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The rise of Stephen Kenny - told by the men who know him best

His first signing, his former sidekick and the journeyman who became one of the best players in the League of Ireland tell us the secret behind the Dubliner’s ascent to the top of Irish football.

Ireland's new football manager, Stephen Kenny.
Ireland's new football manager, Stephen Kenny.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

STEPHEN O’BRIEN HAD pneumonia. The diagnosis hadn’t come through but still it hardly took a medical expert to know something was wrong, his sleep interrupted by a persistent cough, his low energy keeping him out of work. This was the summer of 1999 and O’Brien was running two careers side by side. An IT start-up helped feed his family; part-time life as a League of Ireland footballer fed his self-esteem. “I loved it, every single second of being Longford Town’s goalkeeper,” he says, which partly explains why on this Thursday morning he opted to ignore his wife’s advice about going to his GP instead of heading down to Limerick for a four-day training camp. “Looking back, it was crazy because I was sweating with a fever, dozing off all the way down the N7,” O’Brien says. “I should have gone to the doctor or stayed at home. But Stephen Kenny isn’t a man you want to let down.”

**

Chris Shields knows that feeling. Like O’Brien, his career was stuck in reverse until Kenny entered his life. “We were a who’s who of journeymen and young players who nobody knew,” Shields says. No one, that is, except Kenny, who was on his own rehabilitative path when he joined Shields at Dundalk in December 2012. “None of us were in high demand,” Shields says. “We’d just avoided relegation the year before. And then Stephen arrived. We finished second, first, first, first, second, first, in his six seasons here. Every one of us improved, myself included. When I was younger, I used to get frustrated with myself, lose focus; go into my shell. Stephen got rid of that hot-headedness, rationalised things, made me realise that one or two mistakes were normal, that I had the ability to improve, to become calmer. Everything I’ve won, it’s down to him.”

**

chris-shields-and-stephen-kenny-celebrate Kenny and Shields celebrate their first double success in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Paul Hegarty was different. His CV was decorated by the time he became Kenny’s assistant at Derry in 2004. A self-assured, gregarious chap, he isn’t afraid to speak his mind if he thinks something is wrong. That’s why Kenny picked him out. “People said we were opposites, me being a bit louder, him so softly spoken, but we had the same view on how we wanted to play the game,” Hegarty says. “Like I’d played under some great managers in my day but he was completely different to anyone I’d ever met before. He’s fearless. Like I remember when Paris Saint Germain were coming to play us at the Brandywell in the Uefa Cup. Paris bleedin’ Saint Germain, like! And we were convinced we were going to win. And we should have. Killian (Brennan) hit the bar; Kevin (McHugh) had a cast-iron penalty that wasn’t given. They never had a shot that night. We got a draw but were devastated not to have won. See that Kenny fella, he’ll never approach any game in his life thinking he won’t get all three points. As I said, I’ve never met anyone like him.”

Three men, separated by age and eras, united by their association with Stephen Kenny share their memories of working under Ireland’s new manager. Within a single conversation, O’Brien uses the following words to describe him: sincere, patient, generous, genius, ruthless and persuasive. “Look, we weren’t on much money at Longford, about €50-a-week at the start. But he made it as professional as he could. We were mainly Dublin-based players but he worked out a rota so that different fellas would head down to Longford to train with their youth team on a Monday or Wednesday. Like Stephen was always there. He ran his own meat packaging business back then so he was up at 5 in the morning, off to work, then Monday to Thursday evenings he was training either the Longford-based lads down there, or us guys in Dublin. Friday nights he was watching matches, Saturdays was when we played, Sundays when we’d convene in the Phoenix Park for a warm-down – routinely chased, week after week, by the rangers up there.

stephen-obrien-digital O'Brien pictured during Kenny's final season in Longford. Source: INPHO

“There was no budget so he’d buy you things himself. Anytime you went for that training session in Longford, we’d stop off in Edgeworthstown for a steak sandwich on the way back, Stephen insisting on paying time after time. “Thanks for coming down,” he’d say. Do you know what? He’s just a gentleman. But he’s got a ruthless streak. Don’t think otherwise.”

“Has he what!” asks Hegarty, his throat filled with laughter, his Donegal accent becoming more pronounced as he remembers one of his run-ins with Kenny. It was mid-way through their 2006 Uefa Cup run, a season that ended with Derry falling agonisingly short of the treble. With fixture congestion becoming an issue, and a 5-1 first-leg lead banked, Kenny made nine changes for their return fixture against Gretna.

“Stupidly I asked him if this was a good idea,” Hegarty recalls. “Well, you should have seen the serious head on him as he went right through me for a short-cut. ‘Have you no belief in our squad?’ he shouted at me. Now I mean shout. I was silent.”

That’s a first.

“Aye,” Hegarty laughs. “But he was 100 per cent right. He normally is. He’s got a brilliant eye for things – for a player no one else might rate, for a veteran who people thought was finished. He knew how to manage fellas but see if a player fell out with him, that was it, there was no going back. He’s a tough boy.”

derry-manager-stephen-kenny Kenny celebrates Derry's Uefa Cup victory over Scottish side, Gretna, in 2006. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Shields is a seconder to that motion.

It’s 2018 now, FAI Cup final day, the Aviva Stadium. Sean Hoare scores for Dundalk, and adrenaline pumping, runs half the length of the pitch to celebrate, sliding in front of a section of Dundalk fans. One minute later, he concedes a penalty. Cork equalise. The half-time whistle sounds, Kenny heads straight to the dressing-room, waiting for Hoare.  

Shields takes up the story.

“Stephen just stared at Sean, saying: ‘What the f**k were you doing?’

- ‘Ah, I know, I’m sorry gaffer,’ Sean answered. ‘It’s just my family were all there. I got excited.’

- ‘Well, you wouldn’t have done that in Oriel.’

“Just like that,” Shields continues, “he got us all back down to earth.”

Dundalk went on to win 2-1, the last game Kenny had as their manager.

 

**

Come September he will be back at the Aviva Stadium. There will be more seats sold, a tougher audience to please, an ego-packed dressing room to win over. For the past few days, people have revelled in the deeds of one of the finest managers the League of Ireland has ever produced yet even as the old stories get retold, you can also sense unease in so many minds. Can he win over a dressing room packed with Premier League and Championship players?

Shields has no doubts. “It’s in his DNA to see the game played in an attractive way. When we went on that run in Europe (reaching the Europa League group stages in 2016), we all bought into the idea that the nation was behind us. The League of Ireland may be a league that is dismissed often, but we believed we could beat anyone. So that’s why I’m excited for this period in Irish football. Stephen gets teams to peak.

“Look what he did as Ireland’s Under 21 manager. They’d been underperforming for years. Stephen had them flying. The senior job won’t faze him. Stephen can improve them. I’m not worried.”

Nor is O’Brien. “If a player doesn’t buy into his way of thinking, he’ll not care. He’ll pick someone else because with Stephen, it’s his way or the high way. Look at it coldly, these lads are multi-millionaires, they don’t have to play for Ireland but they do it because they want to. So you are on a positive footing as it is. Now, to add to that, they’ve got this guy, an adventurous coach but also a pragmatic one, who has a history of getting Irish sides to out-think better funded, better talented sides. It’ll happen for him.”

Save the final word for Hegarty: “Well, it doesn’t matter what level you are managing at, you have to earn respect. If Ireland win a few matches, play nice football along the way, Stephen will get that. I’m impressed with his backroom team. I’ve seen him and Keith Andrews together they bounce well off one another. Then you have Damien Duff, a legend. None of those boys can say ‘show us your medals’ to Damien because he’s won more than all of them. Look, I know the man well. He’s got real character. He won’t be afraid to make tough decisions.”

Ask Robbie Keane.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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