Stephen Kenny: St Pat’s not yet ready to challenge for League of Ireland title

St Patrick’s Athletic lost their first game under the former Republic of Ireland manager 1-0 to Derry at Richmond Park

St Patrick’s Athletic will not challenge for the League of Ireland Premier Division title in 2024, and until the squad that former Ireland manager Stephen Kenny has inherited is significantly improved, progress will be slow at Richmond Park.

That was Kenny’s initial assessment following the 1-0 loss on Friday night to a Derry City side managed by his protégé Ruaidhrí Higgins.

“St Pat’s? No I wouldn’t think we’re in this title race being realistic,” he said. “I looked at the squad and didn’t feel we would be ready for a title challenge, I knew that for sure.”

St Pat’ lie seventh in the table, 12 points behind front runners Shelbourne, after 17 games.


“Obviously we’re looking to rebuild for next year as well. We want to win matches and finish up as high as we can.”

This is a familiar approach from Kenny, who indicated during Ireland’s struggles to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that the main aim was to win the following season’s Nations League B while building a team capable of reaching the Euros in Germany this summer.

Neither prediction came to pass.

Squad building at St Pat’s and Ireland are completely different enterprises, with Kenny non-committal about club owner Garrett Kelleher providing the finances to enhance the playing panel before the Europa Conference League qualifiers in July.

“I’m only in the door yesterday, we’ll have to wait and see,” he replied.

“You can see the difference in the squads. I’ve looked at their bench and seen attacking players like Michael Duffy, Danny Kelly and they bring on Patrick McEleney and obviously have Danny Mullen centre forward as well so they have a lot of good attacking players, Derry. It’s an interesting title race and they’ll be right up there.”

Kenny dismissed the suggestion of lingering tension between himself and Shelbourne manager Damien Duff, who resigned as his Ireland assistant coach after just six months in 2021, ahead of Monday’s Dublin derby at Richmond Park.

“Damien would always have texted me before every game and likewise I’ve talked to him, not on the phone to him all the time or anything like that but we’d see each other at matches. I was at the Dundalk-Shels game pre-season because Eoin [Kenny’s son] was playing in it and he invited me into his office for a quick chat and all that type of stuff.”

Just the one game back in League of Ireland management, after a six year hiatus with Ireland seniors and under-21s, the 52 year old gave little away but Derry boss Ruaidhri Higgins had plenty to say about his former boss.

“Listen, I’ll look after my team and Stephen will look after his,” said Higgins. “It’s strange, someone who I’m really close to and someone who has been the most influential person in my career from playing to now, it’s strange.

“But we’re in opposition dugouts now and it is what it is. It’s what life throws up at you.

“I think it’s absolutely brilliant for the league, the domestic game, you just look at the league now and the two that pop into your head I suppose are Damien and Stephen, the profile of the league has grown, which is brilliant, you see the crowds, and it’s amazing to be part of.

“The more successful and influential personalities and characters we have in the league the better because we’re all in agreement that we want the league to grow here.”

Speaking of growing, Mason Melia is a striker that Kenny can rebuild the St Pat’s squad around. The 16-year-old continues to threaten the spectacular while receiving plenty of attention from seasoned centre halves.

“Aye he’s an outstanding talent,” said Higgins, “an incredible talent, and I don’t think there is a ceiling for him given the attributes that he has but I thought our lads, from front to back, defended extremely well.”

Kenny is understandably cautious about the Ireland under-17 international’s potential.

“I know he has been scoring goals at underage level and doing very well. His progress has been remarkable and the goal he got last week [against Shamrock Rovers] was really impressive.

“It’s too early to give my assessment, I haven’t really seen enough of Mason yet, but I do know he has a very good attitude and wants to get better. To be playing at 16 here is unusual.

“I remember giving Patrick McEleney his debut at 17 and he played regularly, he wasn’t an out-and-out number nine, he was a second striker at that stage but a different type of player.

“It’s not easy leading the line, Mason was really tightly marked. Cameron McJannet was coming in really tight, and yeah he coughed it up a little bit at times, but that’s part of the learning process. His work rate was phenomenal, pressing was very good, he’s a threat on the last line.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent