Teenager let loose at the wrong time

Interview Mark Kennedy: Andy Fifield talks to the former Republic of Ireland international who looks back with some regret on…

Interview Mark Kennedy: Andy Fifieldtalks to the former Republic of Ireland international who looks back with some regret on a talent wasted

Mistakes? Mark Kennedy's made a few. Big ones, too - being arrested for recreating Starsky and Hutch action sequences on a police officer's car bonnet, a charge for dangerous driving a year later. But his biggest transgression? Failing to make the most of a rare, royal talent. In a career pockmarked by trivial controversies it is his one lasting regret. "I know I should have had a better career," he said. "Yeah, I've got international caps and a few awards, but there's lots that I should have achieved but never did."

Kennedy is at that time of life when retrospection comes easily. Next month he turns 31. It is 12 years since a goal of startling, shimmering beauty in an FA Cup third-round tie for Millwall against Arsenal propelled Kennedy - then a gangly teenager - into superstardom. Two months later, he became most expensive teenager in Britain when Roy Evans, manager of his boyhood heroes Liverpool, signed him for £2 million.

It should have been the start of an extraordinary career. Instead, that move sparked a slow downward spiral in Kennedy's fortunes. He made five Premiership starts in three excruciating years before admitting defeat and signing for Wimbledon. Now, he finds himself kicking around among the dead men in the Championship with Crystal Palace - the star that never was.


Kennedy is not looking for sympathy. He accepts responsibility for his misdemeanours - his "ups and downs", as he calls them - and appreciates they served as a brutal education. But bubbling away under his easy-going persona is a deep-rooted grievance at the lack of support he received from Liverpool.

In an age when high-profile young players are mollycoddled to almost absurd degrees, it is difficult to rationalise the way in which Kennedy - a wide-eyed Dubliner whose apprenticeship at Millwall had been cut short by his precocious progress - was allowed to self-destruct by the senior management at Anfield.

"I was 18 when I signed for Liverpool, the most expensive teenager in Britain, and I didn't have a clue about what was going on," Kennedy said. "There was no guidance or advice - I was just thrown into this big, wide world.

"If I could change anything in my career, it would be the timing of it. I would love to have come through about 10 years later because youngsters get a lot more help from their clubs these days. When I came through, there was only really Ryan Giggs and John Hartson playing in the first teams of their clubs.

"Nowadays, there are so many talented youngsters around and managers aren't afraid to play them. And because there are more of them, there are more people around the clubs looking after them. That helps them to be much more professional - they are taught the rights and wrongs, what you can and can't do, and it's been better for the game. But it's something I never received."

The name-checking of Giggs is pointed. Like Kennedy, the Welsh winger was inclined to stray in his youth.There was the celebrated other half, in his case, the television presenter Dani Behr, the wild parties with fellow youth-team graduate Lee Sharpe, the late nights and loose living.

Giggs might also have descended into obscurity, but for the intervention of the iron-willed Alex Ferguson. But Liverpool were different - Evans lacked the ruthlessness to stamp out such slackness and the result was the flourishing of the infamous "Spice Boy" culture, encapsulated by the club's players parading around Wembley before the 1996 FA Cup final in white Armani suits.

Evans, one of football's genuine good guys, was the wrong manager for Kennedy and it is intriguing to speculate how the young tyro might have fared under Ferguson and his on-field lieutenant, Roy Keane.

Kennedy left Liverpool in 1998, but his demons travelled with him, first to Wimbledon and then to Manchester City. His nadir came in 2000 when he and his Ireland colleague, Phil Babb, were arrested in Dublin five days before a crucial World Cup qualifier against Holland.

The charges were breaching the peace, being drunk and disorderly and causing criminal damage to a Garda car, although quite how much damage can be caused by rolling over the bonnet, pretending to be a fictional American crime-fighter, is open to debate. The punishment was a 1,400 fine, ejection from the national squad and, more damagingly, an unwanted reputation for being a troublemaker with a taste for the grog.

"I think I am genuinely a decent bloke and quite easy-going," Kennedy said. "But I made a mistake and ended up bringing a lot of negative publicity on myself. The result of that was I was regularly splashed on the front and back pages of newspapers for doing things that weren't true. I ended up having to go to court to get them disproved, and even though I won the cases, it was traumatic to go through, particularly at that age.

"I just wish I had been given some help. In one of the court cases, I stood to lose an absolute fortune if I lost and I spoke to a very high-profile solicitor who told me just to take it on the chin. But I couldn't - not when I had fans coming up to me in the street asking me why I was behaving like that or asking my family questions. I had to go all the way but I wouldn't wish it on anybody."

That case came in 2002 when Kennedy successfully sued the Sun newspaper for alleging that he had confronted the former England captain David Beckham at a night-club and then, subsequently, the flats where they were neighbours. One of the more outlandish claims was that Kennedy had accused Beckham's wife, Victoria, of having "fake boobs". The paper paid substantial damages and apologised, but the stigma stuck.

Kennedy's international career had ended six months earlier, the winger collecting his 34th and final cap in the home friendly victory over Russia. He remains resentful at the way he was treated, first by Brian Kerr - "I don't have a lot of time for him," he declared last November - and then Steve Staunton, who has not even spoken to him since taking charge of the national team.

Kennedy's chagrin is understandable. He developed a new side to his game at Wolves, drifting away from the left wing and into a more central role, and the results were startling. He helped the club win promotion in 2003 and was appointed club captain by Glenn Hoddle, although none of that was enough to trigger a return to the international scene.

He admits now that his days in a green shirt are over, and much of his bitterness has given way to relief.

"The Ireland camp is a very harsh environment to be in now, in terms of the fans and the media scrutiny," he said. "It was getting that way towards the end of my career but it's worse now, from what I have heard. We have this reputation as being very nice and polite but we're champions at slagging ourselves off.

"It's the same everywhere. I watched England play Andorra recently and I was shocked with the stick England were getting: you could see world-class players become nervous on the ball. I appreciate the expectations are high, but these guys have to be given the chance. The abuse is horrible."

That venom is no longer Kennedy's concern. His priority now is enjoying the twilight of his career at Selhurst Park, possibly enjoying one last tilt at promotion and giving the club's promising crop of young players the benefit of his worldly wisdom. Providing, in effect, the support he never enjoyed.

"With all the money and exposure football receives now, this is a great time for young players to be involved," he said with a rueful smile. "If I can help transfer some of my experience to some of the younger players then that's great."

Kennedy Factfile

May, 1976 - Born, Dublin.

April, 1993 - Makes professional debut

for Millwall, nine months after signing professionally, as a substitute in a 1-0 home win over Charlton.

January, 1995 - Leaps to prominence after scoring superb individual goal against Arsenal in FA Cup third-round tie.

Mar 1995 - Becomes English football's most expensive teenager after signing for Liverpool for £2 million.

Mar 1998: Leaves Anfield for Wimbledon in a £1.75-million deal after making just 21 first-team appearances.

July 1999 : Moves to Manchester City for a cut-price £1 million.

July 2001: Leaves Maine Road for £2 million and joins Wolverhampton Wanderers.

August 2000: Axed from Irish squad and fined €1,400 after being charged with causing criminal damage and being drunk and disorderly and a public nuisance.

September 2001: Arrested for dangerous driving and failing to provide a breath test after being stopped near his home in Cheshire.

September 2002: The Sun newspaper forced to pay libel costs after falsely accusing Kennedy of drunkenly insulting Victoria Beckham.

July 2006: Quits Molineux for Crystal Palace on a free transfer.