Brendan Crossan: Stephen Kenny making a lasting impression with Dundalk

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny chats with players Andy Boyle, Brian Gartland and Dane Massey during a training session at the Tallaght Stadium in Dublin on Wednesday
Picture by PA 

STEPHEN KENNY is one of the most intriguing men in Irish football.

My southern counterparts in the media are fortunate to be dealing with the Dundalk manager on a regular basis. I’ve been in several press huddles over the years with the 44-year-old Dubliner. He’s quirky, eccentric and a hugely likeable individual.

He has an excellent relationship with the media. He respects the media and the media respect him. It’s one of the most mature relationships I’ve encountered in my years working in this profession. I attended his pre-match press conference ahead of Thursday night’s Europa League tie against Maccabi Tel Aviv at Tallaght Stadium.

Regardless of how Thursday night’s second Europa League game in Group D panned out for the Airtricity League side, Kenny has made an outstanding impact at the county Louth club and on Irish football in general.

If reporters didn’t know it already, we got a snapshot of Kenny’s football philosophy at Wednesday’s press conference. He rejects the ‘gutsy Irish’ tag. In fact, he hates it. He hates the notion Irish teams are only in European competition to make up the numbers. The former Derry City manager has a more cerebral, optimistic view of the game and how it should be played. 

What Kenny and his Dundalk players have achieved this year is truly remarkable. A few years ago, they were on the verge of going to the wall. Kenny arrived and, with a blank canvas, he’s guided the club to back-to-back Premier League titles and more.

They were a kick of the ball away from reaching the group stages of this season’s Champions League and are the first Irish club to take a point in the Europa League group stages, courtesy of their 1-1 draw against highly-rated Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar earlier this month. It wasn’t just the result in Holland that mattered to Kenny - it was the manner in which it was achieved.

Former Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez coined the phrase: “The result is an imposter in football”. “Some teams,” the World Cup winner added, “can’t or don’t pass the ball. What are you playing for? What’s the point? Combine, pass, play. That’s football - for me, at least.”

Kenny is of the same opinion. It doesn’t matter that Xavi played for Barcelona and Kenny manages a Dundalk team who are on modest 40-week-per-year contracts. Philosophies are there to be shared. For teams like Dundalk, it would be easy to fall into the stereotype and approach European games in an Irish way. Lump the ball forward at every opportunity, chase a million lost causes and die with your boots on.

Dundalk will die with their boots on, but only in a different, more inspiring way - by sticking to their principles, their manager’s principles: “I don’t buy into the whole concept,” Kenny told reporters on Wednesday. 

“The train of thought that is going around at the minute - that many commentators have said that it is in our DNA to play high up the pitch and to play a more direct style because that suits our psyche, our level of skill - or rather, our supposed lack of it.

“I just can’t agree with that. I cannot tell you how strongly I disagree with that. Just completely disagree with it. But that’s the narrative. And people believe that. And they are conditioned to believe it. And then we go back and blame how kids are coached at U10 or something. It is about having the ability to pass the ball, the ability to believe in yourself, to fulfil your potential as players and as a team and seeing where that takes you.”

The most impressive aspect of Kenny’s Dundalk team is their insistence on passing the ball, not higher up the field, but in their own defensive zone and building their attacks from there. When their defenders gained possession against AZ Alkmaar, their first instinct was to find a team-mate with a short pass. The scorned short pass.

At almost every opportunity, they resisted the option of launching the ball up the field because that amounted to squandering possession. And you tire quicker without the ball. So why not try and keep it? Not only keep it, but be productive with it. That night, Dundalk passed and passed and passed - even when their captain Stephen O’Donnell was sent-off in the second-half - and they got their just rewards. 

Of course, there are risks attached to playing out of defence with the ball. At times, this philosophy will cost Dundalk - but the alternative of playing the long-ball game will always be shunned by Kenny’s teams. And that’s something that should be celebrated.

Indeed, the real triumph for Kenny has been his player recruitment and his unshakable belief in each of them. Former Portadown defender Brian Gartland was seen as something of a journeyman until Kenny signed him. Gartland has evolved into arguably the best central-defender in the Airtricity League.

Stephen O’Donnell was on the verge of quitting the game until Kenny signed him. The Galway man has been superb in central-midfield. Sean Gannon wasn’t going anywhere fast at St Pat’s until Kenny signed him. Gannon is now regarded as the best right-back in the country.

Dane Massey has been transformed as a player under Kenny
Picture by PA 

Left-back Dane Massey was playing for mid-table Bray Wanderers before Kenny recruited him. Now, the left-back has been touted for an international call-up. Likewise, winger Daryl Horgan is now on Martin O’Neill’s radar.

In a recent interview, former Derry City striker Stephen O’Flynn noted: “Stephen very rarely brought a bad egg into the dressing room, which is very important for any successful team.”

Stephen Kenny believes there’s another way of winning football matches and that the journey in achieving them is where the real joy is found. The hope is that all aspiring coaches up and down the country - from U8 right through to adult football - will be inspired by a football visionary like Stephen Kenny and this very special Dundalk team.

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