Brendan Crossan: Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny continues to inspire far beyond the football field
TWO years ago I sat down with Stephen Kenny in Kennedy’s Pub just a stone’s throw from Oriel Park.
The Dubliner had guided Dundalk into the group stages of the Europa League and more than just held their own against Zenit St Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It wasn’t his intention but our hour-long conversation was akin to a coaching seminar.
It's one of the best hours I've spent in journalism.
The most intriguing aspect of Kenny’s philosophy was his stout resistance against playing route one football and relying on typically Irish brave-heart defending because this approach promised one thing: defeat.
“Some people feel we’re more suited to playing a direct style,” he said. “But I don’t accept that that’s in our DNA. That’s just their viewpoint.
“Part of your job as a coach is to make players better – [to say we have to] accept that they’re always going to be mediocre, that we’ve to play within certain confines… it’s sometimes too easy to say that.
“We have to think about the game differently; we have to think how we can dominate possession, no matter who we’re playing.”
Being nerdish about these things I wanted to understand the process and its intimate details.
How do you keep possession against so-called far superior teams?
How do you go about making eight or nine uninterrupted passes?
Kenny’s starting point is never to accept that the opposition is far superior. When that mindset is established it comes down to the work put in on the training ground.
“We always encourage our players to play. Chris Shields [holding midfielder] was always facing the centre-half. It’s about making angles.
“It’s about coming away from the ball rather than being attracted to it.
“So our right-sided centre-back – Brian Gartland – can feed Chris and that means Chris can open out, whereas he was always facing Brian when he received the ball.
“That’s for the central midfield player and that’s quite specific; every other position is different.
“We wanted every player to want the ball in every area of the pitch and to have the confidence to express themselves.”
Kenny is still pursuing excellence at Dundalk and has just captured another league and cup double.
Cork City and Dundalk remain perennial rivals in the League of Ireland and while there is no love lost between Kenny and Leesiders boss John Caulfield, the two clubs have pushed each other to greater heights.
But, of course, Caulfield has no chance when it comes to comparisons with the Dundalk manager.
Cork play a more direct style and Dundalk are the purists. It’s Ireland's version of Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho.
The style with which you win games is important to the Dundalk manager. Yet again, the Lilywhites have been a joy to watch this season.
But, to see him in strictly footballing terms does Stephen Kenny a disservice.
At last week’s football awards night, Kenny picked up the Manager of the Year award for the fifth time in six years.
As soon as the event’s host Darragh Moloney handed over the familiar trophy, Kenny decided to use the platform to address the homeless crisis in Ireland.
The homeless World Cup is currently being staged in Mexico and has more participants than before.
Like all good journalists, Moloney didn’t interrupt Kenny.
"Homelessness,” Kenny said, “is becoming a much bigger issue and there are, unfortunately, more participants [in the street leagues] than ever.
“You talk about real heroes in society and you talk about Fr Peter McVerry and the work that he does... and he calls on the government to call this a national emergency."
"If you're homeless, what chance have you got? It used to be people with addictions or issues that were homeless, now it is families; normal families who can't afford the rent.
“I think it is a massive, massive issue. The fact that it is not being treated as a national emergency is a big disappointment."
When the pair finally got around to talking about football matters, the assembled guests broke into spontaneous applause.
Through managing teams, particularly Derry City and Dundalk, Kenny has spoken a lot about the power of football and the impact it can have on a community.
“It’s how you connect with your supporters… It’s about the value of community and the impact a team can have on a community. It can’t be underestimated.”
Kenny has single-handedly lifted the esteem of the people of Dundalk. His team has given the town an identity, a positive identity.
He did the same up in Derry when the Candystripes went on that unforgettable European run in 2006, where they ended up playing Paris Saint Germain at the Pairc des Princes.
“European results,” he says, “seem to resonate with people who don’t necessarily follow football.”
If Stephen Kenny stood for election in Louth he would win by a landslide.
He has no intentions of seeking political office, of course, and probably exerts more influence in his current role where he can highlight important social issues.
When the homelessness epidemic slips off the government table, as it’s inclined to do, Kenny can put it back on the table.
You'd wince what party politics might do to a free thinker like Kenny.
In any case, the FAI should be courting him for the Republic of Ireland job once Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane run their course in the role.
Now, that would lift the mood of a nation.