Kieran McKenna always had a plan. He would be a manager by the age of 35. Why 35? “I mapped that out,” he says. “Mentally in my head that was retirement age as a player. I might have played until I was 35, 36.”
McKenna won promotion back to the Championship in his first full season. After five games Ipswich, who have been outside the Premier League for more than two decades, are second, play wonderful, attacking football and the ambition is clear.
As is McKenna’s. “This is a progressive club and I know that I want to manage at the highest level of the game,” he says. “I want to be back to that level - back to the Premier League and manage in the Champions League.”
Spending a day with McKenna is illuminating. Indeed, the fact he invites me to watch a training session, have lunch, watch the Ipswich Under-21s play Coventry City and then devote time to this interview in his office at the training ground is revealing.
McKenna – and Ipswich – want to provide a full picture as to what is going on. For example, the manager does not allow Sky Sports News – the training ground staple – on the televisions in the canteen. Instead there is footage of that day’s training session, always filmed by a drone, or highlights from a recent match. This is to get the message across. Players glance up and what do they see? They see their work and its consequences.
McKenna had two Desso – hybrid grass - pitches installed. He switches the players from one to other in training – with each exercise immaculately set up and organised – to make sure no time is wasted and the tempo remains. Afterwards McKenna, who leads training, and his coaching staff always hold a debrief with senior player, Sone Aluko, joining them.
Aluko, 34, wants to be a manager and he is not alone in the Ipswich squad. “We have 10 of them doing their (Uefa) B-licence,” McKenna says. “There will be some good coaches and managers and that reflects the culture we have here.”
McKenna knows all about that transition, even if it came far too prematurely for him. He was on the verge of the Tottenham Hotspur first-team when his own very promising career as a midfielder ended at the age of 22 due to a chronic hip problem.
McKenna had left his home in County Fermanagh to join Tottenham’s academy aged 16 and went on to play for Northern Ireland at Under-21 level.
“My career was going well but I had almost a two-year spell then of surgery and set-backs and specialists saying I wouldn’t come back,” he explains. “Then I went straight from crutches to coaching and was involved in a group that had Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Andros Townsend in an outstanding youth team.”
In fact almost since his first day at Spurs he had been marked out as a future manager, firstly by youth-team coach Jimmy Neighbour. Why? “He said I would definitely go on and be a coach and different people have said that over the years,” McKenna explains.
“My work-rate was always really high. I was pretty stand-out in that. I had a passionate love of the game. I loved football, genuinely. I love training every day. Some don’t, I loved it. I worked hard, probably was quite curious around the team and why we were doing certain things, tactical things and then was a good team-mate.”
Indeed later in this interview, McKenna admits he can be “obsessive”. “I work all the time,” he says. “It would be a lie to say anything else and that’s my personality. If I was the club physio I would be the same. If I had any job I would be the same. From being a teenager I was obsessive how I trained and worked hard at everything. It’s in my nature. My parents were the same; my grandfather was the same.”
McKenna’s parents run the Manor House Country hotel, located by Lough Erne to the north of Enniskillen, which they have built up into a venue that is consistently named among Ireland’s best.
“They have the hotel and seeing their work ethic and the huge, huge, huge hours they put into the business - that’s just in me,” McKenna says. “I don’t think that has anything to do with being a young manager. As a youth team coach I was working 14 hours a day in the office and working in the evenings when the kids went to bed, working on Sundays and that has been my pathway.
“The benefit as a manager is that it’s not really been a step up because that’s kind of how it has worked all the way through. If you suddenly start doing that as a manager you are more prone to burn-out. I am not behaving differently.”
McKenna produced his first coaching document when he was 22. It had the details of how he wanted his teams to play, the systems they should use and it has been regularly updated ever since.
“So I have documents that have evolved over the years and then you take notes with the managers you work with and what you see,” McKenna says. “You document your sessions, training, your meetings. I have pretty big databases and have all my training sessions from when I was a youth team coach at Tottenham. I have a drill library of practices and work on the grass I can look back on.”
The obsessive nature; the detailed preparation; the drive to succeed. It begs the obvious question: is McKenna trying to prove himself in football as a manager because he could not do so as a player?
“Certainly not consciously. It’s not something I reflect on too much,” he says, before reflecting on it. “Probably the drive to do really well, the drive to be successful, the drive to make a difference, the drive to make people at home proud of you then there is something un-quenched from a shortened playing career. It doesn’t consciously drive me and part of me thinks I am probably better at coaching than I was at playing.
“But I would certainly swap a lot of games coaching for a few more playing, that’s for sure. The feeling of good days as a player and being involved in victories, there is certainly no better feeling. It’s a different type of satisfaction, intensity and pressure because you are thinking about so many more things (as a manager). But anyone who has made the transition would say there is still nothing better than putting one in the net at the end of a game.”
In 2016, McKenna was poached by Manchester United and the chance to work at the club he grew up supporting – initially as the Under-18s coach – was too good to turn down. He was quickly noticed by Jose Mourinho and when his long-serving assistant Rui Faria left two years later, McKenna moved up to the first-team staff and became even more prominent under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, briefly, Ralf Rangnick.
“Being at Man United there was massive pressure,” McKenna explains. “Every loss is a disaster and the expectation is really high, the scrutiny is really high and it does develop your resilience, your ability to block out noise, your ability to focus on the things that are important and to control what you can control and not worry about the things outside of that. As a manager at any club that is important. It has helped me a lot.”
At United it was also the first time he had worked with first-team players – some of whom were not just among the biggest names in the game but were older than him.
“I found it pretty comfortable, to be honest,” McKenna says. “Coming in under a legendary manager like Jose was a great experience and a healthy pressure because you want to do well. You want to earn the respect of the manager and the players and make sure the sessions you are taking are ‘on point’. I felt like I was able to do that with every manager I worked under there. Probably one of the biggest things is realising players are not that different whatever level you go to.”
It is a lesson he has taken into management – with Ipswich’s driven American owners, Gamechanger 20, who bought the club in April 2021, taking a punt on McKenna which has been hugely vindicated. In fact, the problem they may now have is holding onto him.
But first he is loving life in the Championship and it is fascinating – and revealing of the level of detail and data he uses - to hear McKenna explain the difference in the “step up” from League One. “Athleticism is better league by league,” he says.
“You go for it from a stats point of view and the Championship is the second or third highest in Europe for sprints and high-speed distance and League One and League Two are the second and third lowest of all the leagues in Europe.
“There is a massive, massive disparity in the physical part of the game and the intensive actions. There is a big step up in ball-in-play time. Average League One ball-in-play time is 48 minutes and first game (in the Championship) against Sunderland we had 67 minutes ball-in-play time.”
There is a pause, before McKenna adds: “We like to be thorough and understand things.”
Not that he has any intention of compromising on a style that yielded 101 goals in League One last season as he showed that teams can play constructive football – and, yes, that means playing it out from the back – at any level.
“My principles are really, really strong and I don’t think I will ever go away from them,” McKenna says. “I believe in trying to play football a certain way. It’s not just about playing out from the back or pressing high. I want my team to be excellent in all aspects.
“We take a lot of time going through the details that might seem minute but over the course of time will add up to making us a much better team. I am steadfast in my principles. I will always want my team to be pro-active to try and dominate games.”
Ipswich are determined to, eventually, return to the top-flight. As is McKenna. It feels like both will happen sooner rather than later. “The ambition of the club is to get back to the Premier League as well so let’s hope that those two paths will cross at the same time,” McKenna says.
“But beyond that I don’t plan too far ahead. It is my responsibility as a manager to pour all my commitment and energy into helping the club. From there the football will take care of itself and it will take you where it takes you.”