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ole's green giant Meet Kieran McKenna - The Irishman at Solskjaer's right hand

A sharp brain has taken Fermanagh man Kieran McKenna to a coaching role in England's top flight with the club he grew up supporting

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Kieran McKenna with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Matthew Peters/Getty Images

Kieran McKenna with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Matthew Peters/Getty Images

Kieran McKenna with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Photo: Matthew Peters/Getty Images

Dominic Corrigan’s recall is crystal clear. He remembers when a young student named Kieran McKenna came into St Michael’s CBS in Enniskillen in September 1997 and stepped onto the Gaelic football pitch to make an impression that remains fresh in the mind.

“You could see the talent oozing out of him,” says the former Fermanagh manager. “He was a standout.”

Corrigan, who remains a PE teacher with the school he has steered to success at provincial and national level, doubts that McKenna has any regrets about missing out on an inter-county career.

He speaks with pride about the former pupil that now stands on the sideline at Manchester United next to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, an assistant first-team coach at one of the world’s biggest clubs. He turns 35 in May and his ascension is a success story by any standards.

It is a reflection of his football intelligence but also his resilience, a trait that was required when the teenage dreams created by a move to Spurs were shattered by a chronic hip injury that effectively ended his senior career before it had even started.

Instead of walking away from the sport, he resolved to stay in it by honing a knowledge that transferred so easily across codes in his formative days.

“The thing that marked him out from his peers was he had a brilliant football brain,” continues Corrigan.

“That was evidenced in his Gaelic. It was no surprise he ended up in a position on the pitch where it was a critical; he was the sweeper. St Michael’s were 15 years ahead of our time playing one.

“Kieran would have revelled in the modern game with his decision-making and positional sense. He did lack a little bit of acceleration and pace but that was compensated for by his brain and his great skillset.

“We’re not surprised at all; to see Kieran get to the very top in the professional game in a coaching position because the other thing that stood out was his willingness to take on lessons and advice even at that young age.”

Corrigan does recall a few injury issues too, a warning for what was to come. Yet there was incredible excitement for the popular pupil when Spurs came calling. He had excelled for Enniskillen Town in the winter while lining out for Enniskillen Gaels in the summer.

But similar to his elder brother James (who won an Ulster schools title under Corrigan with St Michael’s whereas Kieran lost a final), soccer was the chosen code. James had a respectable career in the Irish League with Ballinamallard, their home ground just a short drive from the family home in the townland of Coa.

Kieran lined out for Ballinamallard too and that was where he was spotted by Gerry McKee, the Spurs scout in the region.

That planted the seeds for the central midfielder’s move over the water, a luckless time at Spurs where he progressed through the youths and reserves, and trained with the likes of Gareth Bale, Dimitar Berbatov, Edgar Davids and Robbie Keane before his body prevented him from making the next step.

Spurs recognised McKenna’s grasp of the game and sought to retain that in another capacity. Alex Inglethorpe (now with Liverpool) and John McDermott (now with the English FA) got him involved with their U-18 team and one of the first players he coached was a young Harry Kane.

“The work that was going on there was probably ahead of what was going on at any other club at that time,” McKenna told the ‘Irish News’ last year. “So it gave me a really good head start. After that it’s the work and the sacrifices you’re prepared to make.”

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Dominic Corrigan, pictured managing St. Michael’s College in the 2012 MacRory Cup final, is very proud of his former student Kieran McKenna. Picture: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Dominic Corrigan, pictured managing St. Michael’s College in the 2012 MacRory Cup final, is very proud of his former student Kieran McKenna. Picture: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

Dominic Corrigan, pictured managing St. Michael’s College in the 2012 MacRory Cup final, is very proud of his former student Kieran McKenna. Picture: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

McKenna kept the Spurs link while studying for a degree in sports science at Loughborough. He worked in university football, helped out in the youngest age groups in Nottingham Forest and spent his summers working in New York and Canada.

Eventually, Spurs came forward with a permanent job, and McKenna soon became coach of their U-18 team.

“He was doing the analysis at the academy when I first came in,” recalls Aaron McEneff, the former Spurs trainee who made headlines earlier this week by leaving Shamrock Rovers to join Hearts.

“But very quickly he started doing the coaching. The one thing I would say is that his attention to detail was always excellent. He would really have helped me when it came to watching clips of yourself and other players. You’d be sitting watching a clip and he’d ask ‘what did you see there?’ and I’d be saying I didn’t see anything.

“He would go into the finer details of body shape and moving legs and that kind of information. It was great for me to have someone like that at the club that I could go to. If you were having a bad day you could go and talk to him and he could relate to that because he had moved away when he was younger and he was Irish too.”

Word got around. The former Northern Ireland underage international was invited in to work with their teams by Jim Magilton, then the IFA’s elite performance director, who recalls the impact the fresh-faced coach made on an U-21 camp. “I was blown away by him,” says Magilton, now the sporting director at Dundalk. “I knew Kieran first as an outstanding young footballer, he was very unlucky.

"But he’s one of the most outstanding coaches I’ve met. We would be sitting around discussing training sessions and he would have a plan ready for the next morning. He would have it all visually ready and understood the mindset you needed on the training pitch.

“He had a great way of communicating with young players. He coached them, and he mentored them. He’s a modern coach but also old-fashioned in terms of attitude and application and work ethic. They were non-negotiables for him.

"He was meticulous in terms of preparation and attention to detail but what’s more important is being able to deliver that. Players see through you if you can’t deliver that but he has a wonderful way with players.”

In 2016, Manchester United came calling. For the boyhood United fan who had trekked to Old Trafford with his father Liam in the 1990s, the offer was naturally tempting.

He was given responsibility for their U-18 side and delivered a Premier Division North title in that age group before Jose Mourinho promoted him to the first-team coaching staff along with Michael Carrick before the 2018/’19 campaign. Five months later Mourinho was gone, but Carrick and McKenna have remained.

Broadly speaking, he retains a low profile and in the sticky patches questions have been asked about the Norwegian’s support staff. He did bring in the experienced Mike Phelan while Darren Fletcher has moved up the ladder too.

McKenna’s relative youth and the absence of an accomplished playing CV will always leave him open to scrutiny from cynical pros and he’s also not regarded as a domineering character, but Magilton says there will always be murmurs from elsewhere in the game about someone who is doing well. He’s adamant that anyone who has worked first hand with McKenna will recognise that he’s the real deal.

“I’m a big believer that it comes down to how hard you work,” adds McEneff. “His story shows how quickly things can turn for you in football.”

Corrigan, for his part, remembers a ‘steely determination’ that lay behind the good-natured demeanour. He’s booking McKenna in for a trip back to his alma mater whenever the circumstances allow because he can’t think of a better role model for the next generation.

“What happened to him when he was younger could have broken him but he showed resilience to get to where he wanted in another area,” he stresses.

“A lesser man would have turned his back on it. We would point to his career path as a shining example to anyone - not just our sportsmen but everyone in the school - that a setback can be used as an opportunity to take you another route. Kieran McKenna is a great example of that.”

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