Bottle tops, phone silences and the brilliance of Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny
DISCARDED bottle tops lying on the dressing room floor used to drive Stephen Kenny mad. And his Derry City players knew it.
The middle of the changing room floor was his work space. So it had to be clear before Kenny would deliver his pre-match team-talks. It was one of the manager's quirks.
"He had a habit of clearing the dressing-room floor," recalls former Derry City striker Stephen O'Flynn, who played under Kenny during his first stint in charge at the Brandywell [2004-2006].
"He just didn’t want anything in his way. He needed his space to walk up and down.
"I remember we used to throw bottle tops on the floor, just to annoy him. He kept on kicking them out of the way. He hated empty bottles lying around on the floor.
"One day we threw loads of bottles into the middle of the dressing-room floor – it was like a rubbish tip – and he came in and just started laughing. He said: ‘You’re just doing that to wind me up’.
“We’d been doing it for a year and he was only noticing now!"
Former Derry City midfielder Barry Molloy adds: "Bags would be packed away because the changing room was his platform. Looking back now, that was him being a perfectionist…
“His team talks were brilliant; they were a bit funny at times too. Some players would have been holding in the giggles because they probably weren’t used to his style. But he prepared so well.”
"He has his ways, you know. Quirks,” smiles O’Flynn.
"There were times we’d find ourselves laughing at him in the dressing room, his mannerisms and stuff – not laughing at him, but just the way he conducted himself. It was kind of in an endearing way.”
Kenny signed Molloy from Drogheda United in 2005.
Initially, the midfielder didn’t know what to make of his new manager.
“I spoke to Stephen over the phone a few times but he’s a completely different character when you meet him,” says Molloy, who spent 10 years at Derry City.
“On the phone, it was strange. A few times I would say to him: ‘Stephen, are you still there?’ And he’d say: ‘Yeah, yeah…’ It was hard work with him on the phone...
"He’s a good man. He told me from the start where I would fit into the team and what he expected from me.
"He came into Derry when they were on their knees. I couldn’t believe his ambition.
"He was talking about winning leagues and at the time Derry had just avoided relegation. At the start I didn’t know whether to believe this man or not, but as soon as I started working with him you just bought into what he was trying to do."
Molloy adds: "Our first game was against my old club Drogheda. Everything in pre-season was geared to that game. Stephen wanted to lay down a marker.
"We went down to Drogheda and we were unbelievable. From then on, I thought: ‘This man knows what he’s talking about’. He knew every strength and weakness of the opposition.”
Not long after he’d assumed the reins at his current club Dundalk in 2013, the local press couldn’t quite fathom Kenny’s lofty ambitions for the Lilywhites.
In the previous season the club won a relegation play-off against Waterford to preserve their top flight status and were saved from “going to the wall” by the arrival of new owners Paul Brown and Andrew Connolly.
“It was about five or six games into the new league campaign and champions Sligo Rovers beat Dundalk 3-1 at Oriel Park,” says Gavin McLaughlin, sports editor of the Dundalk Democrat.
“After the game Stephen was really down, and he said: ‘If we had won tonight we would have gone top.’
“You could nearly hear people laughing among the press at this.
“At that time, people were thinking we’re lucky to be still here as a club and he wants to win the league!”
Dundalk finished second in Kenny’s first season in charge.
Since then, the Lilywhites have won back-to-back league championships and are one step away from reaching the Champions League group stages after their remarkable victory over BATE Borisov.
Polish outfit Legia Warsaw stand between them and the Champions League group stages.
They are already guaranteed between €5-7m for qualifying for the Europa League group stages.
The Oriel Park club, who sit top of the Airtricity League, will net a further €12m should they make history in becoming the first League of Ireland side to compete at the group stages of the Champions League.
Dundalk’s rise from virtual ruin makes Moneyball seem thoroughly run-of-the-mill.
The Derry Journal’s Arthur Duffy believes one of Kenny’s greatest strengths as a coach is spotting and nurturing raw talent.
“Kenny had a fantastic knack of spotting talent,” says Duffy. “You only have to look at James McClean and Ryan McBride...”
Initially, Kenny’s recruitment drive at Dundalk didn’t set the world alight. The 44-year-old Dubliner didn’t do headline signings.
In assembling a title-winning team, Kenny sifted through the League of Ireland’s underbelly.
“A lot of the players he brought were kind of uninspiring signings,” says McLaughlin. “They wouldn’t have been marquee signings at all.”
After a spell in Scotland, Richie Towell was back playing Leinster League football when Kenny signed him in 2013. An attacking midfielder, Towell was fantastic in Dundalk’s back-to-back league title successes before he got a move to Brighton & Hove Albion.
Stephen O’Donnell was on the verge of quitting the game and hadn’t kicked lot of ball for Galway when Kenny made his pitch. Now captain, he's one of the driving forces of the team.
Sean Gannon was on the fringes of the St Pat’s first team when Kenny signed him in November 2013. Gannon is regarded the best right back in the country. Dane Massey was playing for mid-table Bray Wanderers when Kenny made his move.
Massey is now in Martin O’Neill’s sights.
Andy Boyle was plucked from First Division outfit Shelbourne and has evolved into the most accomplished central defender in the league.
Brian Gartland, Darren Meenan and Robbie Benson are others whose careers have flourished under Kenny.
“You look at the players he’s worked with, players that have rejuvenated their careers,” says O’Flynn, now at Glentoran.
“He very rarely brought a bad egg into the dressing room which is very important for any successful team.
“He signs players who are hungry – not just young players – but players that mightn’t have done well at other clubs,” O’Flynn adds.
“I’d broken my leg the year before with Cork City and Derry paid 10 or 12 grand for me and I hadn’t kicked a ball in a year, but it showed me how much he wanted me…
“To be fair, he’s had some knock-backs as well with the likes of Shamrock Rovers and Dunfermline - but it shows his character."
Molloy cites Kenny’s man-management skills as his greatest quality.
“Stephen encouraged you, he told you that you were the best. At the time, he would have told Mark Farren that he was the best – and Mark believed him. Mark was on fire…
“In the changing room, Kenny had this presence about him; he’d be quiet and then he would burst into life and that got people’s attention straight away.
“For me, he probably knew I had limited ability. He’d tell me to get around the pitch, get tackles in.
“His famous line to me was: 'Cover every blade of grass'.
“It became a joke at the time. He would tell somebody beside me that they were brilliant and he'd turn to me and say: 'Cover every blade of grass!'
“He’s the best manager I ever played under because he could get the best out of players, including myself,” adds Molloy, now playing with Finn Harps.
"Maybe I wasn’t the most talented in the world. I wouldn’t have been the best about in the league but he had me playing up with the best. He dragged that extra 10 per cent out of me."
Molloy remembers the human side of Stephen Kenny too. Five days before Derry City would famously hammer Gretna 5-1 in the away leg in the Uefa Cup in 2005, Molloy's mother passed away.
“Stephen was there for me the whole time,” Molloy says. “Not a lot of people would know that. He’s a down-to-earth human being. That was the strength of the man.”
Local Dundalk journalist Gavin McLaughlin feels that managing provincial clubs suit Kenny.
“He did it with Longford, Derry and now Dundalk.”
“Stephen Kenny was the first ‘outside’ manager of Derry City who really embraced the local community,” says Arthur Duffy.
“He would go to St Brigid’s Primary School to present the sports prizes and would make a speech about the dangers of drink and drugs to those pupils. On so many levels, he was fantastic during the two spells he had at Derry City.”