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Stephen Kenny's tortuous road to the biggest and hardest job in Irish sport

It has not been easy for Stephen Kenny but he has overcome setbacks to end up as Ireland manager.

Stephen Kenny's tenure as Ireland manager began yesterday.
Stephen Kenny's tenure as Ireland manager began yesterday.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT WAS SHAPING up to be his darkest winter. October had been bad, November worse. When the phone stopped ringing, he started worrying — his mornings spent doing the school run and heading off on long, purposeless walks along the Inishowen Peninsula, where the rain slants into you at such a pace you would be better off staying at home.

This was where the new Ireland manager stood in 2012, unemployed and unwanted, a world away from the Aviva Stadium, international football and the most pressurised job in Irish sport, questioning not just himself but his profession. “I asked myself then, what am I doing here, working in a business where your future is so uncertain,” Stephen Kenny said to me in 2014, a couple of years after Shamrock Rovers had sacked him. He had heard the whispers, that he was unable to handle pressure, similar to the suggestions being made now, that the international job is too big for a League of Ireland man. And yet the sceptics do not know everything he has overcome in his life.

He was 18 when he effectively starting running his father’s business, 22 when he got his first mortgage, the same age he gave up the pretence of making it as a footballer. Management was his calling. “This might sound stupid, this might sound corny, but I just felt it was what I was born to do,” he said in our first interview, 22 years ago. They were strikingly persuasive words, an evangelist in a football tracksuit.

By now, he was 26, the youngest manager the League of Ireland had ever known, having taken over a Longford Town team who finished bottom of the First Division the previous year, unable to find matching socks and shorts for their final fixture of the year.

Within three years he had them in Europe, and the club had him all to themselves. The meat production business he ran with his father was gifted to his dad, the offer of being a full-time manager in one of the most volatile leagues in Europe proving strangely alluring. He was a father of three and three would soon become four. His wife had handed in her notice in a top-level job to be full-time mum. “I know it’s not logical,” he’d say of a decision to take a significant pay cut and risk his family’s future in such a precarious industry. “But you have to understand that football is a passion. I believed in myself and probably felt Irish football was on the cusp of something. I wanted to be a part of that and be successful.”

stephen-kenny Kenny pictured in charge of Longford, his first job. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

He has been. Only one manager has achieved more success in League of Ireland football than him, ironically a man Kenny admired from a distance when he was a teenager, supporting not so much Shamrock Rovers but the type of football Jim McLaughlin had them playing. “Fast, aggressive, attacking,” he would say in that 1999 interview, before opening the curtains to allow you glimpse into his private world. “The Real Madrid team of the late 1980s and early 90s, the one with Hugo Sánchez, Míchel, Emilio Butragueño, Manuel Sanchís, all those lads, we began to see those games when Sky Sports started. Myself and the auld lad [his father] were fascinated by them. It was like they were always in a rush to do something spectacular.”

It was an accusation his father would throw his way, too, borne out by Kenny’s boundless ambition. At Longford he was loved, yet he left them mid-season for a better job, a trend he would repeat, twice with Derry City, then in 2018 with Dundalk. “Wanting to succeed is a powerful thing,” he would tell me in 2014, seconds after admitting guilt for the upheaval his profession had caused his family. “I am not particularly proud of the fact that my eldest daughter, [who had just turned 16] has had four schools in three jurisdictions: Dublin, Derry, Fife and Donegal,” he said. “There’s more pressure here [as a League of Ireland manager] than someone in the Premier League would have.”

That may sound like an exaggeration yet it is closer to fact. By following his dream, work took Kenny from a three-bed semi-detached house in Lucan to a bungalow overlooking the peninsula in Donegal, then to Dunfermline where he took a hit on the property market, back to Derry City, onto Shamrock Rovers, then Dundalk. It has not just been furniture and boxes he has shifted. “When you lose your job, you have to think about where you are going to live, where your kids are going to go to school,” he said in our 2014 interview. “It has a massive, massive effect. It can be traumatic.”

Yet ultimately it has proven worthwhile. The gambles he took in his career resurfaced 18 months ago when John Delaney met him in Blanchardstown’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, telling him the Ireland Under-21 job was his if he wanted it and that if he was prepared to be patient, then – at some stage – the senior job would also be his. Sorry, Delaney heard back, unless that promise could be guaranteed in print, he would not leave Dundalk.

A week passed. O’Neill’s Ireland could not score against Northern Ireland or Denmark. Delaney made his move. O’Neill was gone, Mick McCarthy in, Kenny revisited, told the same timeframe as before existed, that he was regarded as the future but McCarthy was the man for now. Still, Kenny did not blink.

Delaney subsequently made a third move this time offering Kenny a legal guarantee that on 1 August 2020, the Ireland job was his. The deal was done.

Fast forward to this weekend and Gary Owens, Delaney’s successor at the FAI, was on the blower. Circumstances had changed, Kenny was told. The succession process was moving more quickly than expected. Four months ahead of schedule, McCarthy would hand over the baton.

A new man was in and on the back of this phone call, a lifelong dream turned to glorious reality.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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