Kenny Shiels: crossing codes and always bridging divides, wherever he has gone from Maghera

Northern Ireland Women's manager Kenny Shiels. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

THE nickname obviously wouldn't be appropriate for the Northern Ireland's women's side, but their manager Kenny Shiels's life in football was hot-housed from a team called 'Roy's Chicks'.

Roy was Kenny's father, a chicken farmer on the outskirts of Maghera, from the Crewe area. Although an Ulster Unionist councillor and Orangeman, his footballing flock was cross-community, even in the Troubled times from the late Sixties into the Eighties.

Maghera was a divided town, but sport brought young lads together, some of whom remain friends to this day.

At the media conference to officially announce the squad for the Women's Euros, Kenny commented: "That makes me so proud to be involved in football. When you mention cross-community, nobody touches us in terms of what football has done for this country. It has been unbelievable, it really has.

"I always talk about that to people that, how I've made friends. Whereas when I was growing up through 'the Troubles', they were classed as 'enemies', and they are very good friends of mine to this day.

"It was football gave me that opportunity to socially connect with every religion and every single person that you met in the country. You feel that you can have a conversation with most people. I think football has given me the confidence to do that. More than anything in my life."

For Kenny Shiels, 'football' means soccer – but the 66-year-old played Gaelic football too in his teens, with Watty Graham's, Glen, as he recalls, albeit under cover to an extent:

"On a Saturday night I left my kit bag half a mile up the road, down this wee lane, then got my shirt and tie on and I was off to Sunday School.

"Little did my mother know that I was changing into my gear to go and play Gaelic. Because I needed to be involved in sport every day of the week. I was making good friends back then."

His involvement didn't last long, but his allegiance remains: "I was up at Armagh [the Athletic Grounds] for the Glen match in the [Ulster Club] semi-final which they lost, I still support them.

"Gaelic will never do what football has done for the communities, it's too 'single community', but I feel proud to be able to do that, where you can connect with everybody."

One of his team-mates for both 'Roy's Chicks' and Glen U16s was Rory 'Maestro' O'Connor, whose mother certainly knew about his soccer involvement:

"I didn't get any adverse comment about playing soccer; as a matter of fact, my mother washed the rigs for them."

Although the Shiels family were Coleraine FC supporters, the 'Roy's Chicks' kit was black and white stripes, like Newcastle United.

"How, I think it came about - at that time Kenny's father had a soccer team called Roy's Chicks, I played for them from primary school," says 'Maestro'.

"It was a cross-community team. And Maghera was divided - top of the town would have been classified as Catholics, bottom of the town Protestants…

"We used to go to Coleraine matches, and Roy would put two or three of us in the boot of the car to get us in."

Kenny and 'Maestro' even played soccer together decades later, as the latter recalls with a laugh:

"When the Euros were in England [1996], Kenny asked me to play in a five-a-side tournament in Garvagh. We we won it, and there's photographers there for the papers, but Kernny says to me: 'Maestro, maybe you better stand out of this photograph….'

'Why should I do that?'

'Because all these proceeds are going to Garvagh LOL'.

"I think I did stand in the photo - because I'm that good-looking," chuckles O'Connor.

Kenny Shiels, "was a lovely fella – although he could have been a wee bit on the wild side now. He was in the merchant navy for a couple of years, at least one year. Could let his hair down a bit.

"He was a brilliant footballer" – for soccer anyway. In Gaelic "he didn't even know how to hand to toe it, just pass it to somebody.

"But as far as soccer goes, he definitely would have made it across the water, not saying the Premiership but – the likes of young Steven Davis, and his son 'Dixie' [Dean]. He was an attacking midfielder, great ball skills."

A teenage ankle injury hit his hopes, but O'Connor says "He would always play through the pain barrier. Now people stop. No. He just kept on playing, he loved his football.

Colm 'Bandy' McGuigan, Derry GAA's long-serving kitman, even with the passing of half a century, clearly remembers Kenny Shiels making an instant impact on the Gaelic pitch.

He reckons there was an element of necessity in his initial involvement: "There was no under-13 or under-14 Gaelic, there was just under-16 and Minor.

"I remember heading one night up to Magherafelt and we had only 13 men. We asked Kenny and that fella Sandy Moore would they go. When we landed in Magherafelt Kenny says, 'Look, I've no idea how to play this game'.

"I said, 'Never worry, when the ball comes in, just kick it.'

"He kicked a couple of balls up the field. Then we were pushing up and the ball came out to the 13-yard line – and he just hit it and it went into the top corner.

"I remember very well that he scored a goal that night. That's my only memory of him playing Gaelic football, but he had no problem playing it, he was happy enough.

"Then, you know yourself, the Troubles… I always thought they could have played Gaelic football rightly.

"We always kicked football on a green, up by our house, until there was no more daylight; there was nothing else to do in those days."

George McKaigue was another on that Glen U16 team, but, he says "I didn't play in Roy's Chicks, I was too small and not good enough."

Kenny had talent at both football codes, although the soccer influence was strong, even when he played Gaelic, usually at centre half-forward: "He was a dribbler, yeah, had a great dead ball kick – and a really good fella.

"There was another [Protestant] guy called Sandy Moore, we all hung about together. It was from that, somebody asked would they play for Glen, Harry Kelly was the manager and we got them registered, just went under their proper names, as far as I remember."

As for the man behind the soccer side, McKaigue comments: "Roy? He was just mad about football, I wouldn't have known him very well, but there was never any bigotry – if you were good enough, you could play."

Although 'the Ban' on Gaels playing 'foreign sport' had only ended in 1971, crossing those white lines in unexpected directions was still frowned upon by many – but McKaigue doesn't recollect any opposition, at least not within Glen club:

"We didn't hear what went on on the side-lines or whatever, all we wanted to do was play football, we didn't give a damn.

"I think Kenny and Sandy may have been got at from their own side…It was just a one year thing and after that they stopped playing."

'Maestro' brings to mind other boys from that Glen under-16 side: captain was Gerard F Convery, there was a Gerard Kelly, Sean McMullan, Peter 'Buzzer' McKenna, two fellas who are dead now, I think, Patrick Convery and Johnny Kielt…

"I remember we were playing Desertmartin up in Slaughtneil pitch in a semi-final. I got my leg broke – 'Buzzer' fell on top of it!

"Kenny was very good to take frees off the ground. He took from the left side, I took off the right side. Sandy was a left full-back.

"At that time, for both those fellas to be playing was…to me they deserve credit for doing it."

Roy Shiels, kneeling at front, with his 'Roy's Chicks' team in France in 1981. Picture courtesy of Seamus Heffron

The cross-community ethos that Kenny Shiels espouses is especially remarkable given the tragedy which struck his family in 1990. A younger brother, David, was murdered by the IRA, in a case of mistaken identity.

Shot dead in a caravan beside where he was building a home, having recently become a father, aged 30.

Kenny had embarked on his managerial career by then, as player-boss with Tobermore United. Understandably, the death of David is not something he has talked about, but he did say:

"It's difficult when I think about it; but it made us more determined to be united with people, you know, my family anyway; we'd eight boys and a girl in our family, and they're all very sociable as well.

McKaigue says: "That was a disgusting thing. There were lots of disgusting things happened.

"But Kenny didn't seem to change that much after, because of the Catholic people that he knew, they didn't change much towards him. There's no bitterness in him."

O'Connor remembers the aftermath of the shooting in December 1990: "Their family and my family would have been close.

"I still remember that day going in, the three brothers of us, to the Shiels wake house, and Kenny's father and Kenny came to shake hands with us. He never talks about that [David's death]."

O'Connor agrees that even such a terrible loss did not alter Kenny Shiels's attitude to people, to life: "There are no Protestant pubs in Maghera now, but Kenny would drink in all the Catholic pubs; I'm sure there's nobody will say a bad word about him, he's held in the highest respect from everybody."

Seamus Heffron was several years younger, but got to know Kenny well: "Kenny would have come into the bar that my father, Jamey, ran, Patterson's Bar, and then I played for 'Roy's Chicks'.

"When I was playing in France, for a club called AC Cambrai, his daddy took a team out to France, I organised that with him.

"At that time Kenny was in the navy. He used to send postcards home to by father at each port he called at. My da loved Kenny, he was always very boisterous in the bar, loved organising things. You couldn't dislike him.

"That was '81, the year of the Hunger Strikes…[future Irish League stars] Alfie Stewart and Sam Shiels were in that squad, and [current Derry midfielder] Conor Glass's daddy Cathal, I think he played goals."

Heffron remains good friends with Kenny, sharing an attitude to life: "Roy was very broad-minded – and Kenny is exceptionally broad-minded. Religion never meant anything to Kenny, I was the same.

"He and I always had a love of George Best, going back to childhood. When Best died, Kenny rang me, and he just cried on the phone.

"One of his daughters came to collect some videos of Best, he didn't have any; we both idolised George Best. We used to talk about him all the time."

Heffron was a good soccer player, and so was Kenny: "I always thought he'd have made it to England, professionally. He was very left-sided, he depended too much on it. Played centre midfield, number 10, very technically gifted, as good as I have seen. Very verbose.

"I played with him at Bridgend United, his brother Willie managed them. Kenny and I would have trained together on a Sunday, in a 'paddy' field. He was a fanatical trainer. He told he used to train at half five in the morning, I don't know if he still does that."

Kenny Shiels would go anywhere to play, including to a venue very different from that Garvagh LOL fundraiser, remembers Heffron:

"There was a five-a-side tournament in Ardboe Hall at the height of the Troubles in the late Seventies, we would have played in that together. I think the team was organised by Jimmy Convery from Lavey."

Heffron became a teacher in Lurgan, focussing on Gaelic football, but he followed Kenny's managerial career:

"I always thought he was better with international teams, he'd a good spell with the school-boys side [NI U17s].

"His greatest strength is that he transmits real passion and enthusiasm for the game. He really loves football."

In terms of English soccer allegiances both 'Maestro' and 'Bandy' are Spurs men, but Kenny, says the former, "at that time was more Chelsea – but now, as a manager, he prefers teams that play good football."

His talent as a coach, as a manager, has always been clear: at Carrick Rangers – who called him 'King Kenny' – taking his beloved Coleraine close to the league title, then with arch-rivals Ballymena, with NI U17s, then Tranmere youth, winning Kilmarnock their first trophy for 19 years, beating Celtic in the 2012 Scottish League Cup Final with his son Dean on the winning team.

Kenny knows his own mind - he has a psychology degree – and he speaks it.

That occasionally gets him into hot water, notably with the Scottish FA, most recently with clumsy comments about the 'emotional' nature of female footballers, for which he quickly apologised.

To the surprise of some, but not anyone who understands Kenny's relationships with his players, his captain Marissa Callaghan came out strongly in his defence.

More recently, the Belfast woman told me: "We knew what he meant… I felt for him so much, I know how upset he was when the media – it just went crazy on social media. It was crazy. It was hard on him.

"I just felt a little bit angry because it was unfair, because that's not the type of person he is. It's so far from him, they just got him all wrong.

"I just felt, and all the team as well, completely felt the same. I felt we as a team had to back him and show whoever it was commenting that's not Kenny Shiels.

"This is a man of integrity. He's done so much for us, individually and collectively, and he just didn't deserve that.

"We had all our stats up on the board, we had a full meeting during the week about it as well, so we knew that's exactly what he meant by it – but obviously the media can jump on it."

McKaigue also reckons that Kenny Shiels is often misunderstood: "I don't think people appreciate how good he is, the Northern Ireland Football Association overlooked him for a few jobs. Good luck to him, he's done a great job.

"He was a talker, of course he was. One of the things you do remember, he was shouting encouragement to everybody on the field. He knows his stuff, he has a football brain.

"He's a very good man-manager, he can deal with people. I can see him definitely getting the best out of an average person.

As a 'woman-manager' of his own cross-community team, Kenny Shiels continues to look for, and bring, the best out of people, doing his father, his family, and Maghera proud.

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