Kenny goes Forth to meet new challenge

 

Tom Humphrieson a singular managerial talent who leaves Derry City in a much healthier state as he gets to grips with life in Dunfermline

The "despicable" Stephen Kenny is as baffled as anyone. This year's Eircom League campaign ended in a welcome cliffhanger. Derry City and Shels duking it out for what would be a hairsbreadth championship for either side. Shels prevailed but Derry, under the guidance of Kenny, with a great European adventure under their belt had brought some attention and glamour back to the creaky world of domestic soccer.

With the RTÉ cameras live at Tolka Park as Shels took the trophy on goal difference it was a time for celebration. Looking for post-match colour, RTÉ found Stuart Byrne of Shels. To the alarm of the RTÉ producers Stuie pronounced himself an "angry man". A former player of Kenny's, he denounced his old manager as "despicable", told RTÉ viewers the Scottish Premier League was welcome to him and veered recklessly along the legal borderline between mere vulgar abuse and full-on, call-the-lawyers slander.

Kenny, a quiet, thoughtful man about whom it is difficult to find somebody, anybody, with a bad word to say, heard about the attack later. He was as flabbergasted as anyone.

"I know about it. Everyone asks. Everyone thinks there must be more to it. If there is more to it, I'd like to know. I've always got on well with Stuart. He's always been very nice and friendly to me. Where that came from I've no idea." None.

"With the entire points scenario with Shelbourne and Derry I said I felt if Shels got a replay (after a game with Bohs where an illegal player was fielded by the Dublin club) it would have been a scandal. I know that after that there was a lot of stuff from Shels leaking out against me. Then there was a story I rang up all the Bohs players before their last game of the season (against Shels), which is completely untrue.

"Maybe it was somebody being clever, motivating the Shels players with that . . . I don't know. It wasn't something that would be a pleasure for your mother and father to be listening to on the telly."

That's the world he leaves behind. The domestic game, which under bright men like Kenny looks sometimes capable of reform and prosperity and at other times, when riven by rumours, bankruptcies and legal actions, looks merely unsustainable.

When Kenny waves goodbye tomorrow in Lansdowne Road to the league and to the Derry club which he has transformed he will take with him the greatest managerial talent the domestic game has seen in many years.

A SMALL PART OF HIS odd trade is what Kenny calls "a touch of the Alan Partridge". That business, in the wake of a change of job, when a footballer or football manager finds himself in a new city living full-time in a hotel, getting to know the hotel staff with a thoroughness which is surprising and slightly depressing to both.

When Kenny checks back in to his lodgings on Monday morning before heading to training at Petreavie he could give quite a long-winded answer to a harmless question about how his weekend was.

Today at Rugby Park he manages Dunfermline Athletic against Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premier League. Dunfermline, at the moment, are relegation fodder. Kilmarnock are the sort of lean and trim top-six outfit they yearn to be. It's an interesting test.

Then tomorrow at Lansdowne Road he works the dugout as Derry City aim to add an FAI Cup win to the history of an epic 54-match season which has seen them play six games in Europe, losing only once, in the Parc des Princes to the mighty PSG, a season which has brought them a League Cup and seen them finish runners-up in the championship table for the second year in a row, losing out this time on goal difference.

Should Derry win it will be right and fitting that Kenny be there to preside over and enjoy the last act of a short and miraculous career in the domestic game.

He started young with underage teams at St Patrick's Athletic.

"Yeah, very young," he says vaguely, not wanting to get into it all. When he talks about management, be it at Longford, where he made his bones as a boss, or at Dunfermline, where he begins work at an entire new level, he speaks about people and aspirations. It's easy to understand why every club he has moved on from, even Bohs, who, astonishingly and mercilessly, sacked him after a European defeat, have felt the pain of his loss.

"It's hard for me to answer questions about where I've been or how I'm regarded," he says with a caution which doesn't blunt his honesty. "But without sounding pretentious, when you take over a club you try to understand what's important to the club, you try to create a team that reflects that club. That's the way I've trained every club.

"Longford was rural club, a different challenge. It was a big self-esteem thing in Longford to have a team doing well. With Bohs, well Dublin is fragmented so it was straightforward about being successful.

"Derry was different because of the history of Derry, which is fascinating. It was about the importance of the club to the city. It's more important to the city than any other club in Ireland is to its home place. You might say Cork but the GAA is huge in Cork city. In Derry it's different."

It is, even though the Brandywell sits cheek by jowl with the GAA's Celtic Park and the city looks to soccer and its beloved Candystripes for its kicks. Kenny reopened a vein of passion there which many thought had hardened and narrowed.

A young team representing a well-organised, well-backed club comes to Lansdowne Road tomorrow. As with every job he has done, what he leaves is healthier than what he found.

It's time for moving on, though. One of the first principles of management: don't get too attached. At Longford, during a three-year spell which began when he was just 27 years old, he brought the local side to an FAI Cup final which they lost narrowly, to promotion to the Eircom League Premier Division and on into a Uefa Cup campaign.

Five years ago he moved on to Bohemians. He describes his CV as less of a "career path and more a series of opportunities". Having signed on the line for Bohs he found himself at the centre of an odd little controversy when Longford, while still professing their love for him, sued him for travelling on the Bohs team bus to an FAI Cup tie with Longford in the first fixture after his move.

Bohs provided the key lesson: eaten bread is soon forgotten. Kenny hauled the club out of the relegation quicksands and took them to a runners-up spot in the league and an FAI Cup final in his first half-season in charge. His first full year (2002/2003) he brought Bohemians to the Premier Division title and then a year later to another runners-up spot. His third full season began poorly and was injury-poxed but Bohs had turned the corner and were in an albeit distant third place when they lost at home to FC Levadia Tallinn of Estonia.

Worse fates have befallen domestic clubs in their European adventures but Bohemians had banked on a little success. Kenny was sacked the next day.

He was unemployed for just three weeks when he took over at the Brandywell. As usual, he was required to perform surgery on a struggling club. Although he moves on without a league title win, Derry have arguably been his greatest success. It's unusual for clubs from across the water to come calling for Irish managerial talent (Roddy Collins was recruited by fellow Irishman John Courtney) but Kenny is an unusual talent and his side's feats in dumping both Gothenburg and Gretna out of this season's Uefa Cup attracted more than a little attention. So another opportunity opened its arms.

"My first reaction was that this was bad timing," he says of the day he learned Dunfermline wanted him. "I knew the timing wasn't great but that I had to take it. I was happy with the way it was going with Derry: a good side there, chasing the treble, all young players, seven or eight under 23, players starting, lots of players from Derry, people committed to the club.

"The future looked very good; we've had a great year financially, with people coming on board behind the scenes. And family life was great."

Family was a huge consideration for a man who lists himself as having no hobbies other than spending time with the kids. He doesn't golf, drinks little and hasn't been involved in dogging, roasting or even clubbing.

"We loved the life we had there. We were living 20 minutes from Derry in Donegal, out in the country, right beside the beach. It was a very, very good life. From that point of view this is hard but it's up a level again - you have to take an opportunity like that. A lot of very good managers haven't had that chance. I went home and Siobhán just said, 'You have to take it'."

With four small kids, the move is not without its difficulties. Estate agents are busy whisking Kenny around Dunfermline looking for a place which might tide him over till after the Christmas. Family and kids have the school year to see out, a struggle for Niamh, the eldest, who began school life in Dublin, then had time in Derry and Donegal and starts next September in Scotland. Kenny's disclosure that Balamory, Miss Hoolie and Archie are all Scottish hasn't been quite the propaganda coup he hoped.

THESE PAST WEEKS have been the oddest, perhaps, in an unusual career. On Wednesday he was in Derry for a training session. The next morning back for the increasingly familiar journey across the Forth Bridge from Edinburgh to Dunfermline to take his new charges for another session.

"I haven't even really seen Dunfermline as a town. No chance to walk around. I just know it's an old mining town, a lot of dockers there too in its heyday, but I haven't really had a look."

And why are they called The Pars? Hmmm. Kenny doesn't know.

"Hey, Craig," he calls to assistant manager, Craig Robertson, "why are Dunfermline called the Pars?"

No satisfactory answer comes back.

"Hmmm," says Kenny. "Even Craig doesn't know and he was a record signing here."

He resolves to find out, all part of the thoroughness which has already been sweeping through the club like a freshening breeze. The pitches at the training centre are poor and Kenny would rather have no dressingrooms and good pitches rather than the other way around. The groundsmen have agreed a rota and will spend days working on the training field as well as at East End Park.

The players' lives have changed and instead of vanishing after training towards the pitfalls of potentially dissolute lives they dine together on pasta and go and do weights work in the afternoons.

People are asking already about whether Kenny intends waving a chequebook around when the window for such activity opens next month. He thinks not.

"We've 11 players injured right now. A few players with profiles. Mark Burchill is due back. Mark's a good player. He hasn't kicked a ball this year. He should be back. Stevie Crawford too. He's a Scottish international. They haven't played together. They have the potential to be a good pairing."

The SPL surely represents a different challenge from any previous job in that the gulf between the Old Firm sides and everybody else is bigger than any gulf which exists in the Irish domestic game, even between those sides risking bankruptcy for success and the rest.

"I don't really see a limit," he says. "I don't see that. I'm not saying we will win the Scottish Premier but people think finishing sixth would be an achievement. Well staying up this year will be an achievement but once you get a pre-season done and get organised the way you want and create a morale and an environment for players to thrive in, I wouldn't put limits on it at all. Again, I'm not saying we'll win the SPL but if you accept limits you can fall short even of them. Okay, there are limits in that Celtic's budget and our budget are a million miles apart. That's not the whole picture, though.

"As regards January, there is no point bringing more players in on top of what we have. I want the infrastructure right, the bodies out of the treatment room to see what we have - no point in having 24 or 25 players without proper back-up. We need to have the right components, the correct medical back-up. Technical staff offer back-up and support for everyone. That's the priority."

Today it's Kilmarnock. Next week they entertain Celtic at home (a matter of emotional indifference to Kenny, who grew up with an interest in Aberdeen). Then there is a run of games which offer promise if the infirmary empties out. St Mirren, Inverness and Motherwell, the last two at home.

His mind is already racing ahead of tomorrow, computing the possibilities of this new challenge. Meanwhile, there is another weekend of commuting, and the emotion of his goodbye to the town he loved so well.

Dunfermline, he says, have been wonderfully understanding about everything and this last fling with Derry has involved no time off from Scotland. Even if it had, one senses Dunfermline would have accommodated Kenny. They know, unlike so many in the myopic domestic game, they have a manager worth keeping.

u There are at least three theories surrounding Dunfermline's nickname. Most prevalent and dull is it derives from the parallel stripes on the team's shirts.

Another suggests it emanates from the armaments workers who came to work at Rosyth and maintained their links with home by unveiling banners at the Dunfermline ground which read Plymouth Argyle (Rosyth) Supporters Club.

In the new era of pasta and weights another theory which bears investigation is the club's players in the early days did their best business in the bar and were nicknamed the Paralytics.

Finally, the Gaelic for Dunfermline is Dùn Phàrlain.