Stephen Kenny interview: Progress in Europe the icing on the cake
Dundalk manager has long plotted his side’s eventful campaign on the European stage
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny celebrates winning the Premier League after victory over Bohemians at Oriel Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
On the morning of a game, Stephen Kenny likes to get breakfast in one of the bank of dinky little cafes that line Blackrock, the seaside village about three miles outside Dundalk. When he’s done, and if time allows, he likes to walk into town afterwards, picking his way along the shoreline. Most of his route is beach underfoot; for some of it, he hops from rock to rock. Clear the mind, sharpen the mind.
All of this is precarious. He doesn’t need telling on that score. In the summer of 2004, Bohemians got knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Levadia Talinn and Kenny got handed his walking papers the next day.
He was 32-years-old with a wife, two kids plus another on the way, a mortgage and no pay packet.
“I had the [family meat] business going while I was part-time with Longford and so I’d had to make the decision whether to go full-time into football or to get a bigger unit and commit to the business and really push it. I decided to pack it in and go full-time with Bohemians. I’ve always sort of been a risk-taker and gone with what I wanted to do.
“I had given up everything to do with the business and Siobhán had given up her job as well to take care of the kids because there was a third child on the way. She had a really good job and she gave it up.
“But then, even though Bohemians were second in the league, we were in the league cup final and in the quarter-finals of the FAI Cup, they made the decision to change.
“So we went from having three incomes to having none in a very short space of time. You leave yourself very exposed. I had no car all of a sudden because I had been driving a club car. Siobhán had a car alright but it was brought home very quickly how exposed you were. The Derry job happened quite quickly so the situation turned out okay but it did bring it home to you.”
The ground is never too steady under your feet. Away back in July when barely anyone was taking notice, Dundalk’s odyssey looked about as epic as a trip to the shop to buy fags. They had drawn at home with FC Hafnarfjördur, given up an away goal into the bargain and now, in the return leg in Iceland, had gone 1-0 down after six minutes.
Sitting in the dressing room at half-time that night, all of their plans, all of their big intentions for the year were looking worthless. They had been talking amongst themselves about having the season of all seasons, about winning the league for a third year on the bounce, about doing the double, about making an impact in Europe. And here they were, needing to score two goals in the second half away from home.
“And then we went out and missed a penalty!” Kenny laughs now. “We missed a penalty before we scored even one goal. But we got our two goals and even though we were hanging on a bit at the end, we came through. It just goes to show what the margins are.
It’s early on Thursday morning and already his head is crackling with the logistics of next week’s trip to St Petersburg.
They fly to Russia on Tuesday, play Zenit on Thursday, stay and recover before coming back for the FAI Cup final against Cork City in the Aviva next Sunday. The flight is a charter and the slots have been moved around a bit, potentially messing up sleep schedules. Nice problems to have are still problems.
“As soon as we saw the Europe League fixtures, we said we want to fly in from Russia, land in Ballsbridge and go and play the cup final. We were saying that nearly before even our second game in the cup.
“We wanted to give the players a concept to buy into and this idea of flying in from Russia for the cup final is something we’ve been banging the drum on for a couple of months. We’ve been talking about having a season of all seasons.”
However it ends, they’ve had that at least. Dundalk are the best story in Irish sport just now. Three leagues on the spin is fine and dandy but it doesn’t capture many imaginations that wouldn’t have been friendly to the domestic game anyway. But winning games in Europe, coming out ahead of teams that logic and economics says they shouldn’t have a hope against, that’s revolutionary.
The man leading them can make for an unlikely Guevara at times. Stephen Kenny turns 45 tomorrow and even now, even after he’s spent 18 seasons on and off managing teams here and in Scotland, it’s not always obvious how such a thoughtful, earnest, quietly-spoken guy can and does prosper in such a merciless game.
“I never had a concern about that,” he says after a pause. “I had an underlying confidence. You’re right, just because I articulate things in a quiet and understated manner in public, people might think that’s how I am all the time. But behind the dressing-room door, I would be quite different.
“I don’t have that sort of natural aggression of someone like a Dermot Keely. So how do I deal with that? What do I do? I’m aware of that and always have been. I don’t think I lack passion, I wouldn’t say that at all. I get myself into a frame of mind for every game.”
“I lock myself away. I live here in Dundalk on my own so I obviously have a lot of space and time to get myself right ahead of games. But even when I lived in Donegal with the family, Siobhán and the kids would just leave me alone on matchdays to get my head right. I would lock myself away and put on some music.
“Music is important to me. I lock myself away and play music and use it to evoke feelings in myself and to help me think about things I might say. If you’re doing 53 matches in 35 weeks, you can’t just come in with the same stuff every time. You’re trying to get your players up every couple of days. You have to be creative yourself, you have to evoke different emotions for each scenario. Music gets you in the frame of mind to do that. Sometimes I will feel like I need a real raw edge before I go out the door.
“The whole indie scene would have been my thing. So the Arctic’s first album, a lot of the guitar solos in that would be the stuff that gets me in the frame of mind I want to be in going out.
“For me, I have to evoke things, even things that have happened in my life, before I go into a dressing room. I have to get myself to where I need to be before I can start speaking. I don’t just go in and start talking without having been thinking about it before. For me to extract every ounce out of a player, I need to find the thing that will evoke passion in myself first. I need to work at that.”
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“We couldn’t move them again. It’s been a tough couple of years. The more successful you are, the less you get home. It’s not too bad – two-and-a-half hours from here basically. I’m not going to complain about that. Life is good. I wouldn’t have planned it like this but that’s it.
“It’s not something I’m proud of. Certainly not. I think the role of a father or a parent is to provide stability for their children and I certainly haven’t done that. So that’s not an aspect that I’m proud of. That wasn’t really part of the plan.”
He makes the best of it. After the cup final, his time will loosen out. They’re in second spot in Group D of the Europa League after three games and though nobody can reasonably expect anything from their trip to St Petersburg, they have AZ Alkmaar coming to Tallaght three weeks later.
Get anything from that – and they’ve already drawn with them in Holland, remember – and they will go to Tel Aviv for the final game a fortnight later with a clear and genuine chance of making the knock-out stages. These are heady times.
“The whole inferiority thing is a big thing for Irish players. All the teams we’ve played have had internationals. Hafnarfjördur had Icelandic internationals, BATE Borisov had 14, Legia had 14, Macabi had 16 and I think Zenit have 18. We have none. So the first job was convincing our team that we have an exceptionally talented group and that we can beat these teams.
Kenny has always been a pusher of outsized dreams. When he took over Longford Town at the age of 27, he told players when he signed them he was aiming for European football. Within three years, Bulgarian side Litex Lovech were in Flancare Park. In his second spell with Derry, they beat Gothenburg home and away and held Paris Saint-Germain to a scoreless draw in the Brandywell. This wasn’t inevitable but it was always more doable than most people not named Stephen Kenny imagined.
“It wasn’t an overnight thing for me. I was trying to do this for a while. I definitely thought it was possible. When the clubs and the league went through a barren period a few years ago, you’d be held up to a bit of ridicule to say that something like this could happen. People would be going, ‘Are you dreaming, or what?’ You’d be shot down for suggesting it. But I’ve been really desperate to do it.”
And so here he is. And here they are. Still running merrily along in the season they don’t want to end. Still picking their way across the rocks, getting closer to the town as they go.