From Dunfermline to Dundalk: How Stephen Kenny has turned his career around

From Dunfermline to Dundalk: How Stephen Kenny has turned his career around

WITH Stephen Kenny, the past and the future regularly collide. He can be both a reject and a man of promise, a manager who many considered to be washed up three years ago but who is now viewed as the coming thing.

If all this seems contradictory, then it's in keeping with his career. At 22 he held his first coaching position, by 26 he was managing, at 29 he was taking a team on his first trip to Europe and by 30 he was winning his first league title.

Yet he was not quite 33 when he took a trip to collect his first P45. Sacked twice since then, he is now 43 and has just guided Dundalk – the sixth club of his managerial lifespan – to back-to-back League of Ireland titles, the first time in their 100-year history they have managed to retain the championship.

Yet that particular statistic isn't the impressive part of this story. What stands out is how the club's rejuvenation has coincided with his own. "You're a f**king choker," Shamrock Rovers fans chanted at him after he was sacked by the club he supported as a boy in 2012, the same year Dundalk nearly went bust and narrowly avoided relegation.

Just over 300 people were attending the final home games of their season but this Sunday more than 30,000 are expected to attend their FAI Cup final against Cork City at the Aviva Stadium.

Dundalk lift the league title for the second season running [Picture: Inpho] Dundalk lift the league title for the second season running [Picture: Inpho]
How do you explain any of this, how a man who so many deemed unemployable in the wake of that 2012 season with Rovers could now be chasing the first league and cup double of his career?

"Football is a strange business," he says. "Your future can sometimes be dictated to by people whose knowledge of the game I don't rate. A decision by board members can damage your reputation as a manager.

"When you lose your job, it can be very traumatic because it affects every part of your life and the lives of everyone associated with you and your extended family. It's your livelihood and your first thought is, 'where is the family going to live? Where are your kids going to go to school?'

"And you think about your own future, too. When you are fired, it can be quite humiliating. Some people want to kick you when you are down. You can end up questioning yourself."

Within weeks, however, the people he was questioning were the directors of Dundalk FC. A once proud and successful club, they had fallen on hard times when they picked up the phone and arranged a meeting with Kenny in October 2012.

Kenny is thrown in the air by his players after they captured the league title [Picture Inpho]
Yet if he was considered damaged goods, then the same could be said of the Louth club where expectations remained unrealistically high, while budgets remained low. Rather than be interviewed by them, Kenny was the one who set the agenda.

"When you go to Oriel Park during day-time hours and it is empty, it is not that inspiring a place," Kenny said. "My concern was that I was taking on too much, that we wouldn't be able to attract players, that the budget - €6,000 a week - wasn't enough."

It proved to be plenty, though. He shopped shrewdly, picking up players who no one had ever heard of – Richie Towell, Dane Massey, Andy Boyle – and shaping them into genuine stars. All three are viewed as future internationals – the latest prodigies from a league that unearthed Seamus Coleman, James McClean, Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan, Kevin Doyle and Keith Fahey.

If spotting a player who shows promise is a special quality, then recognising hunger in someone who is just about to quit is the stuff of genius. This was precisely what Kenny did in 2012 with Darren Meenan and Steve O'Donnell, two superbly talented players who many viewed to be finished.

And together they have all embarked on this magical journey, the club whose very existence seemed in peril, finding a new lease of life from a manager whose confidence had been shaken. Along the way, new generations of supporters were found, families reconnected through football. Dundalk, the club whose last league title came in 1995, was a success story again.

And so was their manager. Last week, the Scottish Sun contacted Kenny for more than just a catch-up. They remembered what he achieved in his 13 months with Dunfermline in 2006-07 – a run to a Scottish Cup final that took in victories over Rangers, Hearts, Partick Thistle and Hibs and then a near miss against Celtic in the Hampden Park decider.

You'd wonder why they were still interested, though. And then you remember how the League of Ireland hasn't just produced good players but also impressive managers. For Brian Kerr (ex St Pat's), Lawrie Sanchez (ex-Sligo) and Michael O'Neill (ex-Shamrock Rovers) it was a stepping stone to international jobs.

Sam Allardyce began his career at Limerick, Portsmouth's manager, Paul Cook, started out in Sligo, as did Steve Cotterill, who has proven to be one of the management game's great survivors.

And so has Kenny. Getting the sack can dent a man's morale as well as his reputation yet he has consistently been able to bounce back, reinvent himself and rebuild clubs. Significantly, he has been at his best – and happiest – when in charge of provincial teams, Longford, Derry, Dundalk, whereas the two Dublin clubs he managed, Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians, didn't fit his personality.

Dundalk's Ciaran Kilduff celebrates scoring with teammates [Picture: Inpho] Dundalk's Ciaran Kilduff celebrates scoring with teammates [Picture: Inpho]

"He loves the interaction with locals," a friend of his said. "Loves stopping on the street and chatting with people who tell their stories about supporting the club, their pride in their town."

He never sampled that experience in Dublin where the clubs are swallowed up by the sheer size of the city. If results went against him, the pressure mounted. At Derry, Dundalk and Longford, the goodwill he built up protected him from the dissenters. When he knows he has the backing of his board and the fans, his confidence soars. Yet at Bohs, Rovers and also Dunfermline, his layers of self-belief were not as plentiful.

“I was 35 when I walked out next to Gordon Strachan for the Scottish Cup final against Celtic at Hampden," Kenny told the Scottish Sun. “That was unheard of. Looking back, I was extremely young and inexperienced for a very difficult job.

“Being relegated was tough but we came close to keeping the club up. In hindsight, I don’t think a more experienced boss would have managed it and there’s no doubt I was damaged by what happened at Dunfermline. I was 35 and my reputation took a hit.

"However, I am a different person now. I’ve progressed and evolved as a manager. My training methods and approach have completely changed.

“With experience, you get better and I have worked hard and learned from the mistakes I made at Dunfermline."

Dundalk are the ones to profit from that. At 43, he may have 17 years of management behind him but it is the years ahead that excite most. This guy's journey has yet to really begin.