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Empty stands won't worry Irish boss

Kenny's domestic experience will help in empty stadium

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Stephen Kenny talks to his players during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown

Stephen Kenny talks to his players during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown

SPORTSFILE

Stephen Kenny talks to his players during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown

When Stephen Kenny steps out onto the Sofia sideline on Thursday or walks down the Aviva Stadium tunnel on Sunday, he won't be emerging to the scene he envisaged when landing the job as Ireland boss.

But in a strange way, closed-doors football will bring the Dubliner back to where it all began, to the shouts of the players and their managers and the simple business of 11 v 11 without the crowds and the chants and the uncontrollable background noise.

The backdrops were different, of course, but this was the path that the 22-year-old Kenny chose to go down when it became apparent that his playing career was unlikely to go beyond the second tier of the League of Ireland.

He went to Tallaght Town, attracted by the prospect of lifting his local club up the ranks of the Leinster Senior League and beyond. This was around the time that his day job involved supplying and delivering meat to butchers around Dublin. Football was the hobby with the potential to take him out of it.

"I'd left Home Farm as a player when I'd been asked to stay on with the first team and I also had an offer to sign for Kilkenny City at that stage, but, at 22, I left that to go into Tallaght Town and try and bring it to the League of Ireland because I was hugely motivated by that," he told the local paper, the Echo, earlier this year.

"This was what I wanted to do. It was a strange decision at the time. I was managing the Saturday team, playing in the Sunday (side), and doing all the coaching."

Fresh face

Kenny was a fresh face entering a streetwise environment, and more than able to handle it. He secured three promotions before Shamrock Rovers effectively absorbed Tallaght Town into their operation as part of their plans to expand to Dublin 24.

With his reputation growing, he accepted a call from Pat Dolan to depart and take over the St Patrick's Athletic U-21 side for a year, still a relative unknown in the dugout of slightly better venues that were equally sparse crowds-wise.

It wasn't much different when he landed the job as Longford Town manager at 26, thus becoming the youngest supremo in League of Ireland history. Just 50 punters paid into his first meaningful fixture.

His first official 90 minutes was actually a friendly against a touring Mansfield Town side, an encounter staged at Longford Rugby Club because their own base was unavailable. The match report in the Longford Leader was smaller than the details of a local cup final involving two pub teams. Pitch and Putt news ran next to it. Longford lost the game 1-0 but the reporter noted signs of promise.

It was only when Longford started to win matches that he had to account for the impact of atmosphere and the momentum-generating aspect of the energy of a heaving facility, however modest it might be. Still, his early teams had always succeeded in bringing their own sound effects.

A few years back, Brian Kerr expanded on his earliest Kenny memories in a column for this newspaper. He had signed Kenny for St Patrick's Athletic in 1990, picking him up from Belvedere, but he lacked the physical attributes to break through and never played a game for the club. Kerr noted the "inquisitive" manner of the "courteous" youngster and brought his Saints team to Tallaght Town for a friendly for their next crossing of paths.

"It was up at their place, on the side of the Dublin Mountains, and Stephen walked up and down the line like a madman, cajoling his players to get stuck in. And they did, beating us," wrote Kerr.

"Here was one of my recent players, making his own way in the footballing world, and doing everything he could to get the win, including the re-introduction of a substitute for the closing stages.

"What the f*** are you bringing him back on for?" I said to him. Stephen stood his ground. And I admired him for that."

The League of Ireland is a young man's league now, yet that wasn't the case when Kenny was breaking through. He went through character building experiences on those sidelines; but he would never have gone there if he didn't have character to start with. His job interview for Longford was in a local bar and he concluded it by telling the officials that he was happy to accept the opportunity but didn't want to be doing business in a pub again.

Clearly, there was always a vision. On the steps along the road from those formative days, the style has evolved. He's no longer a consistently manic figure on the sidelines.

Yes, he is regarded as a strong man-manager and motivator. That would be considered the strongest of his skillsets; he's not necessarily regarded as a genius on the coaching field. But he has a firm philosophy about the game, and has always selected staff that can help convey the message and bring it to reality. There is a method behind his choice of Keith Andrews and Damien Duff.

It's the decision-making around matchday that brings Kenny to life. In recent years, his players have found that Kenny can be calm when they least expect it and pumped up when others might be relaxed.

A prime example brings us back to Longford in 2016, the year when Dundalk took on Europe and a Midlands jaunt on a Monday was unthordox preparation for a massive Europa League tie with Zenit St Petersburg three days later in the midst of a congested fixture schedule. It was a match that Dundalk were expected to comfortably win, and Kenny perhaps sensed complacency. The pre-match meal was in the Longford Arms Hotel.

This reporter was present in the same establishment beforehand. With the ground floor toilets out of commission, staff pointed the way to the first floor option. Walking up the steps, there was shouting clearly audible from behind a closed door. The so-called "softly spoken" Kenny was midway through an impassioned team meeting speech about what needed to be done. He sounded like a different man to the one you see when microphones are present.

In time, we will hear the full story of the first impression he has made on this Ireland group. If it's anything like his previous career experiences, it may take a while for those who haven't worked with him before to fully grasp his way of operating.

Consistent

But a consistent theme of speaking with individuals present for the adventure that landed him this gig is the awareness to get the pitch right and create the correct mood around a big occasion. He acknowledged last week that there were different images in his mind when he thought about his maiden steps in his dream job.

In his 'getting to know you' chats with the squad, the trip to the stadium for home games had come up. "We were speaking to the players individually, (to find out) what works and what didn't work and whether the journey to the stadium from the hotel is too long or not. The Aviva Stadium is in the middle of the city. People walk to it.

"When you go to the match, there's crowds on both sides of the road. Some players said 'That's something I really look forward to', the journey to the stadium with the Irish music on. We haven't got any of that, and we could be in this situation for quite a while. You have to make the best of everything you can, rather than be subdued."

Kenny's ability to forget the surroundings is what inspired the meteoric rise at the beginning of this unlikely story. Tomorrow, he'll be in an empty stadium, surrounded by a greater number of support staff, but ultimately staring out at a green field with limited distractions. Back to where it all began.

Only this time, a nation will be keeping tabs on every move.