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The man balancing the turbulent life of a League of Ireland manager with a Masters in UCD

Shane Keegan chats to The42 about the challenges that await his Galway side this season.

Shane Keegan is set for his first season as Galway manager.
Shane Keegan is set for his first season as Galway manager.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

FOOTBALL MANAGEMENT IS not what it used to be.

Whereas once, someone could get a job purely on the strength of what they had done in the game, increasingly of late, there is more of an emphasis on education and earning coaching badges et cetera.

Prior to football becoming a highly lucrative industry, a legend such as Kevin Keegan or Kenny Dalglish often had little problem finding a job as coach of a top club.

Now, even someone of the calibre of Steven Gerrard is expected to bide his time and spend a few years honing his craft before getting an opportunity to experience first hand, the thrills and spills of this notoriously nerve-racking business.

Consequently, a new breed of manager has become increasingly prevalent — the highly astute and educated tactician with little renown as a player. Most Premier League fans would be hard pressed to name what teams Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho represented as players, yet they are currently among the most famous faces in sport owing to their managerial exploits.

The phenomenon of managers emerging based on coaching rather than playing skills is also increasingly becoming evident domestically.

Stephen Kenny made little impact as a footballer in the League of Ireland with Home Farm, yet his senior coaching career, which he began at the age of 27 with Longford, has been an unequivocal success.

The Dundalk boss is now among the most successful managers in the league’s history — winning three consecutive league titles with the Lilywhites and guiding them to unprecedented success in Europe of late.

Kenny is not an anomaly by any means. Stephen Bradley, an ex-Drogheda, Shamrock Rovers, St Pat’s and Limerick player, was recently confirmed as Shamrock Rovers’ permanent coach at the age of 32.

In addition, current Galway boss Shane Keegan — the second-youngest manager in the Premier Division after Bradley — is another example is another example of someone who has risen despite a lack of renown as a player.

After five seasons with Wexford Youths, he left the club to become Galway’s new manager at the end of the 2016 campaign.

Still only 34, Keegan worked his way up from the “very bottom” of the coaching ladder, starting off managing underage teams.

In 2010, he landed his first noteworthy role, in the SSE Airtricity League with FC Carlow in the A Championship. After impressing during two seasons there, with second and third place finishes, Mick Wallace was convinced he was the right man to guide Wexford Youths, with the chairman and noted politician appointing Keegan to the position of manager in December 2011.

Keegan’s reputation steadily grew thereafter, culminating in 2015, when he guided the Youths to promotion from the First Division.

After securing Premier Division status, Keegan signed his first-ever full-time contract, encompassing the role of coach and Commercial Manager with the Wexford Youths, leaving his job as Advertising Sales Manager with The Leinster Leader in the process — a decision he admitted at the time was a “risk”.

Wexford Youths celebrate winning promotion Shane Keegan guided Wexford Youths to First Division promotion in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Life in the Premier Division, he knew, would be no picnic.

I read Ollie Horgan’s quotes where he said ‘staying in this division and keeping Finn Harps up would be a far greater achievement than actually gaining promotion’ and I couldn’t agree with him more,” he told The42 last year. “We’ve a massive challenge. If people think we pulled off a miracle to win the First Division, we’re going to need another one to stay up. I think the most important thing is knowing that.”

Unfortunately, Keegan and co ultimately fell just short in their bid to avoid relegation. In an extraordinary promotion-relegation playoff second leg, Drogheda came back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to win 3-2 on aggregate.

Source: UnitedParkDrogheda/YouTube

It was a game full of drama, with plenty of goalmouth action and controversial refereeing calls to boot. In the end, Keegan and his side were left heartbroken. To make matters worse, in the hours leading up to the game, reports began to emerge that the manager was on the verge of leaving the club to join Galway. What had initially seemed a match made in heaven was ending very much on a sour note.

Accordingly, the eventual departure was acrimonious to a degree. It was subsequently announced that Wallace and his club were seeking compensation for the allegedly “unprofessional” manner in which Galway had acted.

“On Friday morning, the day of the biggest game in WYFC history, one that would determine whether the club could retain its place in the Premier Division of LOI, or not, the word spread that a rival League of Ireland club was about to announce the appointment of Shane Keegan as their manager,” the chairman said in a statement.

For this news to spread on such a day, let alone the fact that Keegan was under contract to Wexford Youths FC for another year, was grossly unprofessional on the part of Galway United and a blatant breach of League of Ireland rules.”

Reflecting on the disappointment now, Keegan is philosophical and largely upbeat despite this depressing denouement.

Wexford Youths was absolutely fantastic for me for the last five years,” he tells The42. “Going into a League of Ireland manager’s position at 28 years of age, you could not have asked for a better set-up or a better chairman in Mick (Wallace) in terms of him standing off and allowing me to just go about it and backing me at anything I wanted to do.

“He really was wonderful for me over those five years. There’s no getting away from it — it was a really awful way for it to finish. Had we got the results in that game, everybody ends the relationship reasonably happy and with a smile on their face.

It was incredibly disappointing for the club, it was unbelievably disappointing for me, as an individual. But that’s football, I had five years of good times, progression and no real setbacks, so that was the first real hard knock I’d taken in football, but if I intend to stay in the game for years, I’m sure there’s many more bad nights like that for me to come.”

Keegan also rejects any suggestions that the sudden news of his impending departure affected the Wexford Youths players’ performances.

In terms of the news breaking, I honestly believe it did not affect my players. They gave me absolutely everything on the night, I couldn’t have asked any more of them.

“Mick has made the point to me that maybe it gave the Drogheda players an extra little boost when they heard it. It may have given Pete (Mahon) something to use in his team talk and that’s fair enough, I can see his point. To that extent, that’s where it might have had a little bit of a bearing, so it was disappointing that it finished like that.”

Mick Wallace Chairman Mick Wallace was unhappy with the manner of Keegan's departure from Wexford Youths. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

More distressing still were the reports last month, originally emanating from a story in The Sunday Times, that Wexford Youths were facing a winding-up order over a €200,000 debt.

Keegan says he saw no signs of such trouble during his five-year stint at the club.

I know little to nothing about it, to be honest. My thing was always to concentrate on the pitch and that side of things. Mick is his own man. Mick knows what he’s doing. Wexford Youths is a huge part of his life in terms of what he’s done — the time, money and effort he’s put into it over the years. I’m sure he’ll figure out a way of making sure that it doesn’t have any major effect on the club.

“I’m sure the club will be fine going forward. They’ll come to an arrangement or an agreement of some shape or form and kick on again next year.”

Yet while Keegan no longer has to cope with the dual burden of being Commercial Manager and coach of the Youths, life as Galway boss sounds similarly hectic and pressurised.

His predecessor Tommy Dunne was relieved of the manager’s position towards the end of last season, with the club citing a “lack of progress” during his tenure as the reason for the decision.

The club went on to finish ninth, comfortably above the relegation spots, but otherwise without much for their fans to get excited about.

Tommy Dunne Galway parted ways with previous boss Tommy Dunne towards the end of last season. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

What, therefore, is expected of Keegan and co this season, as far as the board are concerned?

“It’s hard to say at the moment,” he says. “I’d imagine if you ask most managers you’re probably going to hear them say they want to get around top half of the table. Obviously, the bigger clubs will be trying to win the thing.

The only thing is you’re looking round at some of the other squads and it really does look like everybody’s after strengthening significantly, so it’ll be a tough challenge.

“If we were able to finish higher in the table than last year, then that would be great. But that could be easier said than done. Limerick have come into the division and will automatically be a team who will be operating off quite a high budget, certainly a higher budget than ourselves. You’ve got one extra team punching on slightly better financial resources on top of what was already there.”

Progress, Keegan adds, is not purely about what happens on the football pitch.

Gates are a big thing. We’re very actively trying to find ways we can increase the gates. If we saw an upturn in that, it would be deemed a big success for the club as well.

“In a more general way, we’re trying to integrate the club into the community as much as possible. We have a marketing group set up at the moment that’s about 20-strong. There’s another marketing meeting this Monday, where we’re sitting down again. That’s generated some really good ideas in terms of we can involve ourselves in the community. How we can become aligned with the local schoolboy and junior clubs a bit more. You’re trying to think big picture as much as possible without losing sight of the main thing, which is trying to produce results on the pitch.

I think there is an onus on a manager not just to turn up at training and matches and then go home. (Galway) have an initiative lined up where we’re doing little bits of coaching here and there with local clubs — just getting the clubs name and getting the club crest out into the community as much as possible to build connection with those local teams. Some people would see it as part of the job description — others don’t. It’s not a case of me being forced into it. I love it, my whole background is in underage soccer.

“I started my coaching out at the bottom level, so I know what it’s like for people down at that level. I genuinely find it very interesting and very enjoyable getting out and doing that kind of stuff.”

Shane Keegan Keegan was just 28 when Mick Wallace appointed him as Wexford Youths coach. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Coaching, Keegan says, is all about self-sufficiency and “educating yourself”. Any other advice for the aspiring young managers out there?

“The other point is get out and do it. There’s no point reading about Pep Guardiola’s recent training ideas unless you’ve got a team and you can go out on Tuesday night. That team can be of any standard. It’s been spoken of in one or two articles that at 18 years of age, I was managing my local junior club’s U12s.

If you’ve got coaching aspirations, even if you’re still a good player, it’s never too young to get out and start coaching a team. Anything I’ve learned has all come from trial and error, so the quicker you can get into that process, the quicker you can figure out all the mistakes you’re making.”

And as if to back up his own advice on absorbing as much knowledge as possible, Keegan is currently in the second year of a Coaching & Exercise Science Masters in UCD. Is it difficult for him to balance this task with the Galway commitments?

It’s tough enough. You just have to be quite regimented with your time. The lecturers on the course can understand the situation as well and they’ve tried to be as accommodating as possible in terms of understanding if I do miss the odd lecture here and there and giving me the odd bit of leeway.

“The two modules in this semester are Strength and Conditioning and Research Methods, which is just something everybody has to do. The other modules that I’ve done to date are Performance Analysis, which is obviously a growing area in all sports — that was really enjoyable. The Science of Coaching, which strangely enough, was delivered by Doctor Seamus Kelly, who’s a former League of Ireland player and coach… It’s essentially the theory behind coaching practices — what works, how you should learn, what you should be communicating when you’re coaching, all that kind of stuff.

Applied Sports Psychology was brilliant. Again, you’re learning techniques and ways of communicating and ways of handling players problems and all that. You find yourself putting a lot of it into action very quickly when you’re dealing with your players.

“Physiology and Nutrition gives you a better understanding of what your physio is dealing with for injuries and all that kind of thing. And obviously, being able to give a bit of baseline advice to players in terms of what they should be eating and that sort of stuff. It’s all very practical — I find it useful.”

Stephen Kenny before the game Keegan says he has been influenced by the coaching methods of Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Furthermore, in addition to gaining insight from his studies, Keegan also looks on other managers as potential sources of inspiration.

“I certainly would have looked back at the blueprint to see what way Dundalk have gone about things since Stephen Kenny took over,” he admits.

Without going into specifics, there probably are a few things we would have done that are in line with how Dundalk went about things when Stephen took over initially. The only problem is he’s left the bar so high that the pressure is on the rest of us, because it’s nearly impossible to replicate what they’ve pulled off with the same sort of style, but there are definitely things that can be learned from the way they’ve gone about it.”

Galway’s new boss has also overseen some interesting signings in the off-season. Former Ireland rugby international, Johnny O’Connor, is on board as strength and conditioning coach, following a three-year stint with Arsenal’s academy side.

“He’s just so thorough, so well prepared,” Keegan explains. “A big part of it is he’s got the personality to make sure that when he says jump, they jump.

There’s very little point in having the knowledge unless you’re able to command the respect of people and obviously, Johnny’s past added to his physique means that he has that respect.”

Gavin Holohan celebrates their first goal of the game Gavin Holohan joined Galway from Cork in the off season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Gavan Holohan, previously of Cork City, was another notable acquisition. Various links helped ensure the deal, which was widely considered to be a significant coup, went through. Keegan had known of the player from their mutual involvement with underage soccer in Kilkenny.

Galway’s Stephen Folan had also been close with Holohan during their previous time together at Cork City.

Stevie had a couple of meetings with myself on that. And he liked what we were doing, the way things were taking shape, so he was kind of in Gav’s ear, saying things looked like they were going to be really good this year, we’d love to have you and that, so he did a good bit of background work for me there and we managed to sneak in ahead of a couple of others and get him on board.”

Moreover, not always known as a hotbed for footballing talent, in recent times, there are signs that Galway is really starting to develop in this regard. Dundalk’s Stephen O’Donnell, Preston’s Daryl Horgan and QPR youngster Ryan Manning are all from the county, and Keegan admits the level of interest in the sport is bigger than he had anticipated there.

It’s a really big county for soccer,” he says. “I’ve only realised it since I landed here. The recent success with Ryan and Daryl has been brilliant and it’s continuing to grow and getting stronger.

“I moved into the club. I got a house over in Oranmore. The soccer club in the area is called Maree Oranmore, which is another village up the road. I took a spin in that direction the other day to have a quick look around at the community centre.

I was told there was an indoor astro and I went in to have a look. As I was walking in I could hear a voice that sounded very familiar. I had a look and it was Stephen O’Donnell putting on a training session with Maree Oranmore U12s. So it’s great for Galway to have these big names like Ryan, Daryl and Stephen who are performing at such high levels and inspiring the next generation of youngsters.”

And a thriving League of Ireland club, of course, would be the icing on the cake.

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Paul Fennessy

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