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Surely It's Well Past Time To Honour One Of The Most Underrated Men In Irish Sport

Surely It's Well Past Time To Honour One Of The Most Underrated Men In Irish Sport
By Conor Neville
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The Philips Sports Manager of the Year award is 34 years old and, thus far, two League of Ireland managers have been honoured. League of Ireland royalty Jim McLoughlin won in 1986 for guiding Shamrock Rovers to a third successive title. The subsequent fourth title was entirely overshadowed by the move away from Milltown. In 2007, Paul Doolin won for leading Drogheda United to the League championship and the Setanta Cup.

It is Stephen Kenny's misfortune that his best years come when there are more high-profile candidates elsewhere. He guided Dundalk to the Double last year but then both Ireland teams went and qualified for the European championships. In the past this has guaranteed the successful manager the main prize. In the national sporting conversation, the League of Ireland is confined to the shadows and thus picking a LOI manager as the manager of the year would be thought of as a daring, left-field move. A statement, if you will.

His CV has only two real blotches. He was saddled with the Dunfermline job at the worst possible time. The club were careering towards relegation and Kenny proved unable to arrest the slide. He did, however, guide them to the Scottish Cup Final, where they lost 1-0 to Celtic. He was sacked early in the following season as Dunfermline made an awkward start to life in the second tier.

His second blotch offers less in the way of mitigation. Rovers had won two League titles on the trot when Kenny was handed the job. Their form tailed off badly under Kenny. He was sacked long before the end of the season. It is unquestionably his most hideous failure yet, confirming for some the narrative that Kenny is at his best when free to assemble his own squad from scratch.

GREAT SUCCESS - Mark 1: Longford Town

It's eighteen years since Kenny, then a 26 year old youth team coach at St. Patrick's Athletic, requested an interview with the chairman of Longford Town, Michael Cox. He arrived at the meeting with Cox armed with a dossier on the club, and a bagful of ideas on how to develop the team. He blew the non-existent competition out of the water.

For the second year running, Longford Town had successfully sought re-election to the League of Ireland. This was the wondrous process through which the team who finished bottom of the First Division retained their League of Ireland status.


Prior to Kenny's arrival, Longford Town's average attendance was 40, a figure which left them unable to pay the referee and linesmen.

To the tenacious and tiny band of individuals who followed Longford Town in the mid-1990s, the latter part of the 1998 was an extremely disorientating experience.

A team who managed to scrape the odd win in ten (if they were lucky) began to win games relentlessly. By Christmas of 1998, Longford Town were top of the First Division. Supporters used to moral victories and amusing themselves with black humour were suffering from vertigo. The town at large was slow to pick up on the fact that Longford Town no longer lost every week. Crowds remained small. There was a familiarity between the management and the tiny band of supporters.


The dressing rooms at the pre-development Strokestown Road (latterly Flancare Park, latterly again City Calling Stadium) were in a stand-alone building at the bottom of the tunnel and adjacent to the car park. In those laid-back times, the crowd often used to depart the ground using the same tunnel as the players, walking to the car park across the pitch. Kenny used to stand the door, smiling after the latest win - like the proprietor of a guest house, bidding you adieu, and asking if you enjoyed your stay.

While Longford fell away in the latter half of the 1998-99 season, slumping to fourth spot (still their highest League position that decade), the following season they mounted a more sustained charge. Longford Town were promoted to the Premier Division after finishing runner-up to Bray Wanderers in 1999-00.



Outsiders naturally presumed that Longford Town would find the Premier Division rough going. In the end, their first season in the top flight was pleasingly free of stress and nerves. They finished in 8th place, closer to mid-table than the relegation zone. They would have been higher only the distraction of the Cup sucked all the attention away from the low-stakes climax to the League season.

Their run to the Cup final encompassed victories over the likes of Wayside Celtic and Whitehall Rangers, but also a win over Waterford United in the Cup semi-final. In the final in a packed Tolka Park, they were beaten 1-0 by double winners Bohemians, who had just ended a 23-year drought without a League title. Roddy Collins promptly resigned, setting in chain the process which would prise Kenny away from Strokestown Road.

Halfway through Longford Town's second season in the Premier Division, Bohemians came looking for Kenny. They had just deposed their manager Pete Mahon, under whom Bohs form dipped sharply. By December, they had already surrendered the League title and were mired in mid-table.


Ironically, the next game after Kenny's departure was Longford Town v Bohemians. He sat on the Stand, not having been permitted to take over Bohemians yet by the authorities. As if to underline both the job Kenny performed at Longford Town and the task which lay ahead at Bohs, the home side won 2-0.





His reign at Bohemians is difficult to categorise. On one level, it was a clear success, as Kenny revived the team in the short-term and led them to a League title in 2002-03, the final season working off the old calendar. Bohs had frittered a Cup final the year before, shockingly losing 2-1 to Dundalk in the FAI Cup Final. This may have been preying on Kenny's thoughts. Bohs clinched the title with a 1-0 win against Shelbourne in Tolka. Kenny blurted out in a post-match interview that 'it's about time I won something'.

However, the exit leaves a sourish taste with Kenny bundled out the door midway through the 2004 season with Bohemians struggling to keep pace with Shelbourne. It was a time of vaulting ambition by the League's standards.

GREAT SUCCESS: Mark 2 - Derry City


He found sanctuary in Derry where his gift for lifting sides from mid-table irrelevance to title-challenging prominence was once again demonstrated. Unluckily, he hadn't couldn't guide them all the way to the summit. They finished narrow runners up in two successive years, to Cork City in 2005 and to Shelbourne in 2006. Stuey Byrne, after a turbulent League campaign, attacked Kenny once Shels clinched the championship.


GREATEST SUCCESS - Mark 3: Dundalk

Leaning on the perception that Kenny is a better squad-builder than he is building on the success of an existing squad, Peter Collins put it to Stephen Kenny on one edition of MNS that Dundalk was the ideal job for Kenny.

'No, it wasn't the ideal job!', he said.

The most successful club historically outside of Dublin, Dundalk had endured a relatively rough decade, one marked by minimal achievement on the pitch and much drama off it. In 2006, after a rule change prevented their promotion to the Premier Division, one of the more devoted and colourful supporters Maxi McAllister invaded the FAI headquarters in Merrion Square and threatened to set himself on fire unless the decision was reversed. After energetic mediation, he was talked down.


In 2012, they finished comfortably bottom of the League but, crucially, not in twelfth place, as Monaghan were wound up that season ensuring no team would be relegated automatically. They beat Waterford United 4-2 in the promotion-relegation playoff, surviving an inquest over a player that Waterford claimed was ineligible.

Since then, Kenny has lifted Dundalk to dizzy heights. It must rank as one of the greatest jobs done ever in the League of Ireland.

Kenny delivers immediate and sustained success at clubs. A year after finishing last, they almost scooped the title after a mid-to-late season charge, just finishing up shy of St. Pat's. The last couple of years, they have made no mistake, squeezing by Cork City in a dramatic finale in 2014. They strolled away with the League title last year in a very undramatic finale.


Tonight, he masterminded Dundalk's third round Champions League victory over BATE Borisov, a team who played in the Champions League proper last year, beating the likes of Roma.

At worst now, Dundalk will earn €4.2 million and participate in the group phase of the Europa League. That is the worst case scenario.

They have an opportunity to reach the Champions League group phase, the first League of Ireland to do this. It is a historic opportunity.

Read more: If Some Of History's Greatest Writers Had Ghosted Roy Keane's Autobiography...

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