Stephen Kenny: Success is possible by playing the right way
Dundalk boss says he finds it 'offensive' when people say long ball is in Irish DNA
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny: “We’re seeded in the Champions League first round and we want to get through that, we’re not thinking negatively at all.”
Even nature is playing ball for Stephen Kenny. As Dundalk got themselves ready for the last game of the league against Bohemians Friday week ago, Kenny found himself having to make plans without not one but two expectant fathers. Chris Shields and Dean Jarvis had to high-tail it to Belfast and Derry respectively, there to be of what meagre assistance they could when the heavy lifting was taking place.
As it happened, the timing couldn’t have been better. If you’re going to lose a couple of players to the maternity ward at the business end of the season, you can’t really ask for more than for it to happen after the league has been won and before the cup final has been played. Even an arch-planner such as Kenny couldn’t have gamed that one out.
“You can go three or four years without being told on a matchday that one of your player’s partners is expecting,” Kenny laughs. “I got two of them in the one day! Both in Northern Ireland – Dean is from Derry obviously and Chris’s partner is from Bangor. Never heard of two happening in one day before.”
Though it is a fourth final against Cork on the bounce, so much has changed since they last went into one as league champions in 2016. Back then, they were flying in from St Petersburg for the final, their heads spinning from a European run that caught everyone’s imagination, inside the league and beyond.
'We’re seeded in the Champions League first round and we want to get through that, we’re not thinking negatively at all'
The turnover of players since then has been significant – Kenny points out that 10 of his current squad won their first league medal in recent weeks.
Beyond the dressingroom, there has been a change at the top of the club as well, an American consortium having taken over at the start of the year. Regardless of how hands-on or -off they are, that brings its own pressures and adds its own context.
“We have new ownership and we hadn’t won anything for them yet and we certainly, from my point of view, we needed to be winning the league,” Kenny says. “Because the best route to success in Europe is through the Champions League. Our co-efficient now is really high for next year. We are now twice seeded in Europe next year.
“We’re seeded in the Champions League first round and we want to get through that, we’re not thinking negatively at all. But if we’re knocked out in the second round, we’re seeded in the third round of the Europa League. So if we win our two matches that we’re seeded in, we’re in a play-off for the Europa League.
“That’s the reality for us, that’s what we have to be aiming at. To get to that point next year where we are playing every midweek and weekend. We want those 12 games in that three- or four-month period. We want those big clubs, the likes of Zenit St Petersburg and Legia Warsaw. These really are massive clubs – you have no real idea of the size of them until you go to the cities themselves. That’s our objective, that’s what we’re planning for.
“You have to plan for that nearly in two-year cycles. Right from the start of this season, we were aiming at a time period almost a year from now. Losing the league sets you back two years, it definitely does. Because to really improve, you want those nights, you want those occasions, you want 33,000 in the Aviva like we had even in the torrential rain in 2016. We want more of that. And that’s not impossible.”
Any suggestion to the contrary invariably draws Kenny back to his perennial bugbear – the lack of self-esteem in Irish soccer. He was asked recently about Patrick McEleney’s failed spell at Oldham and straight away took issue with the inference.
“It was, you know, ‘He couldn’t do it for Oldham so what does that say about the standard here?’ – that kind of thing. Now Patrick is probably most creative player of his generation, you know? He’s a brilliant, brilliant natural talent.
“His career has been up and down, no question, but he did very well for us in the Europa League and in winning the league that year. At Oldham, a lot of stuff was going on behind the scenes and he wasn’t used properly. He was stuck out on the right of a 4-4-2 and his job was to get in there and compete for second balls.
Kenny is adamant that playing the game in a progressive, possession-based way is more important to him than winning
“So when I’m asked about it and the implication is that Oldham is a step up from what we’re doing here, well to me that’s far too simplistic. You’re not taking into account the environment the player is playing in.
“I made the point that when you went through the list of English coaches that had a name for playing a progressive way, you have Eddie Howe and then who comes after that? I’m not saying that all the other English coaches are wrong or anything like that. All I’m asking is why do we assume that if a fella goes to England and doesn’t set the world alight in League Two, it automatically says something about where he came from?”
All of which chimes with the song he’s been singing ever since he took over at Longford as a 27-year-old in the summer of 1998. Success is not impossible. Nor is it required for Irish teams to kick-and-rush their way out of any sticky situation they find themselves in.
Kenny is adamant that playing the game in a progressive, possession-based way is more important to him than winning. Throughout his career, he has heard the same old refrain from perfectly well-intentioned people in the game – it’s all very well to want to get it down and pass it but if you don’t have the players, you don’t have the players. He didn’t accept it 20 years ago and he doesn’t accept it now.
“I just find that attitude so frustrating. I can’t comprehend that. Part of our problem is looking at what players can’t do rather than what they can. Over the years you hear this phrase – ‘Play football in the right areas.’ That’s another one that I absolutely hate.
“Really what that means is get it upfield and let your nine and 10 try and do something with it. You should really want to get on the ball in every area of the pitch, within reason. Obviously, you don’t take ridiculous risks. But certainly you need to take risks and trust your players to be comfortable in possession.
'You’re going to be cut open from time to time. You’re going to get punished. But there’s a greater reward'
“This is what I was saying about English football but I want to be careful it doesn’t sound like I’m criticising anyone in particular because I’m not. It’s just a thing in the English game, a whole generation of coaches influenced by that sort of no-risk football and players who’ve come through playing that way. They’ve been institutionalised in their way of thinking and they don’t think there’s another way. Or they think payers are not capable of another way.
“And we’ve had it here with Jack Charlton and it coincided with our most successful ever period of international football and so people have been influenced by it and they think it’s the way we play. They think that suits us, that it’s in our DNA in Irish football. And I find that offensive, I really can’t stomach that idea. I can’t tell you how much I really dislike it.”
When you bring up the international team in this context, he is quick to stress again he isn’t talking about anyone in particular.
“It’s the mindset I’m talking about, not any one coach or team or anything like that. And I know I have to get better myself. I’m not here saying I know everything. But there is a different way. And we can’t be indoctrinated into thinking there isn’t. You can be successful playing the right way. It can be done.
“It’s not easy. You’re going to be cut open from time to time. You’re going to give away goals that look awful. You’re going to get punished. We got punished a few times in Europe in 2016 for trying to play the way we play. But there’s a greater reward.”
Season by season, trophy by trophy, he has been living proof of that at least.