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tactical genius How a man from Fermanagh ended up in one of the world's biggest coaching jobs at Man United


Kieran McKenna, far right, pictured with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and other members of the Manchester United backroom team.

Kieran McKenna, far right, pictured with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and other members of the Manchester United backroom team.

Kieran McKenna, far right, pictured with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and other members of the Manchester United backroom team.

Kieran McKenna has always been the inquisitive type. One of his old youth-team coaches, Whitey Anderson, recalls a 15-year-old midfielder who would pepper him with questions and seek detailed understanding about training sessions.

He wanted to know the way we were doing certain things and why,” explained Anderson, who coached McKenna at Ballinamallard United in his native Fermanagh before the future Manchester United first-team coach left for England and a budding playing career with Tottenham Hotspur.

“Beside his abilities, it was his attitude and acumen that stood out. He was a bright lad, tactically astute as a player and with a football intelligence.”

McKenna played Gaelic football with Enniskillen Gaels and reached an Ulster schools final with St Michael’s CBS; however, soccer remained his first love.

Years later at United, Jose Mourinho would be struck by the young coach who would wander over to the first-team pitches at Carrington to study his training methods and later incorporate elements of them into his own sessions with the Under-18s team.

McKenna’s logic was simple: he wanted his young players to understand Mourinho’s demands when the call came to train with the first team, valuable insights for the likes of Mason Greenwood who would successfully tread that path.

Mourinho was impressed by McKenna’s aptitude and obsessive nature and, in conversation, found an advocate of the tactical periodisation methodology the Portuguese had helped to popularise in Europe.

“He’s smart that kid – he listens, learns,” Mourinho would tell staff who wondered if the then United manager saw in this studious Fermanagh man something of a young Brendan Rodgers, whom he had brought to Chelsea in 2004, initially as head youth coach before a promotion to reserve-team manager.

Like his compatriot Rodgers, McKenna’s own playing career had been cut cruelly short by injury, a chronic hip complaint ending that dream in 2009 at the age of just 22.

McKenna responded by throwing himself into coaching and thriving at Spurs under the tutelage of the John McDermott, now technical director of the English FA.

Still, even Mourinho could scarcely have imagined the responsibility that would soon be entrusted on such young shoulders when he drafted McKenna on to his first-team staff in May 2018 following the departure of long-standing assistant Rui Faria.

Seven months later, with Mourinho gone and replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who viewed himself more as a US-style general manager than a hands-on training ground coach, the onus on shaping and driving first-team training at one of the world’s most scrutinised clubs fell into the lap of a then 32-year-old whose background had been almost exclusively in academy football.

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As those who know McKenna well point out, it was not a job that anyone in his position was going to turn down, even if there is also an acceptance that “as learning curves go, it’s been as steep as it gets”.

The narrative around United looking poorly coached has hardened this season in the face of worsening results and performances, and it is indicative of their predicament that, ahead of tomorrow’s derby against Manchester City at Old Trafford, neither a repeat of the 5-0 capitulation to Liverpool or another success against Pep Guardiola’s champions would shock supporters.

Those who have observed McKenna’s work at close quarters talk about there being good variety to his sessions, and a thoroughness and detail in his approach. But they have also suggested he looks “more comfortable working with younger players because that’s where his experience has been”.

“The way he delivered things was maybe more abrupt because he was used to dealing with 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds, and you don’t necessarily speak to senior professionals in the same way,” one source said.

McKenna is assisted on a day-to-day basis by Michael Carrick, with whom he has struck up a strong rapport.

“Kieran’s always known how to talk to people,” Anderson said. Top-level dressing-rooms are unique places, though.

Some have suggested McKenna looked more at home once demanding characters such as Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez left United in the summer of 2019 for Inter Milan, and Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James arrived.

In recent times, Old Trafford has seen the arrival of more experienced heads again and perhaps those kinds of individuals are harder for an inexperienced coach to win over.

Yet United sources pointed out there were players who were not having Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, both European Cup and serial title-winning coaches, and that McKenna, who is married with two young children, is not afraid to get tough. “He’s got very high standards technically, physically and tactically, so he’ll definitely have a snap at them if they’re not delivering what he wants,” one said. (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021)

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]