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Dublin: 3°C Saturday 17 April 2021

Planes, trains and cat food - the untold story of the Ireland manager's first trip

Stephen Kenny jets out of Dublin this week for Ireland’s opening World Cup qualifier – but no matter what happens it is unlikely to be as dramatic as his first European trip as a manager.


THE BOYS AT the back of the bus had an unwritten rule. Only those with a suitable nickname got to sit there. Being called the gaffer wasn’t a credible application which was why Stephen Kenny didn’t make it that far down the aisle. Only the select few did: Digger, Mumbles, Cat Food, Snake and the Ferret.

Everyone else sat by themselves while your correspondent was so far removed from the back seat that he was practically sitting on the driver’s lap. When we boarded the coach at the airport in Sofia, we looked young, red-faced, easily embarrassed. By the time we reached Lovech, after a journey along these eerily empty Bulgarian motorways, we were three hours older and fast-tracked in an education in what counts as footballer’s banter.

The players were in a giddy mood. Bar the driver, everyone on that bus was on their maiden European trip, including the man sitting across the aisle, 29-year-old Stephen Kenny.

“Which one is Cat Food?” the current Irish manager was asked.

“Ah, that’s Vinny.”

Vinny is Vinny Perth, one of Kenny’s first signings when he took charge of Longford Town in 1998, his first managerial gig. “Bravest player I’ve ever seen,” Kenny said. He was also the most selfless, a patient benchwarmer if someone else found form in his position.

A year earlier, Perth dug Kenny out of a hole in pre-season when the right-back they’d intended to sign, Canadian international Jeff Clarke, ended up going instead to a team in the United States. Kenny turned to Perth, who accepted the dubious honour of marking the fastest player in the league, Mark Rutherford, without question. “You played like Cafu,” Keith O’Connor, dubbed Mumbles because he was so quietly spoken, said afterwards. Digger (goalkeeper Stephen O’Brien) misheard O’Connor, falsely thinking he’d compared Perth to Cat Food rather than the Brazilian World Cup winner. A new nickname had arrived, a new face at the back of the bus.

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keith-oconnor-digital Keith 'Mumbles' O'Connor celebrates his goal against Lovech. Source: INPHO

In 2000/01, their first season in the Premier Division, Cat Food, Mumbles, Digger and Longford Town took the League of Ireland by storm. Settling into his niche as a miracle worker, Kenny negotiated hard with his board, begging them for an extra €600-a-week to sign four new players. He’d a receptive audience. “The thing about Stephen,” says Jim Hanley, the club chairman who has served on the Longford board for 21 years, “is that he was much more than just a football manager.

“He was like an ambassador for the entire county. I remember that first season, going to the newsagent on a Tuesday morning. We were on the back page of three papers, were page leads in the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Evening Herald and all because this man had taken over a team that was rock bottom and had taken us to within a win of going top of the league.

“All that morning, my phone kept hopping, Longford business people calling. “This Stephen Kenny fella is like a Lord Mayor,” they kept saying. “He’s after putting our town on the map.”

The good news was welcome. A year earlier, a Longford-born reporter had written an article headlined Ghost Town in a national newspaper, highlighting how government investment had bypassed the county. Many locals felt detached from Dublin, the football team’s success restoring pride.

“I was a teenager when we won promotion,” Sinead Hussey, RTÉ’s North East Correspondent and a lifelong Longford supporter, recalls. “Prior to Stephen’s arrival, it just always seemed to be raining anytime we went to see the team play. It was just so painful so often.”

You can see why. Results in the year before Kenny’s appointment were awful, a last place finish in the First Division ending in embarrassing circumstances when Longford failed to wear matching socks and shorts for their final game of the campaign. Under Kenny, things changed. They finished fourth in his first season, got promoted in his second, reached the FAI Cup final in his third, played in Europe in his fourth.

stephen-kenny-digital By 2001, Kenny had turned things around. Source: INPHO

Beyond the results, though, something deeper happened, this connection between a midlands town and a collection of young Dubliners who made up the bulk of the first team squad. It was Gavin and Stacey in a Midlands setting. “I fell in love with Longford,” said one of their former players, who didn’t want to be named. “There was just none of the cynicism around the club that you’d get elsewhere.”

“The reason there was such goodwill to that team is because you felt they cared,” says Hussey. “They didn’t breeze in and breeze out of the place. They wore the colours with such pride and made it their business to socialise with the fans after each home game. They were absolutely adored, that team. They still are.”

It was easy to see why. When Kenny took over, he was operating off a budget of IR£1,200-a-week. By the time he left, it hadn’t gone up terribly much. “Our top earner was on about IR£250-a-week,” says Hanley, “at a stretch.” For his ambassadorial, as well as managerial work, Kenny’s wages also rose – from IR£300-a-week initially to IR£30,000-a-year by the time the 2001/02 Uefa Cup draw tied them with a club from Bulgaria called Litex Lovech. “We knew next to nothing about them,” Perth says.  They’d soon find out.

“The thing about Stephen is that he was always resourceful,” said O’Brien, the goalkeeper. “We never went into any game blind. He always had his homework done.”

stephen-obrien-digital Longford leader: keeper 'Digger' O'Brien. Source: INPHO

That was all well and good when the opposition was Bray, Bohs or UCD, all located within half-an-hour of Kenny’s Lucan home, close enough for him to go and see them. But in 2001, the subscription service that allows clubs to get detailed video clips of teams from all around the world had yet to be developed. Kenny wasn’t easily deterred. He ventured out to Bulgaria, discovered a luxurious five-star hotel in a nearby, desolate town – built by a Bulgarian oligarch who wanted to get a nearby racetrack onto the Formula One circuit. Kenny struck a deal with him, €20-per-room, full board.

He was used to getting bargains. That team was full of them. Stuart Byrne went on to win League of Ireland titles with Shelbourne and Drogheda; Paul McNally did the same at Bohemians; O’Brien, Perth, Sean Prunty, Alan Kirby, Alan Murphy and Eric Lavine stayed around to win back-to-back FAI Cup medals at Longford. Their combined transfer fees came to €12,000.

But there was a lot more to his management than just his eye for a player. On the opening night of Longford’s inaugural Premier Division campaign, the bus company booked to transport the team to Derry had left a message with the team’s liaison officer, explaining that they were unwilling to cross the border because of security concerns.

Problem solved? If only. The intended recipient accidentally deleted the bus driver’s message, which was how and why a group of Dubliners were stranded by the side of a motorway, five hours away from Derry, eight hours away from kick-off.

It was at this point that the future manager of Ireland walked out on to the N4 carriageway and flagged down the first passing bus. “Within ten minutes he was back,” Perth said. “Somehow, and don’t ask me how, he explained the situation to the driver and persuaded him to give up his Friday and bring us to Derry. That’s Stephen. Present a problem, he’d find the solution.”

vinny-perth Vinny Perth became Kenny's assistant at Dundalk. Source: INPHO

He’d get plenty of practice. A year later, it wasn’t a bus that had failed to show for the Uefa Cup trip to Bulgaria – but an aeroplane. “Ah, that’s a day I won’t forget,” says Hanley.

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How could he? Longford had booked a charter through a travel agent based in Dublin. Come departure day, the travel agent showed up alright, but the plane he’d supposedly booked, did not.  This was a Monday morning, 6am. The game was set for Wednesday, 7.30pm. “Don’t worry, it’ll arrive,” said the agent.

It didn’t. By 3pm, alternative plans were being forged, Hanley sitting down with Kenny to find out his starting XI. “Right, there are 12 seats booked to get us to Sofia via Birmingham. You and the team are on those.” Another eight seats were available via Vienna. The subs and the kitman travelled that way, the remaining members of the party going via Budapest.

That’s how your correspondent got there, too. The kitman, Fergus McNally, had spotted a colleague waiting for his luggage in arrivals, casually mentioning this to Kenny, who stalled the bus driver until we’d collected our bags, offering us a lift – a small gesture but a big one. Your correspondent hadn’t a word of Bulgarian and it’s unlikely if too many locals spoke Northern Irish culchie.

The boys on the back seat spoke the entire way down those dusty motorways, those sitting at the front bearing the brunt of the ‘humour’. “That camaraderie, that childishness, the silliness, it was amazing to be a part of all that,” says Perth. “Like, when you stop playing, it isn’t the games you miss the most, it’s the craic we had.”

Despite the plane’s no-show, there was no blame game going on. “Stephen was great about it,” Hanley says. “His attitude was ‘right these things happen; let’s solve this problem’.”

Problem solving was what he and Longford were good at. A week before the first leg, a quick scan of Uefa’s stadium criteria made it clear that if Longford wanted to have more than 700 people attending their first ever European game then they needed to install the additional 5,300 seats they’d ordered.

longford-town-fans-digital Longford fans helped build their new ground. Source: INPHO

“To get it done in time for the game, we put out a call,” says Hanley. And it seemed as if every handyman in the county answered it, dozens of volunteers showing on a bank holiday Monday to turn Flancare Park’s concrete terraces into an all-seater stadium. “We were training when this was going on,” Perth says. “You’re not blind to things. It was a club rooted in the community. We saw what the work fans were doing and remember one of the players saying, ‘right, we need to give something back’.”

They did that and more. The first leg ended 1-1, the return leg staying scoreless until injury time, O’Brien having the game of his life, local kid, Henry Kenny, sending a late shot just over the bar. Reprieved, Lovech scored from their next two attacks.

Perth was quiet in the changing room, afterwards – until a familiar face appeared at the door. Paul, his father, was one of those booked on the original charter. Disappointed about the plane’s no-show, he returned to work the next day a little subdued. His work colleagues had heard the story. Subtly they arranged a whip-round, and persuaded him to book another trip.

He went for it, taking the only available flights left, going through five countries before he landed in Sofia, getting a taxi straight to the stadium, arriving just minutes after the final whistle. Like half the playing squad, Longford’s supporters were also known by their nicknames, a great old character called ‘Butch’ Treacy spotting Perth senior in the crowd, somehow getting him past security to see his son.

They still talk about the night out that followed and why wouldn’t you when pints were available for 80 cent, bottles of champagne setting you back the princely sum of €6. Some poor sod got stung for a €45 brandy and has never been the same since.

Kenny, meanwhile, has moved on to bigger things too and later this week he’ll leave these shores with the Ireland team for his first World Cup qualifier. This time the plane will arrive and this time the prize will be bigger, the players a good bit better, their names a lot more conventional. Will it be as much fun, though? No, nothing ever could be.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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