Stephen Kenny pro­file:

Through­out his ca­reer, the Dubliner has made the most of ini­tially mea­gre re­sources

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

Oriel Park, Dun­dalk, a slow Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, June 2017.

Turn­ing left at the Spar on Car­rick­macross Road, a sign on the back of the main stand de­clares you are ap­proach­ing “The Home of Foot­ball”.

On oc­ca­sion, some of them re­cently, lo­cals may have felt that way about Oriel Park, but the ground which first gave soc­cer a home in 1919 looks its age. To make some­thing work here, a man needs tal­ent.

Up­stairs in the empty lounge framed pro­grammes proudly tell the Dun­dalk FC story. There are lots of them: Glas­gow Rangers in 1968, Lin­field in the Eu­ro­pean Cup in 1979 – the se­cond leg of which was played in the Nether­lands due to the trou­ble in Dun­dalk at the first.

That pro­gramme rests be­side a pho­to­graph, taken from above, of Oriel Park in 1953. This black and white ae­rial of Oriel re­veals lit­tle to have changed in 64 years. In walks Stephen Kenny.

Un­der Kenny, then 45, Dun­dalk had won the League of Ire­land ti­tle in the pre­vi­ous three sea­sons and were pre­par­ing for Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fiers against Rosen­borg of Nor­way.

Rosen­borg oc­cupy a 21,000 all-seater sta­dium and a mu­nic­i­pal in­vest­ment sports cul­ture miss­ing in Ire­land. To them Oriel Park will have seemed like a mu­seum piece.

Yet from this set-up, Kenny, his play­ers, in­deed all at Dun­dalk FC were com­pet­i­tive against fi­nan­cially, struc­turally, su­pe­rior Scan­di­na­vians. Over two legs, Rosen­borg could not beat Dun­dalk. It re­quired ex­tra-time in the se­cond leg in Trond­heim for them, fi­nally, to get a win­ner. “Bloody Oriel Park,” Kenny said, in a short burst of hon­est anger af­ter­wards.

Frus­tra­tion

The old sta­dium was not re­ally his tar­get. It was the sym­bol of a greater Kenny frus­tra­tion with do­mes­tic Ir­ish foot­ball and an in­fras­truc­ture some­times barely wor­thy of the name.

This is what we spoke about a few weeks be­fore Rosen­borg, up in the Oriel lounge: for clubs to grow, to re­tain young play­ers or make progress in Europe, Ir­ish foot­ball had to give it­self a chance.

For that to hap­pen, Ir­ish foot­ball had to find some self-re­spect. Kenny did not use the phrase him­self – self-re­spect. What he said was: “Some­times we don’t set the bar high enough our­selves. De­mand more.”

We had never met. Kenny had kindly agreed to con­trib­ute to a book on Ir­ish foot­ball, an­cient and mod­ern, on the topic of the state of the League of Ire­land. I’d been told that he was not your stan­dard-is­sue foot­ball man­ager, that he was some­one who could talk at length about the Stone Roses for in­stance.

But we never got to Sally Cin­na­mon, Kenny was too en­grossed dis­cussing sub­jects such as Paul Byrne, Niall McGinn, the men­tal ge­og­ra­phy of Derry, soup and Utopia. All of which were in­gre­di­ents to help em­pha­sise the main beef – in­fras­truc­ture, money, ex­po­sure.

McGinn was a player Kenny signed in 2008, when he was man­ager of Derry City.

“When we got to the FAI Cup fi­nal,” Kenny ex­plained, “it was held in the RDS. It was a proper match in a proper sta­dium and Niall had a good game.

“Swansea bid £200,000 for him – Roberto Martinez said he would put Niall straight into his team in the Cham­pi­onship. Celtic came in and matched it and he chose to go to Celtic. The point is about pre­sen­ta­tion.”

Un­der­sells

Kenny’s be­lief is that the frame­work of the League of Ire­land un­der­sells its prod­uct – lit­er­ally so in the case of Séa­mus Cole­man, or 60 grand Séa­mus Cole­man as Ever­to­ni­ans sing.

His be­lief is that the set­ting, the back­ground, the en­vi­ron­ment of Ir­ish foot­ball holds it back. His ref­er­ence to McGinn was to show how a venue wor­thy of a player’s abil­ity al­ters the per­cep­tion of the player’s worth, eco­nom­i­cally and as a foot­baller.

He asked: Would Daryl Hor­gan or Andy Boyle have moved from Dun­dalk to Eng­land if they had not been seen in Eu­ro­pean venues?

“They played good matches in good sta­di­ums and got their move,” was his an­swer.

As of last week­end, this leads back to Kenny. He has gone from stages he has had to build him­self or help to re­build – at Tal­laght Town, Long­ford and Dun­dalk – to the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land (FAI). This will frame him dif­fer­ently.

It is a jump, but it is not an in­ap­pro­pri­ate one. Some may have dif­fi­culty see­ing Kenny as an FAI of­fi­cer and fu­ture Re­pub­lic of Ire­land man­ager, but pro­vid­ing the FAI fa­cil­i­tate his en­ergy and en­able him, that view should change.

“How do we make it bet­ter?” Kenny asked that day of the League of Ire­land. “We need to be more cre­ative. There’s a lack of money in­vested in the game, a lack of pro­mo­tion. Poor sta­di­ums, poor fa­cil­i­ties. These things aren’t re­ally con­sid­ered in a ma­jor way. We’ve got the Uefa money here [Dun­dalk]. In Eu­ro­pean cities the lo­cal gov­ern­ment build a lot of the sta­di­ums.”

These, ob­vi­ously, are not the opin­ions of a man­ager sim­ply fo­cused on win­ning the next 90 min­utes. Kenny’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion goes well be­yond that. It has been forged in the ex­pe­ri­ence, 30 years of it now, of Ir­ish foot­ball re­al­ity.

Even amid youth­ful op­ti­mism about what might be for a teenaged mid­fielder in Tal­laght, Kenny demon­strated that aware­ness. He re­wound to the Kennedy Cup of 1989.

“I played for Dublin in that and lost,” he re­called, “and the per­son who caused that was none other than Roy Keane. I was play­ing against him in mid­field and he scored twice.

“Then I played against him for Belvedere against Cobh. We beat them, but two months later he made his de­but for [Not­ting­ham] For­est at An­field.”

Kenny had been in Eng­land him­self: “I played school foot­ball with Blue­bell, all-Ire­land cham­pi­ons, along with Paul Byrne who went to Celtic. We went to Ox­ford United to­gether, when John Aldridge was there. I didn’t sign, Paul did. He was a star, the best player of his age in the coun­try, went on to Arse­nal.

“Fun­nily enough, years later when I was man­ager of Bo­hemi­ans I had to let him go. I said if you’re not go­ing to get fit for Arse­nal or Celtic . . . the flip­side is that I signed his son Kur­tis. Kur­tis played for me here [at Dun­dalk].”

Kenny un­der­stood Keane and Byrne in the con­text of his own lim­i­ta­tions. That’s a coach’s un­der­stand­ing.

He signed for Brian Kerr at St Pa­trick’s Ath­letic, played for Home Farm and then at 22 – not 42 or 62 – founded Tal­laght Town while work­ing in an alu­minium fabri­ca­tion fac­tory.

“I’m from Tal­laght,” he said. “I’d a Utopian idea, Tal­laght had no team in the League of Ire­land and there’s 100,000 peo­ple there. If we could have a team, we could ac­tu­ally be nearly the big­gest club in Ire­land.

“I set up Tal­laght Town, I was 22, player-coach. Paddy Dempsey was the man­ager. We won a few pro­mo­tions. Then Sham­rock Rovers came to Tal­laght, took the club over as its nurs­ery.

Threat­ened

“But they’d all their own peo­ple. I ended up at Long­ford Town. I’m 27. There were a few rails around the pitch, bit of a shed. They’d fin­ished bot­tom of the league. Their very ex­is­tence was threat­ened. They’d have 60 peo­ple at a match.

“It’s a GAA county es­sen­tially and it’s sparsely pop­u­lated, 30,000 [ac­tu­ally 40,000 ac­cord­ing to 2016 cen­sus] spread across the county. Long­ford’s a small town. We brought in young play­ers from re­serve teams. There wasn’t much pay but they’d play.

“We tried to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that peo­ple en­joy and want to be part of. We got pro­moted in our se­cond year. In our third sea­son we were lead­ing the Pre­mier Di­vi­sion for a while, we reached the FAI Cup fi­nal and got into Europe. We were get­ting a few thou­sand then.”

For Eu­ro­pean foot­ball, Long­ford re­con­structed their ground. Kenny laid this foun­da­tion. He went to Bo­hemi­ans and won the league. Then Derry City – he won the cup and the club won in Europe for the first time in 40 years.

“I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by Derry from the out­side look­ing in,” he said, “the only team from the North play­ing in the South. I sort-of un­der­stood their de­tach­ment from Belfast and Dublin – iso­la­tion­ist – their view­point.

“There was talk of an all-Ire­land League. Jim Roddy was a Derry di­rec­tor then and he felt it could hap­pen, he was pas­sion­ate about it. I be­lieved it might hap­pen. I knew Derry was a foot­ball city and what you could achieve there in an all-Ire­land league.

Part-time

“Not that they’d much there then. When I got on the team bus to go to a match at Shel­bourne there were five of us. We met the rest in the ho­tel in Dublin – they didn’t train in Derry. It was real part-time stuff.

“The fol­low­ing year I said that ev­ery­one had to live in Derry, it was all or noth­ing. We lost a few play­ers. It was great, we got into Europe. We won the FAI Cup, the League Cup, lost the league on goal dif­fer­ence. Peo­ple still re­fer to it: ‘You blew it, bot­tled it.’”

Suc­cess brought a move to Dun­fermline in Scot­land. It half-worked. Back to Derry City, then Sham­rock Rovers suc­ceed­ing Michael O’Neill.

Dun­fermline and Rovers: you could call those Kenny’s hard yards, but that would sug­gest it’s been easy else­where. And in late 2012, not long after his 41st birth­day, Kenny ar­rived at Oriel Park.

“It’s raw, Dun­dalk, a bor­der town, gets a neg­a­tive press. But it’s a good place. Fa­cil­i­ties are lim­ited but the raw­ness of the sup­port helped us.

“Dun­dalk won the league in 1995 but in the 19 years after they’d never fin­ished in the top four and had been in the First Di­vi­sion for seven years. They could get 700 then.”

Dun­dalk’s di­rec­tors trav­elled to Done­gal, where their cho­sen Dubliner had set­tled.

“I’d been of­fered the job three times pre­vi­ously and in bet­ter cir­cum­stances. But I was hurt [after Sham­rock Rovers], never been out of work.

“And I’m a fa­ther of four. They came up to the house, said there’s no short­list. I made them soup. They slag me now: ‘What did you put in that soup?’

“It was a blank can­vas but it wasn’t an easy sell. None of the top play­ers in the league would come here, we couldn’t pay them and they wouldn’t com­mute.

“I also wanted to play in a cer­tain way and there was a per­cep­tion that you can’t win a league play­ing that way. That was very im­por­tant. We moulded a team from more or less noth­ing, but I didn’t en­vis­age it would go this well.”

Now, at 47, he has fi­nally achieved of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion. He has long had it from those in­side the league who know the day-to-day dif­fi­cul­ties, the in­evitable short-ter­mism of rel­a­tive poverty. Now Kenny will have the author­ity and power to plan. He will be able to shape a sub­ject he un­der­stands as well as any­one.

Two themes of his ca­reer are de­vel­op­ment and re­newal. Those are qual­i­ties to back and sup­port. He will make mis­takes, ev­ery­body does. But – in­tel­li­gent, aware, Utopian and self-made, and im­mersed in Ir­ish foot­ball – Stephen Kenny has earned the op­por­tu­nity to once again make a dif­fer­ence.

It is a jump (to the Re­pub­lic of Ire­land un­der-21 man­ager’s job), but it is not an in­ap­pro­pri­ate one. Some may have dif­fi­culty see­ing Kenny as an FAI of­fi­cer and fu­ture Re­pub­lic of Ire­land man­ager, but pro­vid­ing the FAI fa­cil­i­tate his en­ergy and en­able him, that view should change In­tel­li­gent, aware, Utopian and self-made, and im­mersed in Ir­ish foot­ball – Stephen Kenny has earned the op­por­tu­nity to once again make a dif­fer­ence

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: LAS­ZLO GECZO/INPHO; STEPHEN MC­CARTHY/SPORTSFILE

Stephen Kenny, the new Re­pub­lic of Ire­land un­der-21 man­ager: the two themes of his man­age­rial ca­reer to date have been de­vel­op­ment and re­newal. In­set: Kenny with Mick Mc­Carthy at the launch of the the Na­tional Foot­ball Ex­hi­bi­tion in Dublin Cas­tle last night.

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