Ex-Man Utd coach Kieran McKenna on learning from Fergie and following giants at Ipswich

Kieran McKenna has made a flying start as Ipswich manager after starting the season as part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s coaching set-up at Old Trafford – but he is inspired, not inhibited, by his predecessors at Portman Road

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DERBY, ENGLAND – JULY 18: Kieran McKenna the first team coach of Manchester United during a pre-season friendly between Derby County and Manchester United at Pride Park on July 18, 2021 in Derby, England. (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Statues of Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, who both became Ipswich Town manager aged 35, guard the entrances to Portman Road like sentries.

Although Kieran McKenna, also 35, has made a flying start on the managerial bouncy castle with the Tractor Boys, all sculptors’ leave in Suffolk has not been cancelled – yet.

But after too many false dawns at the club which prepared Ramsey and Robson for greatness with England, former Manchester United coach McKenna has taken to the hot-seat like a plough to a harrow.

Hanging on his office wall, a portrait of Robson gazes down approvingly – and McKenna is empowered by it where some of his predecessors appear to have been inhibited.

“Our history and tradition is something we should embrace as a club,” said the Football League’s youngest boss. “We should celebrate our success in the past and acknowledge how important it is to our supporters and the community.

Taking it on the chin: McKenna has made a fine start as Ipswich manager


MatchDay Images Limited)

“Here we’ve had two of the greatest managers in the history of British football who are big inspirations to myself.

“I’m not in a position to be compared with them yet – I’ve got a long, long way to go before I would even consider myself in the same sentence as those two.

“But they have walked through the same door and occupied the same seat as me – at the same age – and I enjoy having that history around me.

“I’ve got a big picture of Sir Bobby in my office, which I have no intention of removing.”

McKenna, whose side visit Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday in League One, began the season in the first-team coaching axis at United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

This way to the promised land: Sir Bobby Robson’s statue at Portman Road


Stephen Pond)

When Ole was forcibly separated from the wheel, the bright young thinker from County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland was retained at Old Trafford and only left when Ipswich came calling.

Instead of working with all-time great Cristiano Ronaldo on a daily basis, now he is getting stuck in at Accrington and Gillingham.

The fans like what they have seen.

Co-owner Brett Johnson, following Tuesday night’s 2-0 win at AFC Wimbledon from the States, was so excited by one of Wes Burns’ goals he went for the blood-soaked warhorse Terry Butcher look, cutting his forehead leaping up to celebrate.

But age has been no barrier to McKenna’s progress, even if a deity like Ronaldo is almost two years older, and he has enjoyed United doyen Sir Alex Ferguson’s counsel and support.

He said: “When I started working with the first team at United, I was 32 and the group included Ashley Young, who was a couple of years older than me, Antonio Valencia had been at the club a long time, and there were a few others as well.

“But players don’t judge you on age – if they see you have quality as a coach and quality as a person, they will respond and be happy to work with you.

“I had a good relationship at United with all the senior players and age was never a barrier. You will always be your age in years, but your coaching age can be different when you start very, very young.

At the wheel: McKenna (right) with former United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer


John Peters)

“I haven’t spoken to Sir Alex since I left, but he was absolutely fantastic to me in my time there – very supportive of me from the moment I arrived.

“Obviously everyone thinks so highly of him around the club and throughout football, and I know he’s on the end of a phone if I ever need him, and that’s a great support to have.

“Even as a youth team coach, we would watch games, chat sometimes about players and performances and it was a privilege to work with such an icon and a role model.”

If Ipswich fans want a measure of McKenna’s fierce determination to succeed, look no further than his reincarnation as a coach on crutches when his playing career at Tottenham was ended by a serious hip injury.

Within hours of being discharged from hospital, he appeared on the touchline at Spurs’ training ground, asking to get stuck in on his coaching badges.

Among the star pupils who soon appeared on McKenna’a radar in the under-18 age group was a promising striker called Harry Kane.

“I was lucky to have a great relationship with the academy staff at Tottenham and there was some outstanding work going on there around the time my playing career was shut down by injury,” said McKenna.

“At that stage, I already knew what route I wanted to go down and what I wanted to be in terms of coaching and management.

“I didn’t want to waste any time, so as soon as I had the surgery I was out of hospital and able to get out on the training pitch every day, leaning on crutches and learning my trade.

“It threw me into the deep end at a really good level where you don’t just learn about coaching: You learn about dealing with people, dealing with players, about sports science, analysis and the mental side of things.”

McKenna has the conviction of a manager who is going places. The statue can wait, but anyone who writes him off as coach destined for higher altitude must be thick as two short plinths.

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