Stephen Kenny has earned the chance to make a difference
Throughout his career, the Dubliner has made the most of initially meagre resources
New Republic of Ireland under-21 manager Stephen Kenny has earned his chance at an international job. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Oriel Park, Dundalk, a slow Wednesday afternoon, June 2017.
Turning left at the Spar on Carrickmacross Road, a sign on the back of the main stand declares you are approaching “The Home of Football”.
On occasion, some of them recently, locals may have felt that way about Oriel Park, but the ground which first gave soccer a home in 1919 looks its age. To make something work here, a man needs talent.
Upstairs in the empty lounge framed programmes proudly tell the Dundalk FC story. There are lots of them: Glasgow Rangers in 1968, Linfield in the European Cup in 1979 – the second leg of which was played in Holland due to the trouble in Dundalk at the first.
That programme rests beside a photograph, taken from above, of Oriel Park in 1953. This black and white aerial of Oriel reveals little to have changed in 64 years. In walks Stephen Kenny.
Under Kenny, then 45, Dundalk had won the League of Ireland title in the previous three seasons and were preparing for Champions League qualifiers against Rosenborg of Norway.
Rosenborg occupy a 21,000 all-seater stadium and a municipal investment sports culture missing in Ireland. To them Oriel Park will have seemed like a museum piece.
Yet from this set-up, Kenny, his players, indeed all at Dundalk FC were competitive against financially, structurally, superior Scandinavians. Over two legs, Rosenborg could not beat Dundalk. It required extra-time in the second leg in Trondheim for them, finally, to get a winner. “Bloody Oriel Park,” Kenny said, in a short burst of honest anger afterwards.
The old stadium was not really his target. It was the symbol of a greater Kenny frustration with domestic Irish football and an infrastructure sometimes barely worthy of the name.
This is what we spoke about a few weeks before Rosenborg, up in the Oriel lounge: for clubs to grow, to retain young players or make progress in Europe, Irish football had to give itself a chance.
For that to happen, Irish football had to find some self-respect. Kenny did not use the phrase himself – self-respect. What he said was: “Sometimes we don’t set the bar high enough ourselves. Demand more.”
We had never met. Kenny had kindly agreed to contribute to a book on Irish football, ancient and modern, on the topic of the state of the League of Ireland. I’d been told that he was not your standard-issue football manager, that he was someone who could talk at length about the Stone Roses for instance.
But we never got to Sally Cinnamon, Kenny was too engrossed discussing subjects such as Paul Byrne, Niall McGinn, the mental geography of Derry, soup and Utopia. All of which were ingredients to help emphasise the main beef – infrastructure, money, exposure.
McGinn was a player Kenny signed in 2008, when he was manager of Derry City.
“When we got to the FAI Cup final,” Kenny explained, “it was held in the RDS. It was a proper match in a proper stadium and Niall had a good game.
“Swansea bid £200,000 for him – Roberto Martinez said he would put Niall straight into his team in the Championship. Celtic came in and matched it and he chose to go to Celtic. The point is about presentation.”
Kenny’s belief is that the framework of the League of Ireland undersells its product – literally so in the case of Seamus Coleman, or 60 grand Seamus Coleman as Evertonians sing.
His belief is that the setting, the background, the environment of Irish football holds it back. His reference to McGinn was to show how a venue worthy of a player’s ability alters the perception of the player’s worth, economically and as a footballer.
“They played good matches in good stadiums and got their move,” was his answer.
As of last weekend, this leads back to Kenny. He has gone from stages he has had to build himself or help to rebuild – at Tallaght Town, Longford and Dundalk – to the Football Association of Ireland. This will frame him differently.
It is a jump, but it is not an inappropriate one. Some may have difficulty seeing Kenny as an FAI officer and future Ireland manager, but providing the FAI facilitate his energy and enable him, that view should change.
“How do we make it better?” Kenny asked that day of the League of Ireland. “We need to be more creative. There’s a lack of money invested in the game, a lack of promotion. Poor stadiums, poor facilities. These things aren’t really considered in a major way. We’ve got the Uefa money here [Dundalk]. In European cities the local government build a lot of the stadiums.”
These, obviously, are not the opinions of a manager simply focused on winning the next 90 minutes. Kenny’s appreciation goes well beyond that. It has been forged in the experience, 30 years of it now, of Irish football reality.
Even amid youthful optimism about what might be for a teenaged midfielder in Tallaght, Kenny demonstrated that awareness. He rewound to the Kennedy Cup of 1989.
“I played for Dublin in that and lost,” he recalled, “and the person who caused that was none other than Roy Keane. I was playing against him in midfield and he scored twice.
“Then I played against him for Belvedere against Cobh. We beat them, but two months later he made his debut for [Nottingham] Forest at Anfield.”
Kenny had been in England himself: “I played school football with Bluebell, all-Ireland champions, along with Paul Byrne who went to Celtic. We went to Oxford United together, when John Aldridge was there. I didn’t sign, Paul did. He was a star, the best player of his age in the country, went on to Arsenal.
“Funnily enough, years later when I was manager of Bohemians I had to let him go. I said if you’re not going to get fit for Arsenal or Celtic . . . the flipside is that I signed his son Kurtis. Kurtis played for me here [at Dundalk].”
Kenny understood Keane and Byrne in the context of his own limitations. That’s a coach’s understanding.
He signed for Brian Kerr at St Patrick’s Athletic, played for Home Farm and then at 22 – not 42 or 62 – founded Tallaght Town while working in an aluminium fabrication factory.
“I’m from Tallaght,” he said. “I’d a Utopian idea, Tallaght had no team in the League of Ireland and there’s 100,000 people there. If we could have a team, we could actually be nearly the biggest club in Ireland.
“I set up Tallaght Town, I was 22, player-coach. Paddy Dempsey was the manager. We won a few promotions. Then Shamrock Rovers came to Tallaght, took the club over as its nursery.
“But they’d all their own people. I ended up at Longford Town. I’m 27. There were a few rails around the pitch, bit of a shed. They’d finished bottom of the league. Their very existence was threatened. They’d have 60 people at a match.
“It’s a GAA county essentially and it’s sparsely populated, 30,000 [actually 40,000 according to 2016 census ] spread across the county. Longford’s a small town. We brought in young players from reserve teams. There wasn’t much pay but they’d play.
“We tried to create an environment that people enjoy and want to be part of. We got promoted in our second year. In our third season we were leading the Premier Division for a while, we reached the FAI Cup final and got into Europe. We were getting a few thousand then.”
For European football, Longford reconstructed their ground. Kenny laid this foundation. He went to Bohemians and won the league. Then Derry City – he won the cup and the club won in Europe for the first time in 40 years.
“I was always fascinated by Derry from the outside looking in,” he said, “the only team from the North playing in the South. I sort-of understood their detachment from Belfast and Dublin – isolationist – their viewpoint.
“There was talk of an all-Ireland League. Jim Roddy was a Derry director then and he felt it could happen, he was passionate about it. I believed it might happen. I knew Derry was a football city and what you could achieve there in an all-Ireland league.
“Not that they’d much there then. When I got on the team bus to go to a match at Shelbourne there were five of us. We met the rest in the hotel in Dublin - they didn’t train in Derry. It was real part-time stuff.
“The following year I said that everyone had to live in Derry, it was all or nothing. We lost a few players. It was great, we got into Europe. We won the FAI Cup, the League Cup, lost the league on goal difference. People still refer to it: ‘You blew it, bottled it.’”
Success brought a move to Dunfermline in Scotland. It half-worked. Back to Derry City, then Shamrock Rovers succeeding Michael O’Neill.
Dunfermline and Rovers: you could call those Kenny’s hard yards, but that would suggest it’s been easy elsewhere. And in late 2012, not long after his 41st birthday, Kenny arrived at Oriel Park.
“It’s raw, Dundalk, a border town, gets a negative press. But it’s a good place. Facilities are limited but the rawness of the support helped us.
“Dundalk won the league in 1995 but in the 19 years after they’d never finished in the top four and had been in the First Division for seven years. They could get 700 then.”
Dundalk’s directors travelled to Donegal, where their chosen Dubliner had settled.
“I’d been offered the job three times previously and in better circumstances. But I was hurt [after Shamrock Rovers], never been out of work. And I’m a father of four. They came up to the house, said there’s no shortlist. I made them soup. They slag me now: ‘What did you put in that soup?’
“It was a blank canvas but it wasn’t an easy sell. None of the top players in the league would come here, we couldn’t pay them and they wouldn’t commute.
“I also wanted to play in a certain way and there was a perception that you can’t win a league playing that way. That was very important. We moulded a team from more or less nothing, but I didn’t envisage it would go this well.”
Now, at 47, he has finally achieved official recognition. He has long had it from those inside the league who know the day-to-day difficulties, the inevitable short-termism of relative poverty. Now Kenny will have the authority and power to plan. He will be able to shape a subject he understands as well as anyone.
Two themes of his career are development and renewal. Those are qualities to back and support. He will make mistakes, everybody does. But – intelligent, aware, Utopian and self-made, and immersed in Irish football – Stephen Kenny has earned the opportunity to once again make a difference.