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'The Ireland dressing room is crying out for a manager who instils confidence by saying ‘Go and play''

Stephen Kenny would be the right appointment by the FAI, according to two of his former players.

Kenny has had unrivalled success over the past 15 years.
Kenny has had unrivalled success over the past 15 years.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THE FAI ARE planning to act quickly in replacing Martin O’Neill and his backroom staff after yesterday’s high-profile departures. 

With the Euro 2020 qualifying draw taking place on our doorstep in 10 days’ time, it is hoped that a new man will be in place to represent the Ireland team at the Convention Centre in Dublin on Sunday week. 

Mick McCarthy has emerged as the front-runner and it appears to make a lot of sense. The ex-Ireland captain knows the position inside-out having led the Boys in Green to the 2002 World Cup finals during his first spell, and he is also a free agent since leaving Ipswich Town at the end of last season.

But the obvious option isn’t necessarily the right one, and an increasing number of respected personalities in Irish football have been backing Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny to be given a crack at the whip. 

Two men who have held the role in the past — Brian Kerr and Eoin Hand — would welcome the appointment, while Richard Dunne, a man with no affiliation to the League of Ireland, would also see it as a progressive step. 

No Irish manager has won more silverware than the Dubliner over the past 15 years but his managerial career goes all the way back to 1998 when, at just 27, he was put in charge of Longford Town.

He signed Stuey Byrne, a young midfielder trying to make his way in the game, and the Soccer Republic pundit credits Kenny’s man-management skills with setting him on the right track to becoming one of the league’s top players. 

“He changed my career,” Byrne tells The42. “My time at Longford was the start of my career as a footballer in the League of Ireland. Up until then, I had made some silly moves and I had signed for different managers who didn’t suit me as a player.

“Joining Longford under Stephen changed all that and I never looked back after it. He’s very much a players’ manager in that you will want to play for him. That’s if you like him and you get his personality, which is the same for any player-manager relationship.

“If you get his philosophy and you can understand what he wants, you will play for him. If you put your trust in him, he’ll give it back and he will very much encourage you to go and play. He’s not afraid of making mistakes and he’s very much his own man.

“He’s got a nice way about him and you’re drawn to his personality, which helps.”

Stuart Byrne Byrne lining out for Longford in 2001. Source: INPHO

Working with limited resources, Kenny has shown an incredible ability to get the best out of the players at his disposal and he would lead Longford to the First Division title and promotion as well as reaching the FAI Cup final.

More success soon followed as he clinched the Premier Division at Bohemians in 2003 before winning the FAI Cup, the First Division and three League Cups during two spells at Derry City — with a stint at Scottish club Dunfermline sandwiched in between. 

Replacing Michael O’Neill at his local club Shamrock Rovers in 2012, Kenny was unable to live up to the back-to-back titles that his predecessor had produced and he was sacked within less than a year. 

In November 2012, he took over Dundalk after the Louth club had just avoided relegation by seeing off Waterford in a two-legged play-off. Keith Ward was one of the first signings made, and the technically-gifted playmaker explains what attracted him to Kenny. 

“He signed me after he had lost his job at Shamrock Rovers, but I had been in the league a few years so I remembered his team at Derry with the likes of Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn and James McClean,” the Bohemians midfielder says. 

“As a manager, I was looking at him thinking he played good attacking football with wingers. I hadn’t met him, so that was all I knew of him. I had heard he was a bit awkward, and he is but I like that he’s that way. I don’t know anyone quite like him.

I was happy to sign at the time. It was a team patched together but he did his magic and the rest is history.”

Ward ruptured cruciate ligament and didn’t play as much as he would have wanted in his second season, but he speaks highly of how Kenny dealt with him. 

“When you’re not playing, it’s hard to like the manager but to be fair to Stephen, it’s hard not to like him. He has time for everyone and he’s just a legend. He’s good to be around, and he just loves football. 

“I remember we were training one time, it was  getting dark and he was working on a throw-in that he saw Borussia Dortmund doing. I was thinking ‘This fella is mad’, but you can see what he’s doing.”

Keith Ward and Dane Massey Bohs star Ward facing Kenny's Dundalk earlier this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Doubters will point to his time in Scotland, when Dunfermline reached the Scottish Cup final but got relegated from the top flight. Failure to sort out the dressing room at Shamrock Rovers is also a blot on his copybook and he would have to prove himself to an Ireland squad that is largely made up of English-based players. 

“There are two ways to look at big personalities in the dressing room,” says Byrne. “There are the guys who are constructive and productive, and they have a genuine want to get the best out of the players around them.

“Then there are the big personalities who are just poisonous. As a manager, that was something he would have experienced at Shamrock Rovers and he just couldn’t deal with the level of toxic attitudes there was in that dressing room, but I think he would have learned from that.

“The one thing he has done very well at all the clubs he has been successful at is picked the players that he thinks will play to his philosophy but if he becomes the Ireland manager, he may have to deal with players who are already established in the team.

There seems to be a very good attitude in the squad already and with Seamus Coleman as captain, you can see how well he speaks. There’s very much a ‘can do’ attitude with the players.

“If Stephen does get the job, I don’t see him having to go in there and suddenly sort out a rotten dressing room. This dressing room is crying out for a manager who instils a confidence in them, by saying ‘Go and play, lads. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and get this negativity out of your system’.

“He will have to put some shape on it as well, of course. We’re at a low ebb and we need a manager who will reverse that quick.”

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Ward adds: “It’s such a big step-up and you’re dealing with millionaires. Players will possibly think they’re better than they are but you’ll get that here as well.

“He’s still young as a manager but he has some experience and he has managed in the Europa League and on the big stage. I’d like to think he’s got the credentials to go on and do it and get the respect he deserves.

“He’s a manager I think any player would like to play for, so I don’t see it being a problem. I think he would be good.”

Stephen Kenny Kenny after being named Dundalk boss in 2012. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Yesterday marked the six-year anniversary since Kenny took over at Dundalk and he has turned the Lilywhites into the dominant force in Irish football over that period with four league titles, two FAI Cup and progression to the 2016 Europa League group stages the main highlights — all while playing attacking and expansive football. 

Despite his credentials, it would still be a surprise to see the FAI appoint a manager from the League of Ireland, particularly as the new man will have to hit the ground running with the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign beginning in March. 

“I don’t know how the FAI perceive Stephen Kenny, but I certainly know what way supporters do, and what some of the players will think of him as well, who would be very much in favour of him,” claims Byrne.

I personally think there is really nothing more he can do as a manager at club level to justify being considered for the position.

“I don’t buy into this England thing at all. I think, if anything, bringing over these over-hyped has-been managers would be counter-productive for us. We’ve spent an absolutely disgraceful amount of money on reputations and it has been negative. There’s a disconnect there and the supporters have noticed that as well. 

“I’d be very much in favour of him being considered for it. There are processes in place and you do have to speak to the interested parties but I think he’s a very strong candidate.”

If Kenny was to be handed the top job in Irish football, it would prove an enormous blow for Dundalk, who are head and shoulders above the other Premier Division clubs at present after this year’s league and cup double. 

“How do you replace him going in there?” asks Ward. “Without sounding bad, there is pressure on Dundalk to win every game, every trophy and do well in Europe. You’ll be rubbing your hands thinking you’ve got the best team but that doesn’t guarantee you to do well.

“It would be nearly like going in after Alex Ferguson, in that you’re taking over the best club in the country and the pressure would be on. If he does get it, then best of luck to whoever goes in to replace him.”

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