“Kieran McKenna can do no wrong” Cliftonville boss Jim Magilton hails genius of Ipswich Town manager as former club reach Premier League

Jim Magilton looks back on amazing weekend for Reds and the Tractor Boys

Kieran McKenna’s side have a three-point cushion over Leeds
Kieran McKenna has inspired Ipswich to back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premier League (Joe Giddens/PA)

THEY still know him as ‘Super Jim’ around Portman Road and the first thing Jim Magilton did – when his mind had cleared a little after Cliftonville’s Irish Cup glory - was ask: “How did Ipswich get on?”

Magilton is an honorary son of the Suffolk club. He was the midfield driving force when ‘The Tractor Boys’ last won promotion to the Premier League in 2000 and so he was delighted to learn that the club he also managed had beaten Huddersfield 2-0 and returned to the top flight after a 22-season absence.

“What a weekend it was,” said a smiling Magilton during a light-hearted interview on ‘Life’s a Pitch’ the Ipswich Town podcast/YouTube channel.

“If Carlsberg were going to do weekends – which actually they did – Cliftonville winning the Irish Cup, a birthday (his 55th), Ipswich getting promotion…

“When I took the Cliftonville job initially I thought they were more than capable (of winning the Irish Cup) which proved to be the case so, great celebrations, huge joy and happiness for the people of North Belfast.

Cliftonville celebrate with the fans during an open top bus tour across Belfast after winning the Irish Cup oat Windsor on Saturday.
Cliftonville manager Jim Magilton celebrated with the fans during an open top bus tour across Belfast after winning the Irish Cup. Picture: Colm Lenaghan

“The first thing I asked after the game was: ‘How did Ipswich get on?’ The emotion (of promotion to the Premier League), I’ve experienced it, I know what it feels like, I know how much it means to the fans… It’s fantastic and this boy Kieran McKenna can do no wrong – he’s starting to bug me now.

“Even his pre-game and post-game analysis, nobody can disagree with him and he says it in this lovely Fermanagh accent, you’re just waiting for him to burst into song whilst he’s doing it! And he’s probably a brilliant singer! Even if he’s not a brilliant singer, he has Ed Sheeran on speed dial so he could go: ‘Ed, can you just sing this for me?’ He’s just boring the living-daylights out of me now!”

Ipswich supporters will tell you that their club’s players have all improved because of McKenna’s brilliant coaching and – even away from football - the Enniskillen native’s popularity is growing by the day in Suffolk. When promotion was confirmed an event was held in the town’s Christchurch Park and afterwards McKenna rolled his sleeves up and got stuck in, helping to clear up the rubbish that had been left behind.

“He’s an incredible man and what a job he has done,” added Magilton.

“Back-to-back promotions… It’s quite incredible. I’m a great admirer of him, I saw greatness in him – and that term is used loosely in the modern game – when I was around him about 10 years ago.

“Not only did he have great knowledge, it was his meticulous planning, it was the way he spoke about the game and, more importantly, how he delivered it to the players for them to understand it which, at times, can be quite difficult because we players aren’t the brightest! He was a wonderful way with people, with players and he conducts himself so well.

“He doesn’t overreact, he doesn’t get emotional, there’s an even keel and the Championship is a rollercoaster. I’ve listened a lot to what he’s had to say and been in total agreement – I’ll be actually nodding my head at the TV. To come from an Academy background and get pushed into a first team environment, especially at the clubs he’s been pushed into… He’s had to learn very quickly and I’m sure there was criticism being thrown at him and Michael Carrick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when they took over at Man United but he has learned a great deal and stepped into the Ipswich role so effectively.

“There’s a standard at Ipswich and there always has been – think of the great managers like Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson, in my era George Burley and Joe Royle who all had wonderful qualities and when Kieran got the job I knew he fitted that profile and would be a huge success and, given time, he would establish himself as a top manager.”

In December 2021, McKenna, who had previously worked in the first-team coaching staff at Old Trafford under Jose Mourinho and then Solskjaer, was enticed to take over as manager at Portman Road just days after Barrow had dumped Ipswich out of the FA Cup at the second round stage.

Ipswich were 12th in League One at that time. They finished that season 11th but lost just four games the following year and finished second behind Plymouth.

After coming up from League One, it was expected that stability was the best Ipswich would hope for this season but McKenna’s side lost just one of their first 16 games and won 12. After a sticky spell (a loss and three consecutive draws) they dropped out of the top two but recovered impressively to win eight of their next nine games.

Beating Huddersfield 2-0 in the final game meant they pipped faltering Leeds for the runners-up spot behind Leicester City.

“Jumping from one league to another is very difficult,” said Magilton.

“Momentum is important – if you get off to a winning start confidence flows from players and it’s hard to stop.

“He got on this wonderful role, players started believing in themselves and winning games and when they’re up there they didn’t want to stop. They had a wobble and that’s when it’s important that the leaders keeps calm and delivering the same messages.”

There’s some people on the pitch – Ipswich fans celebrate their side’s promotion
There’s some people on the pitch... Ipswich fans celebrate their side’s promotion (Zac Goodwin/PA)

BACK in the 1999-2000 season Ipswich finished third in the Championship behind Charlton and Manchester City.

It was Magilton who dragged the team into the play-off final with a brilliant display in the second leg of the semi-final against Bolton Wanderers. The first leg had finished 2-2 and Magilton scored a hat-trick – the only one in a professional career that included over 600 games – in the second leg.

“The last hat-trick I scored was in Primary Six,” he joked.

With Portman Road packed to the rafters, his first goal was a penalty (which he won himself), then he missed a second penalty before scoring a brilliant individual effort. His third goal - a low volley from the edge of the box – sent the game to extra-time and Ipswich went on to win a breathless clash 5-3 and beat Barnsley 4-2 in the play-off final.

Ipswich finished fifth in their first season club – qualifying for the Uefa Cup – but were relegated back to the Championship in 2002.

Despite the best efforts of Magilton as manager between 2006 and 2009, Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane and Paul Lambert among others, they remained there until 2019 when they were relegated to League One.

The club was stagnating in the third tier of English football until McKenna was brought on board and now they are walking with the giants once again but staying in the top flight will obviously be a huge challenge.

McKenna has shown good judgement by bringing Wales international Kiefer Moore (Bournemouth), Omari Hutchinson (Chelsea) and Brandon Williams (Man United) to the club on loan and Magilton says further investment in the squad will be required.

“They are going to have to spend their money wisely,” he urged.

“There’s no substitute for experience because it’s going to be very, very difficult – let’s make no bones about it. I’m not putting a dampener on anything and the players will love the challenge, they’ll rise to the challenge but you’re going to need quality and experience.

“Look at the Premier League now – Sheffield United, Luton… It’s very difficult, it’s not like back in the day when you might get away with it. Now you’ll get found out if you don’t have the right quality and experience in vital areas and the spine of the team is very important.

“I think Kieran will be working over-time. As much as you want a break, I haven’t been off the phone trying to attract players to Cliftonville and Kieran will be the same. He will try and switch off but it’s crazy and the market is worldwide.

“The Ipswich players will go away and enjoy themselves and quite rightly so but their thoughts will turn very quickly, especially when the fixtures come out. The fixtures are the greatest and the worst day of your life!

“We played Man United in our second game in 2000 (1-1 at Portman Road) and it was a magnificent occasion. We played really well, we stood up and our quality that night was fantastic and we gave them a game, we really did.

“That gave us all confidence, so if you can a game like that and get a result it’s very important.”