Kenny re­jects idea Ir­ish kick-and-rush

Dun­dalk boss re­veals Euro­pean hopes and de­fends McEleney after failed spell at Old­ham

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Malachy Clerkin:

Even na­ture is playing ball for Stephen Kenny. As Dun­dalk got them­selves ready for the last game of the league against Bo­hemi­ans Fri­day week ago, Kenny found him­self hav­ing to make plans with­out not one but two ex­pec­tant fathers. Chris Shields and Dean Jarvis had to high-tail it to Belfast and Derry re­spec­tively, there to be of what mea­gre as­sis­tance they could when the heavy lift­ing was tak­ing place.

As it hap­pened, the tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter. If you’re go­ing to lose a cou­ple of play­ers to the ma­ter­nity ward at the busi­ness end of the sea­son, you can’t re­ally ask for more than for it to hap­pen after the league has been won and be­fore the cup fi­nal has been played. Even an arch-planner such as Kenny couldn’t have gamed that one out.

“You can go three or four years with­out be­ing told on a match­day that one of your player’s part­ners is ex­pect­ing,” Kenny laughs. “I got two of them in the one day! Both in North­ern Ire­land – Dean is from Derry ob­vi­ously and Chris’s part­ner is from Ban­gor. Never heard of two hap­pen­ing in one day be­fore.”

Though it is a fourth fi­nal against Cork on the bounce, so much has changed since they last went into one as league cham­pi­ons in 2016. Back then, they were fly­ing in from St Peters­burg for the fi­nal, their heads spin­ning from a Euro­pean run that caught ev­ery­one’s imag­i­na­tion, in­side the league and be­yond. The turnover of play­ers since then has been sig­nif­i­cant – Kenny points out that 10 of his cur­rent squad won their first league medal in re­cent weeks.

Be­yond the dress­in­groom, there has been a change at the top of the club as well, an Amer­i­can con­sor­tium hav­ing taken over at the start of the year. Re­gard­less of how hands-on or -off they are, that brings its own pres­sures and adds its own con­text.

New own­er­ship

“We have new own­er­ship and we hadn’t won any­thing for them yet and we cer­tainly, from my point of view, we needed to be win­ning the league,” Kenny says. “Be­cause the best route to suc­cess in Europe is through the Cham­pi­ons League. Our co-ef­fi­cient now is re­ally high for next year. We are now twice seeded in Europe next year.

“We’re seeded in the Cham­pi­ons League first round and we want to get through that, we’re not think­ing neg­a­tively at all. But if we’re knocked out in the sec­ond round, we’re seeded in the third round of the Europa League. So if we win our two matches that we’re seeded in, we’re in a play­off for the Europa League.

“That’s the re­al­ity for us, that’s what we have to be aim­ing at. To get to that point next year where we are playing ev­ery mid­week and week­end. We want those 12 games in that three- or four-month pe­riod. We want those big clubs, the likes of Zenit St Peters­burg and Le­gia War­saw. These re­ally are mas­sive clubs – you have no real idea of the size of them un­til you go to the cities them­selves. That’s our ob­jec­tive, that’s what we’re plan­ning for.

“You have to plan for that nearly in two-year cy­cles. Right from the start of this sea­son, we were aim­ing at a time pe­riod al­most a year from now. Los­ing the leagu e sets you back two years, it def­i­nitely does. Be­cause to re­ally im­prove, you want those nights, you want those oc­ca­sions, you want 33,000 in the Aviva like we had even in the tor­ren­tial rain in 2016. We want more of that. And that’s not im­pos­si­ble.”

Any sug­ges­tion to the con­trary in­vari­ably draws Kenny back to his peren­nial bug­bear – the lack of self-es­teem in Ir­ish soc­cer. He was asked re­cently about Pa­trick McEleney’s failed spell at Old­ham and straight away took is­sue with the in­fer­ence.

“It was, you know, ‘He couldn’t do it for Old­ham so what does that say about the stan­dard here?’ – that kind of thing. Now Pa­trick is prob­a­bly most cre­ative player of his gen­er­a­tion, you know? He’s a bril­liant, bril­liant nat­u­ral tal­ent.

“His ca­reer has been up and down, no ques­tion, but he did very well for us in the Europa League and in win­ning the league that year. At Old­ham, a lot of stuff was go­ing on be­hind the scenes and he wasn’t used prop­erly. He was stuck out on the right of a 4-4-2 and his job was to get in there and com­pete for sec­ond balls.

Too sim­plis­tic

“So when I’m asked about it and the im­pli­ca­tion is that Old­ham is a step up from what we’re do­ing here, well to me that’s far too sim­plis­tic. You’re not tak­ing into ac­count the en­vi­ron­ment the player is playing in.

“I made the point that when you went through the list of English coaches that had a name for playing a pro­gres­sive way, you have Ed­die Howe and then who comes after that? I’m not say­ing that all the other English coaches are wrong or any­thing like that. All I’m ask­ing is why do we as­sume that if a fella goes to Eng­land and doesn’t set the world alight in League Two, it au­to­mat­i­cally says some­thing about where he came from?”

All of which chimes with the song he’s been singing ever since he took over at Long­ford as a 27-year-old in the sum­mer of 1998. Suc­cess is not im­pos­si­ble. Nor is it re­quired for Ir­ish teams to kick-and-rush their way out of any sticky sit­u­a­tion they find them­selves in.

Kenny is adamant that playing the game in a pro­gres­sive, pos­ses­sion-based way is more im­por­tant to him than win­ning. Through­out his ca­reer, he has heard the same old re­frain from per­fectly well-in­ten­tioned peo­ple in the game – it’s all very well to want to get it down and pass it but if you don’t have the play­ers, you don’t have the play­ers. He didn’t ac­cept it 20 years ago and he doesn’t ac­cept it now.

“I just find that at­ti­tude so frus­trat­ing. I can’t com­pre­hend that. Part of our prob­lem is look­ing at what play­ers can’t do rather than what they can. Over the years you hear this phrase – ‘Play foot­ball in the right ar­eas.’ That’s an­other one that I ab­so­lutely hate.

“Re­ally what that means is get it up­field and let your nine and 10 try and do some­thing with it. You should re­ally want to get on the ball in ev­ery area of the pitch, within rea­son. Ob­vi­ously, you don’t take ridicu­lous risks. But cer­tainly you need to take risks and trust your play­ers to be com­fort­able in pos­ses­sion.

“This is what I was say­ing about English foot­ball but I want to be care­ful it doesn’t sound like I’m crit­i­cis­ing any­one in par­tic­u­lar be­cause I’m not. It’s just a thing in the English game, a whole gen­er­a­tion of coaches in­flu­enced by that sort of no-risk foot­ball and play­ers who’ve come through playing that way. They’ve been in­sti­tu­tion­alised in their way of think­ing and they don’t think there’s an­other way. Or they think pay­ers are not ca­pa­ble of an­other way.

Been in­flu­enced

“And we’ve had it here with Jack Charl­ton and it co­in­cided with our most suc­cess­ful ever pe­riod of in­ter­na­tional foot­ball and so peo­ple have been in­flu­enced by it and they think it’s the way we play. They think that suits us, that it’s in our DNA in Ir­ish foot­ball. And I find that of­fen­sive, I re­ally can’t stom­ach that idea. I can’t tell you how much I re­ally dis­like it.”

When you bring up the in­ter­na­tional team in this con­text, he is quick to stress again he isn’t talk­ing about any­one in par­tic­u­lar.

“It’s the mind­set I’m talk­ing about, not any one coach or team or any­thing like that. And I know I have to get bet­ter my­self. I’m not here say­ing I know ev­ery­thing. But there is a dif­fer­ent way. And we can’t be in­doc­tri­nated into think­ing there isn’t. You can be suc­cess­ful playing the right way. It can be done.

“It’s not easy. You’re go­ing to be cut open from time to time. You’re go­ing to give away goals that look aw­ful. You’re go­ing to get pun­ished. We got pun­ished a few times in Europe in 2016 for try­ing to play the way we play. But there’s a greater re­ward.”

Sea­son by sea­son, tro­phy by tro­phy, he has been liv­ing proof of that at least.

‘ ‘ The best route to suc­cess in Europe is through the Cham­pi­ons League. Our co-ef­fi­cient now is re­ally high for next year. We are now twice seeded in Europe next year

‘ ‘ Right from the start of this sea­son, we were aim­ing at a time pe­riod al­most a year from now. Los­ing the league sets you back two years, it def­i­nitely does

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LAS­ZLO GECZO/INPHO

Dun­dalk man­ager Stephen Kenny: “We’re seeded in the Cham­pi­ons League first round and we want to get through that, we’re not think­ing neg­a­tively at all.”

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