Sir Alf Ramsey, Sir Bobby Robson… Kieran McKenna?
Ipswich Town has a rich history of giving young, hopeful managers their first chance in a big role and on occasions they have gone on to enjoy remarkable success. The Tractor Boys handed Ramsey his first job in management even though he had no relevant qualifications or much coaching experience when they were down in division three. In seven-years time I have guided them to the First Division title in their first-ever season in the top flight. Of course, he would then go on to manage England in their one and only World Cup triumph.
If Ramsey is remembered as England’s best-ever manager then Robson follows swiftly behind. He was sacked less than a year into his first job in England after being unable to save Fulham from relegation. Ipswich handed him an opportunity and he restored the Suffolk club as a serious contender. In his 13 years at Portman Road he finished league runners-up twice, won the UEFA Cup and the FA Cup before he too left for the Three Lions.
Reaching the universal renown and beloved status that those two men achieved may not be attainable for any new manager, but McKenna would certainly like to use Ipswich as a launching pad for his own managerial career.
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Ipswich have been languishing in League One since they finished rock bottom of the Championship in 2019. An instant return was expected for a club of such stature but as the likes of Sunderland, Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers have discovered, the third tier can be a sticky ditch to climb out of.
Paul Cook was the latest man to fail at the difficult task this season and was sacked by the club on December 4 after his side won just twice in nine games and began to slip down the table. Twelve days earlier, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had also received his P45 and said an emotional goodbye to Manchester United after a string of dreadful results that all but ended any chance of a Premier League title challenge.
McKenna had been a key figure in the Norwegian’s coaching side, as well as Jose Mourinho’s before him, and was highly rated for his astute tactical mind after rising through the ranks at the club. He remained at his post to help caretaker manager Michael Carrick steady the ship, and pick up some good results, while a replacement was found. Ralf Rangnick was hired as an interim until the end of the season and with that Carrick bowed out with his head held high.
McKenna worked alongside the German as he got acclimatized to life in Manchester for a short while, joining him in the dugout for his first three matches, but then the post at Ipswich became available. It soon became clear that McKenna was their top choice. He was given permission to talk with them about the job and on December 16 he was confirmed as the 19th manager in their history. His side of him was in 12th place when he took over and though they have only risen three places in the table since, there has still been a marked improvement.
Before McKenna, Ipswich had picked up just 28 points from 22 games but since his arrival, they’ve collected 33 in only 17 matches. Most importantly, there is still a flickering hope of promotion as they sit six points off the play-off spots with seven games remaining. Getting there would be a massive ask but the fact it’s even still a possibility is testament to the work McKenna has done in his first managerial post.
“There’s been a major improvement in all three,” Stuart Watson of the East Anglian Daily Times tell the Manchester Evening News when asked what impact McKenna has had on the style of football, results and mood around Portman Road.
“The style of football has been very easy on the eye. I’d point people in the direction of the highlights from the 4-0 win at Gillingham – some of the one-touch football leading to goals in that game was outstanding. McKenna’s been clear on his underlying possession principles – Ipswich have been averaging close to 600 passes per game – but off of a 3-4-3 base he’s rotated forwards and come up with bespoke game plans.
“The mood around the club, as you can imagine, is very positive given all of the above. Crowds are regularly exceeding 20,000.”
McKenna is still just 35 and has already had an extensive coaching career after working at Tottenham, Leicester City Nottingham Forest and Vancouver Whitecaps, all while studying for a Sports Science degree at Loughborough University. Following his graduation, he joined Tottenham permanently, first as the Head of Academy Performance Analysis before taking over the Under-18s side. In 2016 he moved to United where he also worked with the youth teams before being promoted by Mourinho to the senior staff in 2018 and he remained there in a coaching capacity for the following four years.
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Stepping out of the background team and into the limelight of being the man in charge could be a daunting experience but it’s one that McKenna is relishing.
“Yeah I’ve really enjoyed it,” the Northern Irishman told the MEN in the wake of his first loss at the helm, to Bolton, on January 15, an experience he has only suffered once more in the months since.
“I think we’re still very much part of a team here, when you’re a coach as I was at United you’re part of a staff team and now I have a staff team with me here. So I’m enjoying working alongside them.But ultimately the final responsibility on certain things falls on me.
“I’ve enjoyed that, I’ve enjoyed leading the players, I’ve enjoyed looking at the club from a broader perspective and how we can improve things on the training ground. Working very hard with other people in the club on how we can make some improvements for the longer term.It has been enjoyable and obviously short-term trying to develop the team on the training pitch and improve the performances on the pitch and pick up results.
“So yeah, I’ve enjoyed it and hopefully be here for a long time and we can move the club in the right direction.”
Since that first defeat in his third match – after winning his first two games by an aggregate score of 5-0 – Ipswich have won seven of their 13 fixtures, drawing five others and falling to a narrow 1-0 defeat to fellow play-off chasers Sheffield Wednesday. The upturn in the club’s fortunes has immediately ingratiated McKenna to the Ipswich faithful, even if another from League One is unlikely this season.
Watson believes players, as well as supporters, are buying into McKenna’s open honesty and his keen eye to find and implement every small advantage his team can possibly harness.
“From day one there was a clear self-confidence that he was ready for this opportunity, after years of learning his trade at elite clubs,” he explains of how McKenna has carried himself in his first job as a boss. “But that belief comes across in a nice, humble, understated manner.”
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Calm, considered, methodical and logical are all words that have been regularly used to describe the Northern Irishman. Already he’s looked to find marginal gains in things like the flow of the training ground, the size of the pitch and travel arrangements. Players and fans alike are really buying into his open, honest and fulsome communication from him.
“He’s certainly a very different personality to some of his more experienced predecessors at Portman Road such as Roy Keane, Paul Jewell, Mick McCarthy, Paul Lambert and Paul Cook.”
McKenna has had plenty of figures to learn from during his coaching career, some of whom clearly still support him to this day. In a rare public appearance since their departures from Old Trafford, both Solskjaer and Carrick were in attendance for Ipswich’s away match at Doncaster Rovers on February 8 to get behind their former colleague as his side won 1-0.
“They’re obviously two fantastic football men, two Champions League winners, but two good friends and two Ipswich Town fans now,” McKenna told EADT after the match. “They’ve been following all the games on iFollow and I think they’re hoping to come down to Portman Road at some point too.
“They came to the hotel this afternoon and met some of the players and staff. It was nice of them to make the journey and I really appreciate it. They’re two colleagues, but two friends as well. We’re in contact speaking about football and other things as well. They’re very supportive of both me and Martyn (Pert) as well. It’s two new fans for Ipswich Town, which is nice.”
But, despite all the advice he has received from plenty of former workmates, McKenna remains determined to follow his own instincts and be himself in the role. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people for advice for sure, Ole being one of them,” he told the MEN.
“Also a lot of other people who I’ve worked for. I think when you’ve coached for as long as I have you have a range of experience, you’ve worked with different people, taken a lot of different things from them But ultimately it’s really important to be yourself, put your own stamp on things.
“I think that’s my main focus, being myself, being authentic. Trying to do things how I want to do them and how I see them. I’ve got confidence that in the end that will lead to improvements that we want to make as a team and as a club.”
So just over three months in his first post as a manager, out of the gloomy shadow of United, and it’s going well for McKenna. A tough run-in awaits with three of the top four still left to play in the final six fixtures – starting against Plymouth Argyle on Saturday – but for the first time in a long while there is a sense of optimism at Ipswich.
“Even if Ipswich do ultimately fall short,” says Watson. “I think there is a feeling that things are moving in the right direction for a club that last year came under new ambitious American ownership.
“Given how much extra McKenna has been able to get out of the squad he inherited, it’s exciting to think what he might be able to do after a summer transfer window in which he will be backed.”
When then asked how far he thinks McKenna can go in the game based on this early impression, Watson concluded: “Who knows? As good a start as it’s been, let’s not forget it still is only 16 games in senior management. There are bigger pressures to eat.
“I do feel he’s got the personality traits and coaching acumen to be a real success in the modern game though. Giving young managers their first chance is in Ipswich Town’s DNA, see Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, so let’s hope this proves a match made in heaven.
“If McKenna does go on to bigger things further down the line then it means he’s left Ipswich Town in a better place.”
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