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Ex-Nottingham Forest defender takes local club to the promised land after being given 48 hours to live

With a team largely made up of players from the area, Keith Foy has turned Kilnamanagh’s fortunes around since returning to his former side three years ago.

Kilnamanagh's first team.
Kilnamanagh's first team.
Image: Leslie Evans

WHEN KEITH FOY returned to his local side in September 2017, they were in a spot of trouble. 

Having spent 16 consecutive years in the Leinster Senior League’s Senior Division 1B, Kilnamanagh looked in danger of dropping out of intermediate football after defeats in all of their first five league matches. 

Chairman Johnny Mackin and vice chairman Paddy Ennis made contact with the former Nottingham Forest, Sligo Rovers and Ireland underage full-back — who began his career with the Tallaght outfit as a schoolboy before moving to England — to find out if he would be interested in taking over. 

‘Foyzer’ had recently stepped away from his role at Bluebell United, but agreed to come in and attempt to steady the ship. 

“It was important that they didn’t give up their intermediate status,” the 39-year-old tells The42. “We didn’t want to lose a lot of the homegrown players that the club had worked so hard to develop over the years.

“That was the target initially, but by around March time we thought ‘we have half a chance here’. As it happened, we went on a nice little run and ended up winning promotion on the last day of that season.”

That first achievement showed a glimpse of the club’s potential and also proved to be the catalyst for further success. 

Screenshot 2020-12-18 at 15.55.29 Keith Foy taking notes. Source: Leslie Evans

Kilnamanagh recently earned a third back-to-back promotion, meaning they are currently preparing to compete in the LSL’s top tier — Senior Division Sunday — for the first time in their history. Their Saturday side have also gone up twice in as many seasons. 

Foy and his coaching staff were well aware that they had a strong nucleus of players who were willing to put in the hard graft, but it was clear that the squad needed to be strengthened after the first year and they devised a plan to bring home talented footballers from the local area. 

“We always seemed to talk about players from Kilnamanagh who were playing elsewhere at top clubs — the likes of Crumlin United, Bluebell United, Bangor Celtic and Cherry Orchard,” Foy says. “We lagged behind them and that was a frustration of mine.

I knew there were a lot of lads originally from here who were playing at a good standard. I had to convince them that we were going places and had realistic ambitions to get into the top league. It was a case of improving our team every transfer window and I think we have done that over the last three years.

“The new players added to what we already had. When I came in there were great fellas here, they probably just weren’t being used in the right way. Players like Anthony Hanevy, David Dowling and Keith O’Neill, who have been at the club most of their lives. Many of them are still with us today.”

In Gary McCabe (Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers and Bray Wanderers), Gavin Kavanagh (Cork City, Waterford and Crumlin United) and Karl Coleman (UCD, Shamrock Rovers and Crumlin United), Kilnamanagh managed to entice three players who had experience at a higher level back to their boyhood club.

A Premier Division title and FAI Cup winner, McCabe, in particular, represented a major coup. Last season, Conor Kenna (St Patrick’s Athletic, Shamrock Rovers and Bray Wanderers) and Sean Harding (UCD, Limerick and Bray Wanderers) were two more high-profile additions. In Stephen Kinch and Luke Halpin, they also possessed strikers who had scored goals consistently across the LSL for several years. 

Screenshot 2020-12-18 at 15.56.38 Gary McCabe is a key player for Kilnamanagh. Source: Leslie Evans

League of Ireland stalwart Kenna returned to where it all began and, as well as joining his former club in a playing capacity, he was appointed director of football/coaching to oversee the running of their underage set-up, which is now thriving with boys and girls teams from U7 to U18. Several of the senior players are also involved in developing future generations at ‘the Rockets’. 

“There are a lot of lads putting time back into the club, which will hopefully help in the transition of players from underage to the senior set-up,” explains Foy. 

Some of these fellas have played League of Ireland and won the Premier Division. They are seen as heroes to kids coming down to watch us. It’s great to have that buzz in the area.”

With many of the first-team squad now in their 30s, it is hoped that the schoolboy section can supply a new crop going forward. Foy’s own son Callum, Shane Maguire and Luke O’Reilly have all been tipped to make the breakthrough. 

“We have a good group of young lads coming through from the U18s, probably three or four that stepped up to the plate last season,” he adds. “So it is exciting times.

“Those players don’t have any reason to leave and head elsewhere now as they have top-flight football on their doorstep, so hopefully people will stick around.”

If you pass Ned Kelly Park at any stage of the day, there is a good chance you’ll spot Ennis cutting the grass, maintaining the ground or getting gear ready for training. 

“To be fair to the club, they have worked really hard off the pitch,” Foy adds. “The new astro has helped the past couple of years as we have 40 lads up training some nights, and the old one wouldn’t have been able to cope with that number of bodies.

“So a lot of things are being done right behind the scenes. It makes our job a lot easier that we can just concentrate on coaching and we don’t have to worry about anything else.

“Paddy can never do enough for you. If we’re training at 8, he will be there for 6 to ensure all the footballs are pumped and the bibs and cones are available.”

Screenshot 2020-12-18 at 15.59.05 Paddy Ennis is in his 40th year at the club. Source: Leslie Evans

Ennis, who is celebrating his 40th year with Kilnamanagh, is the type of selfless volunteer that every club would be lucky to have. 

“I’m a jack of all trades,” Ennis says. “I’m not involved in the football side any more. I just make sure everything is clean and looked after, and I treat the U7s the same way I treat the seniors.

“We have really taken off in the last three or four years. Keith has transformed the club — on and off the park — since he has been back and we’ve come on in leaps and bounds. We hadn’t had much success before that but we were a decent club, well-run with a good committee.

This is without doubt the best group of players I’ve ever seen in my time. We would have had a team in the top division for the past 40 years if all the lads from around here stayed at Kilnamanagh.

“The amount of good players in this estate who have gone elsewhere is unbelievable, but now we’re in the Senior Division we can go and knock at their doors. We’re lucky with the squad we have and the underage set-up is going extremely well too.”

Screenshot 2020-12-18 at 16.16.42 Conor Kenna in action against UCD. Source: Leslie Evans

Earlier this year, Foy had a serious health scare ahead of their FAI Intermediate Cup last-16 tie away to Donegal outfit Cockhill Celtic, which they progressed through after a replay before narrowly going out to beaten finalists Killester Donnycarney at the quarter-final stage. 

“It was touch and go at the start of this year,” Foy admits. “At one point, my missus got a call to say I only had 48 hours to live.

“My heart was through the roof, it was pumping at 280 beats per minute. I was very lucky to pull through.”

He spent four months in and out Tallaght Hospital’s ICU, and then had an operation at St Vincent’s back in May. During that period, coaches Brian Kavanagh and Wayne Deans kept the show on the road and thankfully Foy has been able to return to his managerial duties.

Although the Covid-19 has delayed their long-awaited debut in the Senior Division, preparations are in full swing to ensure Kilnamanagh will be ready to hold their own against the big guns whenever the campaign eventually kicks off. 

“We were back training at the start December,” reveals Foy. “I signed everyone who was with us last season, which was my main priority, and added one or two lads who are hungry to test themselves in the top league.

“We have to prepare for the scenario that the season starts at the end of January, but who knows what’s going to happen. The club has been around 42 years and we’ve never been in this position so once we get going it will be a proud moment for everyone involved and the area as a whole.”

Ennis adds: “I was really looking forward to competing in the Senior Division and bringing big crowds in, so the delay has been a bit of a kick in the teeth. The last few years have been great and we’ve been getting people turning up to watch. This is all new to us.”

Screenshot 2020-12-18 at 16.15.11 Keith O'Neill. Source: Leslie Evans

Keith O’Neill is one of their longest-serving players, having spent a large chunk of his playing days there with the exception of spells at Shamrock Rovers (schoolboy, U21s and ‘A’ Championship) and Bangor Celtic as well as a year in Australia.

“Every time we’ve been promoted, people have written Keith off and said it is his last year but he has kept coming back stronger in pre-season and proving them wrong,” his manager says.

He’s been first choice right full-back the last three years and deserves his opportunity in the top league, as do a lot of the lads who have hung around through the hard times.”

At 34, O’Neill is determined to make the most of this opportunity while he still can but believes the foundations are in place for Kilnamanagh to remain in the top echelons of intermediate football for many years to come. 

“The best thing to happen to me was the Covid break, because there was a lot of competition for that place but I went away, put in the work and came back sharper,” he explains. “At the start of this season, I’ll probably be as fit as I’ve ever been.

“We’ve been ticking over and when we start back properly I’m sure it will be a tough couple of weeks, but I’m confident that we will do well in the top division.

“Over the break, I was doing sessions with the U18s and the potential there is immense. I wouldn’t have any doubts that they will be able to hold their own once they get a year or two in senior football under their belts, so the future is bright.”

Originally published at 07.30

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Ben Blake

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