Collier, a gifted American sportswriter: "How stupid is this? I don't want to wait for this guy. This guy doesn't want me to wait for him. I know what he's going to say. He knows what I'm going to ask. The readers know what I'm going to write. And I know what they're going to say if they read it."
But Murray was a surprise.
There were no reservations sitting down with Stephen Kenny. He was more than twice Murray's age, had never used Clearasil, and enjoyed a reputation as one of the nicest and most interesting men in football. He talked politics with John Hume and read books on Jim Larkin. He was a friend to the homeless and celebrated fair play and values. He wrote a column in the match programme at Dundalk that was often required reading:
"In Don Mullan's book A Hero Who Could Fly he vividly recalls how his parents' house in Derry was ransacked by the British Army and every room was turned upside down and searched intensely. Until two British soldiers stopped in amazement and stared at the wall and the posters of Gordon Banks.
"They were taken aback and confused. How could there be such strong anti-British sentiment and yet posters of the English goalkeeper adorn the walls of the young boy's bedroom? It was simply that Don Mullan was a goalkeeper and Gordon Banks was his hero."
Kenny was an open-goal, a sportswriter's dream, an interview waiting to happen. He would regale us with stories about playing Roy Keane and his time at Oxford United with Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. He would regale us with stories about his 30 years with Siobhan, their four children and five changes of residence. He would regale us with stories about Belvo and Bluebell and the Boys from the Blackstuff of Irish football.
And he did.
But this too was a surprise.
Now, we'll move along . . . My first guest this morning has just landed a new job and we will all be watching closely to see how he gets on - that's not to put any pressure on him. He'll be managing Ireland's under-21 soccer team for the next two years for a start, and then moving on to the Republic of Ireland team. Stephen Kenny, welcome to the programme.
"Thanks, Marian, thank you."
"Yeah, I know, yeah. It's been a busy week."
"Things moved very fast didn't they?"
"Yeah, they did, yeah, yeah."
"Tell me the story of how it came about?"
"Emmm . . . Well . . . Just emmm . . . you know it was obviously a great season with Dundalk in the end . . . it culminated after the league win with the FAI Cup final in the Aviva Stadium and it was just a great finale . . . thirty-odd thousand, and Patrick McEleney's goal to win it, in the manner that we did was . . . there was great euphoria. And then things moved quickly and last Saturday I was offered the position that I've been offered . . . and you don't get asked twice to manage your country."
- Marian Finucane,
Saturday, December 1, 2018
Paul Kimmage: There have been a lot of comparisons made between you and Brian Kerr recently and I've always thought you were cut from the same cloth, but it strikes me - within minutes of sitting down with you - that you're a lot more reserved.
Stephen Kenny: Hmmm . . .
PK: You seem a lot more reserved?
SK: Yeah, well . . . No two people are the same. You can only be who you are, and be true to who you are. And that can be the good and the bad.
PK: "Be yourself, everyone else is taken."
SK (smiles): Yeah.
PK: That's kind of where I want to start - and it's probably the wrong place to start - but I'm going to play you this clip from your interview with Marian Finucane last month.
(He nods and listens to the clip.)
Now, in the parlance of my business that's almost a car crash. You're nervous, and it's obvious that you're nervous, and it's obvious that she's struggling to put you at ease.
(He looks at me quizzically)
PK: This is a list of things you cover in six minutes:
1. Managing Ireland is the pinnacle of your career.
2. You have the (Ireland) contract in writing.
3. You were born and raised in Tallaght.
4. You met your wife at a young age.
5. You worked with your father in the meat business.
6. You started coaching at Tallaght Town.
7. You got the manager's job at Longford at age 26.
That's a two-hour interview for me.
PK: She's trying to settle you but you're not settling. What happened?
SK: Emmm . . . they rang up looking for the interview and I wasn't going to do it.
SK: I'd just got the job and there was a lot of requests and I had a lot going on and . . . anyway, I said I'd do it. I'd spoken to Marian before I think, and I'd been on with Áine Lawlor and one or two of the players in relation to the Europa League.
PK: And that's easier.
PK: Football is easy for you.
PK: But Marian is different.
PK: Did it feel different when you sat down?
SK: Not really, no. Some of the issues were different, but not (the fact it was) Marian. I don't have a hierarchy of journalists or people in life. I treat the groundsman and the car park attendant with the same respect as I treat the chief executive. I did a thing with Stephen Leonard, the (sports) editor of the Tallaght Echo, at their awards before Christmas. Why would doing an interview with Marian Finucane be more daunting than an interview with Stephen Leonard? It isn't to me. There's no hierarchy. It was more the issues. I was nervous about speaking about the issues.
PK: And by the issues you mean the agreement with the FAI?
PK: What was the issue around the issues?
"Things moved very fast didn't they?"
"Yeah, they did, yeah, yeah."
And you laughed. You seemed unsure what you wanted to say?
SK: Well, I didn't listen back to the interview. I don't often do that . . . maybe I should.
PK: No, no, I'm not suggesting that.
SK: So what's the question?
PK: The question is your reticence around talking about taking the job. She asks you about it, and you've gone straight to winning the cup with Dundalk.
SK: My reticence around taking the job? I had no reticence about taking the job.
PK: No, your reticence about talking about it.
SK: Oh, right, okay, I hadn't considered that. I'm not reticent about talking about it.
PK: That was the impression I got.
SK: No, no.
PK: Okay, I'll move on. This next clip is from a substantive interview you did with Eamon Dunphy on his podcast ('The Stand') last year:
"Stephen, you've had an amazing career as a coach, not just here but also in Scotland, but let me talk to you about your origins . . . you come from Tallaght?"
"Yes, Eamon and . . . emmm . . . nice to meet you, eventually. And thanks for inviting me on your show. I do come from Tallaght, yeah. I was born in Millbrook Lawns in Tallaght in 1971."
"Yeah, Robbie Keane is from out that way. It's a great football . . ."
"Yeah, a great football town . . . and obviously, in the recent football history of the Irish team, Richard Dunne (and) Robbie Keane were the big players. Damian Duff is not from too far away."
PK: The first line is what interests me . . .
"You come from Tallaght?"
"Yes, Eamon and . . . emmm . . . nice to meet you, eventually."
That word, 'eventually'.
SK: Why is that word significant?
PK: I'm asking you.
SK: I don't know, maybe you can elaborate.
PK: Okay, it's your first time to meet Eamon Dunphy, an iconic figure in Irish football. Right?
SK: Actually, no I met him in a butcher's once.
PK: A butcher's?
SK: I was supplying meat to a butcher's in Baggot Street and met him there.
SK: I don't know. I'm terrible for dates. It would have been my early 20s.
PK: When you were still playing?
PK: So what happened?
SK: I think what happened was, Dave Fanning was covering the (radio) slot for Gerry Ryan that morning and he happened to mention Eamon. And Keith, the butcher, was in a band I had seen, and we were talking about it when Eamon came in.
PK: He didn't know who you were?
PK: And that was your only previous time to meet him?
SK: I think so.
PK: You should have told him. It would have made for great radio: 'Eamon, we've met before, let me remind you. We were in this butcher's and . . .'
PK: So the interview was the first time really?
PK: How did the reality measure up to your expectation?
SK: I had no expectation, to me it wasn't . . . I had read Only A Game? many years ago and liked it, the rawness of it, the ruthlessness of the existence, his take on that ruthlessness, and how ruthlessly he thought himself. It was an interesting read. But I haven't read his book on U2, or Roy Keane. I'm not a prolific reader.
PK: But you've obviously followed him over the years?
SK: Yeah, but I haven't always agreed with him. Eamon is a football man, so you agree or disagree, but (meeting him) wasn't overly significant. And I haven't analysed the fact that I come across tentatively, initially, in interviews, or what 'eventually' means.
PK: I'll try to explain it: You are sitting here, talking to me, in a broad Dublin accent. You are the most successful League of Ireland manager of all time. But it seems to me that for your whole life you've been essentially an outsider. And I think that applies to a lot of League of Ireland people - they are viewed, essentially, as outsiders.
PK: You haven't gone away! You haven't done it in England! You're nobody!
PK: But it's even more acute with you because it goes to the core of who you are: Success at Longford - you're an outsider. Success at Derry - you're an outsider. Success at Dunfermline - you're an outsider. Successful at Dundalk - you're an outsider. You were adopted - you are an outsider. 'Eventually' you meet Dunphy - you are an outsider.
SK: (chuckles) I've never thought of it like that.
PK: How have you thought of it?
SK: I don't know, you're never the best judge of yourself I suppose but . . . emmm, I think I've achieved things mainly through hard work. I'm focused and driven to achieve things. I've sacrificed a lot.
PK: What's driving you?
SK: Different reasons, a determination to be the best I can be; to continually improve myself and raise the standards of (my) teams. It's not just about results for me, and never has been. It's hugely important that people connect with the team, that they relate to the team and are inspired by it; that the players go and display the full extent of their talent without fear; that they have the conviction to fulfil that talent and their potential.
PK: What does that tell me about you?
SK: I don't know.
PK: Does everything come back to football? Does everything about your identity relate to football?
SK: No, it can't all relate to football.
PK: Who are you? Have you thought about that?
SK: That's a tough question.
2 Michael and Marie
"You lost your dad in 2014?"
"And that, first of all, must have been very, very hard. But it also led to a bit of family research?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"Tell us about that?"
"Yeah . . . No. Listen, my mother and father raised me brilliantly, in terms of a very content family life. But yeah, they adopted me at a young age and it's something that I've sort of pursued and tried to find my origins. And I suppose that accelerated when my dad died."
- Marian Finucane,
Saturday, December 1, 2018
PK: Tell me about your parents?
SK: They were both from Ballyfermot: Michael was my dad and Marie is my mum. Dad worked for O'Gorman's in Ranelagh, a pork and bacon manufacturer, then went out on his own later on. Mam was a housewife and was into sport. She took up badminton in her 40s and played at a good level.
PK: You told Marian a great story - that you'd come home from school for your lunch and play table tennis with her.
SK: Yeah, on a round table with a net.
SK: Good games though, good games. I'd really look forward to them, she would as well. She wouldn't give you an inch.
PK: She sounds like a great woman.
SK: Yeah, she used to go to all my matches.
PK: More so than Michael?
SK: Dad was a snooker player. He'd go to the games as well but wasn't a massive football fan.
PK: He wasn't shouting on the touchline?
SK: No, he never influenced a decision in my life.
PK: With regard to what? What you wanted to do? Who you wanted to be?
SK: Anything. He would encourage you to make your own decisions, and form your own opinion. He wouldn't try to tell you what to do.
PK: Was your mum more influential?
SK: No, not really. I was very single-minded from a young age and made my own decisions - good or bad. The only time my dad ever (intervened) was when I was playing with Home Farm in the first division and went to Tallaght Town as the player-manager. He said: "What are you doing? You're throwing it all away! Go and play." And because he never voiced his opinion I had to listen.
SK: But I just said: "It's what I want to do."
PK: What about your siblings?
SK: Robert, Tracy and Alan. I was the eldest.
PK: Were you all adopted?
SK: No, the youngest, Alan, wasn't.
PK: At what stage did you find out you were adopted?
SK: We would have been fairly young.
PK: How young is fairly?
SK: Well, at communions and things like that they would have brought us back to the home.
PK: The home?
SK: To see the nuns that had given us up.
PK: How long did you spend with the nuns before you were adopted?
SK: A couple of months.
PK: Why would they take you back?
SK: I think they were just grateful to the nuns for providing the adoption. It was just . . . respect, thanks. "Look at our family. Look what we have." That kind of thing.
PK: Again, I'm trying to pinpoint when you found out?
SK: I can't pinpoint a day. We were young enough. It was all very open. We were told we were special and that was it.
PK: You told Marian: "I wasn't one of those angry kids who was adopted."
SK: Yeah, I was curious all right, but you feel a loyalty to your parents and you don't want to be going searching. And then you get busy with your own life, but you're always curious.
PK: Did you feel different?
SK: Emmm, I don't know about different . . . Listen, I had great parents.
PK: I'm not asking you to judge them.
SK: No, you are curious. You do wonder. And you do have questions, but I wouldn't like to place too much significance on it. I was adopted. It wasn't that big a deal, but it was funny. I was tall with black hair, and Robert was small with blond hair.
PK: And does that register as a kid?
SK: No, but that's just the nature of it.
PK: Where did you go to school?
SK: Old Bawn Community School . . . I actually got a call from them yesterday - they want me to write an article for their 40th year (celebrations).
PK: Are you going to do it?
SK: Of course.
PK: What will you say?
SK: I normally write my own pieces - I insist on writing my own pieces - but I told them that for something like that, it was probably better I was interviewed or had someone ask me questions.
SK: (laughs) I wouldn't know where to start.
PK: Are they positive memories?
SK: Yeah, I was involved in a lot of sport. I played badminton, table tennis, a bit of basketball, captained the Gaelic team, the football team, so a lot of sport, although we weren't this 'great sports school' that won loads. It was all lads you got on with, and played with.
PK: Was there a 'stigma' to growing up in Tallaght?
SK: At the time, yeah. You couldn't put it on a job application, but there were a lot of advantages too. We used to cycle a lot in the summers up to Lord Massey's and the Hellfire Club and through the Dublin mountains. But Tallaght in the '80s was what it was. I mean, it wasn't that I didn't have an aspiration to go to college . . . well, I didn't, but I actually didn't know anyone who was in college.
SK: Yeah. Siobhan went to Tallaght Community School and they announced one day over the intercom - and I'm not being disrespectful - that one of the girls had got a job as an air hostess. That was a real . . .
PK: Big deal?
PK: Were you good in school?
SK: I was okay, not exceptional, there was better than me. I liked English and geography and history but my mechanical reasoning isn't good. I'd be hopeless at metalwork and things like that . . . (laughs) although my first job was as an aluminium fabricator!
PK: Did any books make an impact?
SK: Mam and dad weren't readers, so there wasn't a culture of books in the house. I had an English teacher, Martin McGovern, who was interesting. He was a bit of a maverick and didn't always follow the syllabus but he would challenge you and encourage debate. I did my best and got a moderate Leaving Cert but there was no CAO form or 'What college are you going to?' It was more: 'Does anyone want to try for the guards?' That was a big thing.
PK: How did you meet Siobhan?
SK: We met at local disco. I was 17, she was 18, and we had both left school and were working. I was in a factory making aluminium doors called APA - Aluminium Profile Accessories - on the Long Mile Road. Siobhan was on an assembly line at Packard Electric, a big employer in Tallaght at the time, but went on to work in IT, and was managing a team of engineers before she gave it all up with the four kids.
PK: How long did you stay at APA?
SK: I was there a while. I was on the factory floor one day and the sales manager, a sort of posh lad called Dave Dubarry, was walking by and I went over to him in my overalls and said: "I want to work in sales." Because I'd heard someone had left. So he organised an interview and gave me the job.
PK: You don't strike me as a salesman.
SK: It wasn't sales, really, it was more customer service. I went and studied marketing at night and was going to do a degree . . . behavioural science . . . Pavlov . . . statistics . . . all that stuff. I did a year and would have pursued it, but my dad wasn't well with his business, so I made a decision to go with that for a while, cooking high-quality ham and supplying delicatessens and pubs and shops.
PK: Did you enjoy that?
SK: I enjoyed the challenge.
PK: But it wasn't going to be enough?
SK: No. The health authorities came in and were cracking down on small businesses and (imposing) European standards, so I would have had to really go for it and get a big industrial unit. And we looked at a few when I was at Longford but in the end football management was what I chose.
3 'Where do you stand?'
"Okay, take me through the process of what happened next. You returned to the hotel and had a meeting with Mick. Was that your call or his call?"
"You told him you wanted to see him?"
"And what happened?"
"I told him I'd had enough."
"And how did he respond?"
"Are you sure, blah, blah, blah. And I said yeah."
- Interview with Roy Keane,
May 26, 2002
PK: Let's talk about the game. How important was football growing up in terms of your self-esteem?
SK: I don't know, I think I just loved it. I played the other sports, and enjoyed them, but football was my real passion.
PK: How did it start?
SK: As a young fella in Tallaght. Tommy Hayden, the manager, was a painter and decorator and my da's best friend. He used come back to the house on a Sunday night and sing Joe Dolan songs as Dad made sandwiches. He was brilliant. He actually got a couple of gigs!
SK: Then he left, or his circumstances changed, and I went to Bluebell United and had a couple of good years there with the manager, Philip Byrne and Liam Donoghue, good guys. Then I joined Belvedere, which was two buses across the city to Fairview for training, and two buses back.
PK: Where the great Noel O'Reilly was the coach?
SK: Yeah . . . we had a few good years, but no facilities: no dressing rooms, no showers, nothing - just a pitch.
PK: But you loved it?
PK: When did you realise you were good? That you had talent?
SK: Jesus! I'm not trying to portray myself here as an outstanding player. It's funny, I was asked to go into the FAI last week to present two (schoolboy) Dublin teams with their Kennedy Cup medals. They win it almost every year but I said to them: "I'm giving yis these but I played on one of the few Dublin teams that have lost (the Kennedy Cup)."
SK: It was under 14 I think, and we were playing against Cork, and my opposite number in midfield scored twice - that was Roy Keane (laughs). And you probably know this, but I actually played in the game later when he was spotted (by Noel McCabe, a Nottingham Forest scout).
PK: Stay with your own shot at glory and the trial you got at Oxford. They were a big club at the time?
SK: Yeah, Davy Langan was there and Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, and they had just won the (League) Cup. I went with Paul Byrne, who was the best player in the country at the time.
PK: How old were you?
SK: We were young - 15? Ray Houghton gave us a lift to training one day. We were walking and he pulled up in his car. John Aldridge gave me a pair of shorts. We came home after about ten days and Noel (McCabe) called out to the house: "They want you over again," he said. "They want to sign you." My mother wasn't happy. "You're very young. You should be finishing school." But I was my own man, even then, and they wouldn't have stood in my way.
PK: That has to affect your attitude to school?
SK: I don't know, maybe, but in the meantime Maurice Evans, the manager (at Oxford), lost his job and it fell through.
PK: So you didn't go?
SK: No, but it wasn't that big a deal.
PK: Of course it's a big deal! You're from Tallaght. It's the '80s. You want to be a footballer. Oxford United, a big team, want to sign you. That's a big deal.
PK: Did it feel like you had failed?
SK: I don't know. Emm (exhales) . . . You're asking me to analyse stuff I haven't thought about in years. Yeah, it was a setback. I was desperate to go. And people kept asking: "When are you going back?" So it was a big disappointment, yeah.
PK: Two years later, you're still at Belvedere and playing against Roy again in that famous game in Fairview Park.
PK: Were you surprised he went on to the career he had?
SK: Well, it was remarkable to be playing him in Fairview and then, two months later, to be watching him making his debut at Anfield. That was amazing. For me, he was the best player in our age group, that was my opinion, but when he was playing in Anfield two months later! No, I didn't see that happening.
PK: What were you thinking? How did that make you feel? That it was still there for you: "If he can do it, I can do it."
SK: No. I don't know whether I thought that.
PK: I get a sense from you that the ship had sailed?
SK: Well, I was 19, and not a lot of people were going at that age . . . though, funnily enough, the one who went the year before was Kenny Cunningham. He played with Tolka Rovers and was a year older than me, and got a move to Mick McCarthy at Millwall. He had a great career. I have great respect for him.
PK: Where did you stand on Saipan?
SK (laughs): I don't know, listen . . .
PK: You fucking do know. Everyone has a view on Saipan.
SK: I'm not fudging the question.
PK: You are fudging the question.
SK: I'm not. Life isn't black or white, and I don't see it as black or white the way you do.
PK: (laughs) That's presumptuous of you.
SK: No, I don't know you, but just the way you've been talking . . . you draw very clear lines on stuff.
PK: I've listened to everybody - and I mean everybody - in Irish football talking about Saipan. I've never heard anyone say "I don't know."
SK: No, it's . . .
PK: Will I name some of them for you? Liam Brady - 'Mick'; John Giles - 'Mick'; Eamon Dunphy - 'Roy'. Where did Stephen Kenny stand?
SK: (exhales) Where did I stand? Well, obviously you were there and did the interview at the time, so you know the detail. I haven't read the books since . . .
PK: Even that's a surprise to me.
SK: Yeah, I know.
PK: Why would you read about Jim Larkin and not Roy Keane?
PK: It's your business. Football is your business. You're a man who leaves no stone unturned but you don't read about things that can inform you as a manager?
SK: Hmmm. Maybe I just deduct my own opinions on stuff. I don't know. I honestly can't give a definitive answer on why I haven't read that book. I should have read it, right? Is that okay?
PK: Sure. Now, are you going to give me an answer on where you stood?
SK: Yeah, listen, I think standards need to be raised, there's no doubt about that. I also think, when I was (manager) at Tallaght Town, I was with this guy, Paddy Dempsey. He won an FAI Junior Cup with Neilstown, tough as anything, but great values on the game. I was managing the Saturday team, and he was managing the Sunday team, and whenever we sat down to agree something - because I was looking to take over the whole thing - he'd say: "Yes Stephen, but there can only be one supremo."
SK: And that stuck with me, because there can only be one supremo. The manager makes the decisions and that's it, but . . . where did I stand on Saipan? I don't know enough about it in terms of the intricacy of who said what, so I'm not going to side with one or the other. And I know you want me to, and that you think I'm fudging it, but unless you're part of the inner circle you don't know.
PK: So what planet were you on when all of this was happening? When the newspapers were being published? When the interviews were being done? When every Tom, Dick and Harry was on radio giving an opinion?
SK: Yeah, I know there were versions but . . .
PK: No, seriously, where were you in 2002?
SK: I honestly don't know where I was. . . I'm giving you the impression now that I'm completely disorganised, amn't I?
PK: You are. In fact, I'm starting to worry that we've made a catastrophic mistake by appointing you as the next manager. It's unbelievable! You can't remember anything! You've no fucking opinions on anything! Why would I want to play for you?
(He looks at me, wounded.)
PK: That was a joke, obviously.
SK: It's wrong to say I haven't opinions on stuff.
PK: You were managing Bohemians in 2002.
SK: Was I? Yeah. That was a great (Ireland) team, and I loved watching (that World Cup). Obviously, to lose the penalty shoot-out was very disappointing. How good would we have been with Roy in the team? I don't know. It's all . . .
PK: Were you writing for the match programme at Bohemians?
SK: Yeah, some of the time.
PK: So if I go back and dig them out I'll find an opinion there?
SK: No, we wouldn't have been playing through a World Cup but, one of the other things Paddy Dempsey used to say (laughs) - I can't believe I'm quoting him twice - was: "Always pick your best players. Don't fall out with them over anything, and if you do - pick them, and sort it out later."
PK: So you're giving me both sides of the argument: standards have to be raised and always pick your best players.
PK: And there's never a line? I can do whatever I want, Stephen Kenny will still pick me?
SK: No, I'm giving the wrong impression there. You have to be in control of what you are doing. You create an environment where people can flourish and do well, but you have to understand that not everyone is going to get on. I'm not sitting here thinking: 'I'm working with Mick McCarthy now, so I'm going to fudge this.' Or 'I grew up playing with Roy.' I have respect for both of them.
SK: Mick McCarthy did a great job in that period. And you don't achieve what Roy achieved without demanding high standards of yourself and everyone around you. I have respect for both points of view. I don't know what went on, it looked like something that had been (brewing) for years. It is not straight forward . . . Listen, I need to go to the toilet.
4 Darkest Hour
Alex Smith enjoyed a special relationship with the Tennent's Scottish Cup. The President of the Scottish Managers and Coaches Association is the only man to have led two non-Old Firm clubs - St Mirren in 1987 and Aberdeen in 1990 - to success in the country's oldest competition. While understandable proud of that record, however, it's his considered opinion that a victory for Stephen Kenny's Dunfermline over Gordon Strachan's Celtic at the national stadium this afternoon would constitute the greatest feat in the tournament's 133-year history.
- Ewing Grahame,
The Telegraph, May 26, 2007
PK: You set out to be a player but end up as a manager. Brian Kerr wrote a piece about the transition in November 2016: "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."
SK: Yeah, I don't know . . . see going back to my days in school, even when I was 14, I'd be thinking about the team or the system we should play.
SK: I'd be writing it down.
PK: Analysing it?
SK: Yeah, or the manager at Bluebell would ask: 'What do you think Stephen?' I was always giving my opinion (smiles), although it's probably hard for you to connect with that. You're looking at me thinking: 'This guy is very reticent. He's reluctant to say anything.'
PK: (laughs) No, I've asked you a question and you've given me an answer - keep going. You're saying the inclination to manage was always there?
SK: Yeah. I played with Pat's under Brian for a year or two, the League-winning team, but I couldn't get in the team and went back to Bluebell for a year. There was a seven-a-side tournament in Ballyfermot at the time, 'The Black Diamond.' It was one of those tournaments with a three-in-one stereo each for the winners (laughs). I got a few of the lads at Bluebell together, entered a team and we got to the final. I was player-manager and got such a buzz I thought: 'This is what I want to do.' And I know that sounds bizarre but that's kind of . . .
PK: How it started?
SK: Yeah. I went to Tallaght (Town) and the goal was to get them to the League of Ireland. There were 100,000 people living in Tallaght; the League was getting crowds of two/three thousand and I believed we had the potential to be bigger than that. I invited the 11 best players in the region around to my house and gave them a cup of tea: "Right!" I said. "We're going to win three promotions. We're going to the League of Ireland. We'll get the investment. This is where we're from!" I had a vision for what I wanted.
PK: To get the local people behind you and take Tallaght to the League of Ireland?
PK: And beyond that? Was there a 'grand' ambition?
SK: I never had a career ambition. It was never: 'This is the starting point, and this is where I want to end up.'
PK: You didn't?
SK: No, the only time I had that was when I went to Dunfermline. I thought: 'If I do well here, my next move is to the north east of England.' I liked the idea and the challenge of the north east of England, working-class cities, teams that hadn't been successful in years, but there was no strategic plan. That's probably why I've ended up all over the place.
PK: We could follow that path, and chart your success, but it's not the winning that shapes you it's the losing, and I'm more interested in this passage from your programme notes at Dundalk: "I live my life by the adage 'don't let the setbacks set you back' - it is imperative to have the courage of your convictions in your darkest hour." So let's talk about the setbacks.
PK: The month is May 2007 and you're walking out at Hampden Park in front of 49,000 people to play Celtic in the Scottish Cup final.
PK: Six months after taking the job?
SK: It was the first offer I'd had (to manage abroad) and I jumped at it. The first thing I did was read Jock Stein's autobiography. Did I tell you that?
SK: He'd been at Dunfermline in the '60s, won the Cup and kept Dunfermline up. I was influenced by that, but his situation wasn't as perilous as mine - he'd (inherited a team) down the bottom half of the table, I was marooned! But I thought: 'I'd love to achieve that.'
PK: This is a quote from Alex Smith on the morning of the game: "If Dunfermline manage to win it then they'll have beaten Hearts, Hibs, Celtic and Rangers and that would be a magnificent achievement. In fact, you'd have to say it was the best cup win ever."
PK: That has to have been the summit?
SK: Yeah, because we had (just) won the FAI Cup with Derry and I remember
Declan (Devine), who was with me at the time saying: “We’re going to be the first to win the Irish and the Scottish Cup in the same year! No one will ever do that again. And we’re going to beat all of Glasgow and all of Edinburgh to do it!”
SK: And we said that to the players: “We’re fuckin’ taking on the whole of Glasgow and the whole of Edinburgh. These are institutions, not just football clubs!” But we lost, ultimately.
PK: And then you lost your job.
SK: Yeah, just a few months later.
PK: Here’s the report from the Daily Record on December 5, 2007: “Stephen Kenny was sacked in the middle of a tub-thumping oratory aimed at restoring morale to his troubled Dunfermline squad. The Irishman ended up on the verge of tears when chairman John Yorkston knocked on the door of the Jock Stein Suite yesterday to tell him his time was up — less than 24 hours after he was assured the board still had faith in his abilities.”
SK: What can I add to that? Listen, I was very young going in there; I don’t think anyone could have kept them up. Perhaps a more pragmatic manager, a Sam Allardyce, might have said: “Right, forget about the Cup! Let’s get our back four sorted and grind our way out of this.” But that’s not how I was thinking. I thought: ‘How can we have a progressive team?’
PK: Is there a lesson in that?
SK: There is a lesson — you have to think more pragmatically — but I’m not sure I want to learn it. I followed Jock Stein and tried to win the Cup . . . but there’s only one Jock Stein (laughs). When you win, people don’t say, “Well, I should have been more pragmatic”, but you can always say it when you come up short. Listen, I definitely made mistakes while I was there, but I was only 35, and I’m a different personality now.
PK: You return to Derry City for another four years before moving to Shamrock Rovers, or as Dunphy says, “The big job in Irish football.”
SK: Derry shaped me a lot. It’s an amazing city. I loved it.
PK: What was it you loved?
SK: I liked the people.
PK: You’re from Dublin.
SK: I know.
PK: You don’t like the people of Dublin?
SK: No, I do.
PK: So what do the people of Derry have?
SK: I don’t know, they’re very proud of their city and quite isolationist in the way they think. They’re detached from Belfast, detached from Dublin . . .
PK: They’re outsiders?
SK: Yeah, a little bit (laughs). Yeah, very much so, and I used that (their history) to galvanise the whole thing. I liked managing the club . . . no, it was more than that, I loved it. I loved the club. They tell you all the time on these coaching courses, “Don’t ever fall in love with a club.” But I did. I found it difficult to leave.
PK: But it’s the nine months at Rovers that really shapes you. You told Dunphy it was “the lowest moment” of your life.
SK: Did I?
PK: Yeah, do you want to hear the clip?
SK: No, it’s okay.
PK: Tell me about your darkest hour?
SK: It was a funny time for me. I had moved back to the house in Lucan, Siobhan and the kids were going to join me once the school years were sorted, and I got a phone call this night at the office in Rovers. A good friend, perhaps my closest friend, had taken his own life. It was a massive shock to me. He was such a great character, good fun and very outgoing, and seemed the least likely guy to do such a thing. We had a match against Cork the following evening, live on RTÉ.
PK: This is after you got the news?
SK: Yeah. We had won our first four games and Tony O’Donoghue was interviewing me on the sideline and I’m just . . .
PK: Not there?
SK: Not there. To be fair to the chairman of Rovers at the time, he said, “Take some time off and go home.” But this job doesn’t stop. I had missed three confirmations and two communions but had never missed a match.
PK: Was that not a mistake?
SK: It’s a good question. What would it take for you to miss a match? Yeah, it probably was a mistake.
(He pauses and his face cracks with emotion.)
SK: I’ve never spoken about this before, and I’m not presenting it as an excuse for what happened at Rovers, but it had a huge impact on me as a man, and my demeanour in the job. I was on my own. My wife and children were in Donegal. My friend was gone. It knocked the stuffing out of me, and the joy out of everything.
PK: Tell me about how it ended at Rovers? You’re in a service station near Lusk and you get a call?
SK: That’s . . . awkward.
SK; You have to sign these things that forbid you from talking.
PK; Non-disclosure clauses?
PK: You took a case against them?
SK: I didn’t take a case as such . . . things were settled.
PK: You get the call. What happens next?
SK: I drove back to (the ground in) Tallaght and said: “Listen, you’re making the wrong decision.” I only lost four matches at Rovers. We’d had a bad spell, saw it out, and were unbeaten in 11 or 12 when we lost one-nil to Bohs. Now we had drawn a few, but it was our first defeat in a while so I didn’t think it would happen. I thought I had seen it out but the decision was made and there’s nothing you can do. It’s on social media before you know it and the kids are hearing about it in school.
PK: “The lowest moment of my life.”
SK: Yeah, probably over the next few weeks because I’ve never been out of work, and I’m not sure I’d be great (laughs) . . . Jesus! This is going to be a bleak interview! It’s all about my failures! You’ll have to call the Samaritans after this.
PK: It’s the first time you’ve questioned yourself: ‘What am I doing? What have I inflicted on my family? What’s it all about?’
SK: Yeah. Do I want to keep placing the control of my destiny in other people’s hands? I didn’t initially think I’d take the Dundalk job — it’s a border town, astroturf pitch, facilities were poor, not everyone loves Dundalk. But people connected with the team over time, not because of the trophy count and what they won, but because of the way they played, particularly during the European run.
PK: That must have felt pretty satisfying after your experience at Rovers?
SK: Yeah, it was.
PK: A validation?
SK: Yeah, absolutely. When I finished up at Rovers I was at my lowest ebb and then I realised: ‘I don’t care what people think anymore. I know as much about this as anyone in the field.’ And that probably sounds vain but I decided that whatever anyone thought in the future was irrelevant.
PK: You were going to be you?
PK: Whatever you thought was best was going to be enough?
SK: Enough. And with absolute conviction. So I’m less influenced now by what other people have to say. I have total belief in myself and unless you have that you are not going to succeed, because it’s an absolutely ruthless business.
5 Waiting for Godot
Kevin Kilbane: “If you’re looking for an immediate response to a manager when he walks into the dressing room, Mick McCarthy would grab you more than Stephen Kenny. I am telling you right now that would be the case.”
Joe Molloy: “Did Brian Kerr suffer with that?”
Kevin Kilbane: “Yes. Yes he did. And it kills me to say (that) because I have so much respect for (Brian) and what he brought to me . . . but there was an element of that around the dressing room.”
Joe Molloy: “I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that. I would think any Premier League or Championship player would be ‘iffy’ about a League of Ireland manager.”
Kevin Kilbane: “Callum O’Dowda and Harry Arter and lads that have grown up in England will not know who Stephen Kenny is. I’m telling you that right now.”
— ‘Off The Ball’,
November 21, 2018
PK: It’s more than a year since you did the interview with Dunphy and he asks, right at the end: “Would you manage the Irish team? If that job came up tomorrow you’d have to apply.” But he doesn’t wait for an answer. He says, “I know that’s an unfair question,” and moves on.
SK: When someone is in a job — and Martin O’Neill was in the job — you have to have respect for their position. And when I’m in a job, out of respect for the people in Dundalk, I’m not going to tout for another job. So you can’t answer those questions sometimes.
PK: But the way he phrased it was perfect: “Would you manage the Irish team? If that job came up tomorrow you’d have to apply.”
SK (laughs): I’m not sure there’s an application process but, yeah, of course you would. It’s the ultimate to manage your country.
PK: When did it enter your radar as a realistic goal?
SK: I never thought it was realistic in the short term. I thought: ‘I’m going to have to go to the UK or get similar results in the Europa League again.’ Then, on the day of the Denmark game, I took Niamh (daughter) and my youngest fella (Eoin) for some food (near the ground) and I’ve been to a lot of matches but the atmosphere was just incredible.
SK: The level of passion and the sense of Irishness was incredible, and it just struck me as I was walking in that it was what I really wanted; that I’d love to be managing an Ireland team playing in an expansive way. I think people would really connect with that.
PK: But isn’t the unspeakable truth that they connect with success?
SK: Maybe so.
PK: Martin wasn’t expansive. His team weren’t playing that way, and yet you walked into that ground and felt that passion and longing and Irishness?
SK: Yes, I accept your point. They say once you get the results people don’t care, but I think when (the game) is played a certain way they get even more joy. Can we achieve that? Because there’s a lot of scepticism that we don’t have the players, but (for me) it’s a state of mind. Players, ultimately, want to play that way. Supporters want to see it played that way. And I know I’ll be defined by results but I’m confident, whether I succeed or fail, that I’m not going to compromise.
SK: And that’s it.
PK: How did it happen? How did you get the job?
SK: (Long pause.)
PK: They wanted you initially to take the under 21s?
PK: But you weren’t sure about sacrificing what you had in Dundalk?
SK: Yeah, especially given the opportunity that existed with the Europa League this year, and the Champions League. That was a big thing.
PK: So you weren’t going to take the under 21 job?
SK: I have to be careful about the process and how I speak.
SK: Well, I just don’t want to be disrespectful of anyone.
SK: Listen, it was a big honour to be offered the under 21 job, a huge honour, but it goes without saying that it was the senior job I wanted. Would I have taken the position straight away? Of course I would, but I wasn’t offered it. Mick was offered it and I’ve huge respect for Mick.
PK: Give me a bit more on the nuts and bolts of the deal. Were you told, “We’re giving it to Mick and you can have it next or . . .” How did that work?
SK: I’m not going to go through it step by step.
PK: Why not?
SK: It’s private business, and it affects other people.
PK: How many men have managed the Republic of Ireland football team?
SK: I don’t know.
PK: You’ve no idea?
PK: Try naming them going backwards.
SK: Well, obviously Martin O’Neill, Giovanni Trapattoni, Stephen Staunton, Brian Kerr, Mick McCarthy, Jack Charlton, Eoin Hand . . . was there someone between Eoin Hand and John Giles?
PK: Alan Kelly, for one match.
PK: There’s two more?
SK: Liam Tuohy was one and was it Mick Meagan?
PK: Well done. How many have you met or spoken to?
SK: I spoke to Liam Tuohy a couple of times but not in any major way. I know Eoin Hand.
PK: Have you met Giles?
SK: I only really met John for the first time this year.
PK: Go on.
SK: I had a cup of coffee with him.
PK: Go on.
SK: What do you mean go on?
PK: How did the coffee happen? What was it about?
SK: He’s obviously someone I have great admiration for — a great player, and a man with great values on the game — and he wrote this big piece in the Herald saying that watching Dundalk had restored his faith in Irish football.
PK: That’s a fair tip of the hat coming from Giles.
SK: Yeah, and a mutual friend suggested we should grab a cup of coffee, and that was it really.
PK: Where did you meet?
SK: A place near Stephen’s Green.
PK: How much time did you spend with him?
SK: There was nothing deep and meaningful, we were just chatting about football, but it was interesting. He asks questions that are thought-provoking.
PK: Was the job on the radar at that stage?
SK: Not at all.
PK: It wasn’t mentioned?
PK: Was there a subsequent conversation about it?
SK: Not about the senior job.
PK: You obviously know Brian pretty well?
SK: He was at my father’s funeral. He’s been someone to speak to at various times in my career. I don’t see him that much, apart from awards things or when he’s covering matches, but he’s someone you know will be there for you at the low points.
PK: You were at Bohs when he got the Ireland job?
SK: I probably was.
PK: Did you send him a message?
SK: I probably did.
PK: Were you happy for him?
PK; Did you follow him in the job?
SK: From a tactical/technical point of view?
SK: I don’t know if I did. I wanted him to do well but I was focused on my own stuff.
PK: I’m not sure anyone has ever wanted it more than when Brian got the Ireland job.
SK: Is that right?
PK: You don’t agree?
SK: It’s not something I’ve ever discussed with him.
PK: I’m interested in your opinion.
SK: Hmmm . . . hard to say. Mick captained Ireland in the World Cup. Did he want it more than Mick? Martin O’Neill grew up in County Derry. What did it mean to him? It’s too easy to say that.
PK: Would you agree that it nearly broke him?
SK: It was probably Brian’s first real disappointment but I have to be careful when I say that. It’s not fair for me to say that. Have I studied Brian? Yes. Have I studied Eoin? Yes. Have I studied Jack? Yes. Have I studied Mick? Yes. What have I taken from it? I’ve taken a lot. Do I have all the answers? No. Am I ready for the criticism and all the analysis? Yes, I’m ready for that. I know it changes your life and it’s harder on your family but that’s not to be feared. It’s to be embraced.
PK: I’m going to play you a recent clip from Off The Ball.
(He listens to Molloy and Kilbane. A long pause ensues.)
SK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard that.
PK: And you were hurt?
SK: (smiles) No, because that’s a weakness, you shouldn’t be affected by criticism.
PK: We both don’t believe that.
SK: Well, maybe when it’s about your personal character it’s different. I remember Emmet Malone (The Irish Times) called me just after that and . . .
PK: I have the piece here: “Asked specifically if he feels he could command respect in an Irish dressing room, he seems genuinely affronted. ‘I absolutely have no doubt about that. I actually find the question quite insulting’.”
SK: Yeah, listen, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Kevin Kilbane is entitled to his opinion, if that’s the way he feels.
PK: But wasn’t the point he was making valid? There was that sense in the dressing room when Brian got the job: ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ And it’s a point I raised with you at the start — if you haven’t done it in England you’re a nobody.
SK: What can I say?
PK: I guess the question is how do you overcome that?
SK: Well, you say that about Brian, but was there complete respect for all of the other managers? I’m not sure. Honestly? That’s an element that doesn’t concern me. I don’t have self-esteem issues. I’m comfortable with who I am. I have no problem walking into a dressing room — any dressing room — and telling people what I expect.
PK: Okay, it doesn’t concern you. Are you mindful of it?
SK: It’s a not issue for me. Honestly. I’m going to go in and show exactly how I want the team to play. I’m going to push players to play exactly how I want them to play. I’m going to say: “This is how we’re going to do it, and we’re going to enjoy doing it.” It’s going to be precise, and it’s going to be detailed. We’re going to try and beat some of the top nations in Europe. Anything else is irrelevant.
PK: What about your relationship with Mick? You only met for the first time last month?
SK: We might have had a chat when I was at Bohs, but it was brief.
PK: What if I suggested you were cut from the same cloth? You’re both ‘people people’. You both have an ability to connect and get the best from people?
SK: Well, it’s hard to find anyone who has a bad word to say about him, that’s my experience of the last few weeks. “Do you know Mick? Ah he’s great.” I’ve had a lot of that.
PK: There have been a lot of reservations about how the dynamics of it are going to work. You’re an ambitious man. He’s and ambitious man. You both want to do well?
SK: Mick is the manager. He’ll have Terry Connor and Robbie Keane with him. I’m not looking to interfere in any way. I need to focus on my own job with the under 21s. Hopefully I can learn from Mick because there are a lot of aspects to international management, but I’m not going to be at every training session or looking to travel with the team. That’s Mick’s domain and to quote Paddy Dempsey again (laughs): “There can only be one supremo.”
PK: How’s the first month gone?
SK: Yeah, it’s different.
PK: Has it changed you so far?
PK: What’s so funny?
SK: I drove home to Siobhan after getting the job: “Where’s the champagne?” I said. She looked at me: “Will you go out and get some coal for the fire?” And I had to go out to the shed.
PK: That’s what happened?
SK: (laughs) Yeah.
PK: That’s great.
SK: So has it changed? No, I’m still going to the shed.
PK: We’ve been sitting here for more than five hours and you’ve only sworn once. That’s a first.
SK: Is it?
PK: Yeah, I’ve interviewed a lot of football people and that’s definitely a first.
SK: (laughs) Is that a positive or a negative?
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