New Republic of Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny pictured at his unveiling on Monday. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

'He’d give out to you more so for playing a safe pass than trying a risky one and giving it away'

The ougoing Dundalk boss will become the Boys in Green’s senior manager after Euro 2020.

Updated at 14.20

THE ITALIAN COACH Arrigo Sacchi is widely regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time.

In a sense, he was to the late ’80s and early ’90s what Pep Guardiola is now — a revolutionary whose influence was far-reaching and who ultimately played a significant role in changing the way the game was played, with high pressing, the offside trap and a high-defensive line among the innovations he helped popularise.

Sacchi was hugely successful. Like other great footballing thinkers, such as Pep Guardiola, whose approach was questioned intensively and whose managerial prowess was doubted even when he arrived in England for the Man City job, the Italian boss was also spoken about derisively in some quarters.

In the early days at Milan, the fact that Sacchi had an undistinguished playing career was used as a stick to beat him with by doubters. 

“I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first,” Sacchi memorably responded.

His best retort, however, was to win Serie A and two European Cups with the Italian side, before later guiding his country all the way to the 1994 World Cup final, where they only lost out to Brazil on penalties.

Aside from their success, there is another characteristic Sacchi and Guardiola share. They are both notorious obsessives.

A 2015 Guardian article noted: “Bayern Munich hogged 66% of the ball in their 5-1 Champions League victory over Arsenal on Wednesday night but Pep Guardiola wanted more. “What I want, my desire, is to have 100% possession,” the Bayern manager said.

Guardiola’s quest for perfection is his guiding light and it is easy to paint him as the obsessive compulsive who can never be happy. Against Arsenal, he was agitated on the touchline, even as his team led comfortably and, after the game, he raked over the flaws that, to most onlookers, felt pretty minimal.”

Sacchi, meanwhile, once summarised his philosophy on football, by commenting: “An Italian poet wrote: ‘Without obsession, there is no art.’ With a little, you get a little.”

It is perhaps no surprise that the Italian opted to give up football management in 2001, following a brief stint at Parma, owing to stress-related illness.

It would, of course, be ludicrous to compare new Ireland U21 boss and soon-to-be senior manager Stephen Kenny to the two aforementioned greats of the game. But what the stories of Sacchi and Guardiola illustrate is that football management at the top requires an unhealthy degree of dedication and perhaps somewhat of a maverick persona in order for the individual in question to thrive — two attributes you could apply to Kenny.

It is not your average nine-to-five job and instead, can be all-consuming. 

While Kenny has never come close to winning the Champions League and doesn’t know what it is like to manage a top club in one of Europe’s big five leagues, that does not mean he has not worked extremely hard to get to this position, where he is on the verge of undertaking by far the most high-profile football job in the country.

And while managers at the top level at worst will get a lucrative pay-off if they fail, in Kenny’s case, for years, he was essentially fighting for his livelihood — League of Ireland bosses do not normally earn big salaries.

And at least in the Irish football sphere, he is certainly as close as it comes to a Sacchi or Guardiola-type figure. What he has achieved, even before he took over at Dundalk, is nothing short of remarkable.

Robbie Keane after the game Kenny grew up around the same area as legendary Irish striker Robbie Keane. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

A Tallaght native who grew up close to where two other key figures of Irish soccer, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, were from, like Sacchi, Kenny’s playing career was unremarkable, so much so that he had all but retired by his mid-20s. He took his first managerial job with non-league side Tallaght Town at the age of 22, and was a League of Ireland manager by 26.

In a 2016 Irish Independent column, former Ireland boss Brian Kerr noted: “While Stephen had a bit about him, and asked a lot of questions about the position he was playing, which was unusual from young players of that generation, I found it interesting when I heard he was going to try his hand at management from a very young age.”

And again, similarly to Sacchi, a considerable degree of scepticism greeted Kenny’s arrival owing mainly to his failure to succeed as a player in the League of Ireland.

Kerr added: “You sensed he was drawing an excitement and buzz from management and when Longford Town called him in 1998, they were struggling, having finished bottom of the First Division that particular season.

For Stephen, just 26 at the time, it was a good move because the profile of the League of Ireland manager was vastly different to what it is now. Back then, there was not a tendency for clubs to trust rookies and especially ones with no past as a first-teamer in the League.”

Prior to taking over at Longford, Kenny enjoyed near-instantaneous success, winning the league in a brief spell in 1998 as St Patrick’s Athletic U21 boss, after being offered the job by then-senior manager Pat Dolan.

Kenny worked similar wonders with the Town. In the first of many managerial miracles, he picked up the struggling club and got them promoted to the Premier Division, proceeding to take this unfashionable team to the FAI Cup final and the Uefa Cup.

Suddenly, the critics had been silenced. Bohs came calling. The Dublin club were struggling with finances at the time and Kenny helped reverse their fortunes, guiding them to two FAI Cup finals and the league title in 2003. Yet after a respectable runners-up finish the following season, a disappointing start to the next campaign saw the Dubliner hastily sacked — not the last time Kenny would have to endure this ignominious fate.

Niall Conway / YouTube

Kenny wasn’t out of football for long, however. He was appointed as Derry boss three weeks after leaving Bohs, and promptly turned a team who had been battling relegation into genuine title contenders. A runners-up finish in 2005 led to a memorable Uefa Cup campaign where the Candystripes stunned Swedish outfit IFK Göteborg with a 3-0 aggregate victory.

They have won the UEFA Cup twice and only a few years ago were in the group stages of the Champions League so this is a great night for everyone connected with Derry City. We were worthy winners. It is not as if we got a goal and held on. I think we played the better football,” a jubilant Kenny said at the time.

They went on to thump Scottish side Gretna 7-3 on aggregate, before a brave performance against French giants PSG saw them draw 0-0 at home before going down 2-0 away.

Kenny’s time at Derry ended agonisingly though, as the side lost out to Shelbourne in the title race on goal difference, leading to a now-infamous Stuey Byrne interview (see below).

stutefc / YouTube

It was then that Kenny made the big decision to go to Scotland, becoming Dunfermline manager, and subsequently uprooting his family and buying a house over there.

It was a bittersweet time. Kenny’s team overcame Rangers and were only narrowly beaten by Celtic in the Scottish Cup final. But despite a five-game end-of-season winning run, an injury crisis took its toll and the club suffered a relegation that shattered their resources. When there was no sign of an immediate improvement thereafter, Kenny was shown the door, just over a year after taking over.

A perfectionist like the Irish coach did not let himself off lightly following this troubling experience. In an interview with Eamon Dunphy’s The Stand Podcast earlier this year, Kenny, who was still in his mid 30s at the time, conceded he “made a lot of mistakes” in Scotland, attributing some decisions to a “lack of experience” and conceding: “Maybe I got what I deserved in the end.”

With the pain of this experience still fresh in his mind, Kenny returned to Derry. It was a bad time for the club in which they had entered into administration and were removed from the Premier Division, nonetheless their manager guided them back to the top flight after helping them triumph in the second tier, before overseeing a third-place finish the following season.

One key figure in their ascension was striker Eamon Zayed, who recalls Kenny’s substantial influence.

I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to sign for Derry City and Stephen Kenny,” he told The42 last year.

“I’m not quite sure why. I’d only talked to him for half an hour, or five minutes here and there. But 110%, there was nothing that was going to stop me.

“I jumped in my car, drove straight out there and signed a contract. And from day one, it just felt right and as if: ‘I’m meant to be here.’”

Eamon Zayed celebrates scoring a goal Derry City's Eamon Zayed celebrates scoring a goal with James McClean in 2011. Cathal Noonan Cathal Noonan

In 2011, Zayed was the league’s top scorer and won the PFAI Players’ Player of the Year in the process.

“It was because the most dangerous type of player is a player who has something to prove, who has that hunger and desire within him, as we’ve seen with Stephen Kenny bringing together a group of players that some people believed weren’t good enough. But he [helped turn them into] the best players in the league [at Dundalk] and won the league for three seasons in a row.

So I was a player going from Liam Buckley [at Sporting Fingal] basically saying: ‘You’re not good enough to be a striker for my team, so we’re going to play you on the left wing. I don’t believe in you.’ To a manager and a coach basically saying: ‘You’re the best striker in this league.’”

After that successful three-year stint at the Brandywell, Kenny made an ill-fated move to Shamrock Rovers. Handed the almost impossible task of succeeding Michael O’Neill, who oversaw two league title wins and a historic Europa League run, the new manager struggled to emulate his predecessor’s success and lasted just a year in the hotseat.

Kenny later told Dunphy he had made the move to the Hoops “rather flippantly,” and insisted: “If they just let me do my job, I’d have been fine.”

For someone as dedicated and passionate about the game as Kenny, such a setback stung the manager badly. He uses words like “humiliating” to describe the experience of getting sacked. He has described the Rovers fiasco as “the lowest moment of my life,” something which may sound exaggerated to an outsider, but for someone who lives and breathes football, it is probably an accurate representation of how he felt at the time.

Social media made the experience all the worse: “My children in school know: ‘My Da’s been fired at Rovers,’” he added.

Yet this low ebb led directly to Kenny’s greatest triumph thus far. He subsequently took over Dundalk — a team he had turned down on three previous occasions. The Lilywhites at the time were, by all accounts, a club “on its knees”.

Under Stephen Kenny, they quickly became the top team in Ireland and a dynasty was created. In five years at the club, he won four league titles, two FAI Cups and went on a Europa League run that saw them not look out of their depth technically or in any other aspect of the game against sides of the calibre of Zenit Saint Petersburg. They also made history by becoming the first Irish side ever to win a game in the group stages of the competition while refusing to sacrifice their principals of playing good, attractive, attacking football.

There has to be room for innovation and creativity,” Kenny says. “We must discover new ways of playing.”

In addition to his tactical acumen and idealistic view on how the game should be played, Kenny is a brilliant man manager, who helped turn decent League of Ireland players, the likes of Richie Towell, Chris Shields, Pat Hoban, Patrick McEleney, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan, into exceptional footballers at that level.

Richie Towell Stephen Kenny helped previous out-of-sorts players such as Richie Towell thrive at Dundalk. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Ask anyone who has played under Kenny and they will invariably speak in glowing terms about the manager. Consider the examples below of former players’ testimonies.

Stuey Byrne: “I think [Stephen] was perfect for me. Among many of his strengths would be his ability to bring the best out of players who are maybe a little bit frustrated about things. He promotes the positive stuff, there was no negativity about him, you just wanted to play for him. That’s what good managers do. They have an aura and personality about them and a way of getting you to play for them — it’s as simple as that.

“It was the first time in my whole career and I’m even thinking going back to schoolboy, I felt good about the club I was playing for, I liked the manager, I liked the players  and I had a much clearer picture in my head.”

Kevin McHugh: “I spoke to a lot of people and everyone gave the same advice. Stephen Kenny was the manager at Derry, I spoke to him and he knew me inside out, even though I had never met him before. His enthusiasm was very impressive so there were a few different things pushing me in that direction.”

Derek Coughlan: “I met Stephen and he made me feel so wanted. I have a lot of time for him. He was very passionate about Bohs at the time. Once I met him, it was a no-brainer. He made me feel 10-feet tall. I signed straight away.”

Killian Brennan: “He was wonderful to play for as a manager. I never really realised at the time, but he seemed to get where he gets with the young players. He seems to get the very best out of young players.

“The players [at Dundalk], I wouldn’t say he was struggling to get a team, but they weren’t top players a few years ago and they are now.

The lads behind the scenes, the fitness coaches, they have done wonderfully. They’ve worked hard over the last few seasons to be where they are and fair play to them. And Stephen’s been the driving force behind that, being the manager.

“Fair play to him, because he’s worked quite hard, but [management] is very psychologically demanding. You have to nearly be besotted with it.”

Jamie McGrath: “One of the big things is he never lets a player get complacent. No matter who you are, he tells you if you weren’t putting it in. He always expects more and more from you, which is a very big thing. Even in training sessions, if you hit a misplaced pass, or if your shots are wayward, he lets you know. He doesn’t let you get in the comfort zone. He’s always pushing you to the max.”

Sean Hoare: “I feel like I have progressed with Dundalk. No disrespect to Pat’s, but it’s a clear step-up here, in terms of the professionalism and the standard in training. It’s a lot more intense. I think Stephen Kenny has made me a better player, he’s a great manager, so I think I have pushed on.”

Stephen O’Donnell celebrates at full time Dundalk's Stephen O’Donnell captained the side to numerous successes while Stephen Kenny was in charge. Ciaran Culligan / INPHO Ciaran Culligan / INPHO / INPHO

Stephen O’Donnell: “Stephen Kenny always wants the lads to play football and express themselves and that’s why they have been thriving. I know from my time there that it was a great place to be and his philosophy of football is fantastic. It has been unbelievable.”

Robbie Benson: “For young players, [Stephen] doesn’t put any shackles on and lets them express themselves. Especially for someone like myself, Jamie McGrath, Michael Duffy or Patrick McEleney to name a few, he doesn’t like us being cautious. He’d give out to you more so for playing a safe pass than trying a risky one and giving it away.

So it’s great when you have that ability where you know your manager is not going to be disappointed with you if you’re trying the right things and [producing] good attacking play rather than being safe. It’s easy to express yourself and get a bit of confidence that way. It’s one of his biggest strengths, for sure.”

All of which, of course, bodes extremely well ahead of Kenny’s latest venture — two years as Ireland U21 boss, before he gets a crack at the senior job.

One factor is certain. Under Kenny’s watch, irrespective of the perceived limitations of the Irish players, you will never see a match that in anyway resembles the lacklustre 0-0 draw with Denmark earlier this month, in which the team failed to register a shot on target.

While the outgoing Dundalk boss insisted he was not speaking about anyone specifically, many interpreted the manager’s programme notes last month — before he agreed to his new role — as a subtle way of lamenting the national team’s struggles under Martin O’Neill.

“It is important to dispel the current train of thought that it is in the DNA of Irish players to play a more direct style of play, that somehow being Irish, you were inherently born with a skill deficit,” he wrote.

“The players have constantly shown their talent, their ability to pass and receive the ball under pressure and they continue to take risks in possession and open their imagination to see possibilities.

We have a group [at Dundalk] where creative players trust their talent and strive to express themselves in pursuit of fulfilling that potential as individuals and as a team.”

And make no mistake, although he is unlikely to admit it publicly, Kenny will have been distinctly unimpressed with the national team’s style under Martin O’Neill. He is, after all, a purist, who stopped attending Boys in Green matches during the Jack Charlton era, owing to the team’s aggressively direct style of football.

While Irish football’s much-discussed problems are so deep and complex that it would be unrealistic to expect one man to solve them, on the evidence of the many impressive feats he has achieved in management so far, getting a figure like Kenny onboard certainly seems a step in the right direction.

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