King-in-waiting Kenny lays out vision

Few Irish football folk will have any fond memories of that day in November one year ago when Denmark came to the Aviva and laid waste to our World Cup dreams.

King-in-waiting Kenny lays out vision

Few Irish football folk will have any fond memories of that day in November one year ago when Denmark came to the Aviva and laid waste to our World Cup dreams.

But Stephen Kenny does.

Not of the game itself, of course, but of the electric mood in the city in the hours leading up to kick off. In the company of his eldest daughter and youngest son, he had walked from Ringsend to Ballsbridge before heading into the ground.

“I remember the incredible sense of anticipation,” he says. “The atmosphere for that game was better than I’d experienced since they’d changed the stadium.

Obviously, the result didn’t go well, but the atmosphere on that day was just incredible and that hasn’t left me, and I knew then that that’s what I wanted and that I would want that for the future.”

What Kenny could not have envisioned was just how how quickly the future would arrive, but with Martin O’Neill’s reign never having recovered from the 5-1 Danish pasting that night and, after a prolonged decline in the national team’s fortunes, the FAI arrived at the conclusion that the solution would encompass both the long and short-term.

So, 12 months later, Kenny finds himself in the extraordinary position of being a newly

appointed U21 manager who knows, with as much certainty as life permits, that he will become the Republic of Ireland senior manager in August 2020.

Having confirmed that his contract says as much, Kenny makes it clear that, even if Mick McCarthy enjoys success in the Euros, the new senior manager will still be making way for the newer senior manager in a little under two years’ time.

“The decision has been made,” the former Dundalk boss says. “It’s clearly defined. I take over in August 2020. It’s a succession plan and [if McCarthy’s reign ends on a high] that would be a great scenario for everyone and for football in Ireland.”

Until then, though, and outside of what he imagines will be fairly regular discussions with McCarthy — which began with an informal, getting-to-know you dinner on Sunday evening — the heir to the throne will not be treading on the king’s toes.

“It’s Mick’s domain. He is the manager,” he says. “I won’t be forcing myself, or trying to be part of the [senior] set up. I’ll be very much focusing on the Under 21s in the next couple of years. I’ll be very much out of the picture in terms of the senior set-up.

"I don’t see myself travelling with the team. I don’t see that. We’re both based in Abbotstown, so I would say we’ll have plenty of discussions about players, but that’s not my brief, it’s not the job I’ve been given.”

The job he has been given is that of U21 manager with an expanded role in overseeing the other Irish underage teams, in which capacity he will work closely with FAI high-performance director Ruud Dokter.

“It’s not me coming into the dressing room with the U19s and giving instructions,” Kenny is at pains to clarify.

“It’s more an observing role, to support the managers, to work with them and work with Ruud in that regard.”

One of Kenny’s own ideas, for which he says John Delaney and Dokter have already given their support, is that he will visit other countries and other clubs to see how they prepare teams and players.

Another is a marketing push to attract more public attention to the U21s, so even before his first European Championship campaign as U21 boss kicks off in March, it sounds like he is taking on a heavy workload.

I have a huge work ethic and I don’t envisage it being a problem and I look forward to getting stuck into what has to be done. My main focus is managing the U21 team and getting the best team I can in that period. We have never been in contention to qualify, really, ever.

"The draw [for Euro 2021] is in December and we will see who that brings, but one of the things I will push is that, whether the games are in Tallaght or Sligo or Cork, I will be looking to get full houses for the games.

“The U21 players need that, they need to feel they are coming into something that is really relevant and important and is an occasion and it will help them prepare for the senior games. I have spoken to John and Ruud and we need a big push for full houses to make the games an occasion in their own right, whatever it takes.”

However, there’s a bigger picture in play, one which frames how our international teams can and should play football, from top to bottom. It’s a vision of a style of play in tune with the possession-based philosophy Kenny has practised and promoted for a long time and it’s one, he suggests, shared by the FAI.

“Even at Dundalk, we were getting letters from the grassroots all over the country in relation to how we were playing, schoolboy clubs and managers saying the way your team plays is the way we want to teach our kids to play. I do think there is a sort of shared vision.

"It’s not about instigating revolution in football; the current thinking is there and aligns with the way I and Ruud think. We think very similarly on the composition of teams and the way they should be set up. Hopefully, that will eventually be a proper long-term vision because, as he says to me, you should be able to show the first team how they play and then show that to the 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s and say ‘that is how I want you to play’. That is the way I see it as well.

It’s not changing the DNA [of Irish football], but changing the way people think about the game. Encouraging.

"There is a silent majority as well at times; coaches of all levels of the game, kids’ teams, and people who just love watching good football matches. People want to come here to a packed stadium and see a team that really pass the ball well and really inspire them. There is a desire to see that.

“I’m in no way critical of previous regimes, but that’s how I see it. Of course you have to be able to adapt, there’s no question about that, but adapt does not mean that you just surrender possession and hope that you can hold out and nick something on a set play. That’s not adapting, but you have to adapt, of course, and it’s the job of the coach and the manager to set out a way of doing that.”

Twenty years after he took his first small step in management, Kenny is on the brink of a giant leap.

“It hasn’t always been an upward curve, for sure, but I never doubted myself,” he says of the journey from Longford Town to Ireland.

“I always had the conviction that what I was doing was right. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, but you learn from your mistakes. I think what you have to do is continually evolve and learn as a manager. I’m a different manager than I was two years ago. I think this year I was better than I was last year, so next year I have to be better again.”

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