Kieran McKenna smiles as he recalls the fixation that took root early and never slackened. “I was the eight-year-old sitting up watching a League Two game in the spare room while the rest of the family had the TV on elsewhere,” he says of a County Fermanagh youth spent soaking up every available detail. “I know so many children are passionate about the game but I was the one watching every single second of football, day and night.”
Little has changed in almost three decades, although McKenna may have fewer opportunities to dwell on the lower divisions now. He has lifted Ipswich from the doldrums, winning promotion from League One in his first full season, and that is hardly the entire story.
They scored 101 goals, lost only four games and prospered with a sophisticated, dominant brand of football virtually alien to the third tier. More experienced heads had failed to reignite Ipswich but McKenna, who turns 37 on Sunday, arrived with a plan in December 2021 and executed it perfectly. It is hard to think of a more exciting young manager working in the country.
“When you have a club of this size and history, the only one in a big county, there’s massive potential,” he says, sitting in his office at the Suffolk club’s training ground. “We’ve had really powerful momentum, incredible support, and it’s a great place to be. We know there’s a lot of hard work to do but it’s nice to be in this position and there’s a real chance to push onwards and upwards.”
Ipswich are backed by Gamechanger 20, which makes little secret of its ambitions to restore the club’s glorious past. The US-led consortium outwardly took a risk when appointing McKenna, a rising star as first-team coach at Manchester United who had yet to go it alone, but were rewarded by a show of sheer self-belief.
McKenna’s plan was to take Ipswich up by playing from the back, trusting in their technical and structural superiority over opponents who usually wielded blunter instruments. It meant paying little heed to doubters and convincing sceptics. “I had a lot of discussions with people in football along the lines of: ‘That’s going to be very difficult,’ or: ‘I’m not sure if it’ll be possible,’” he says.
“I also had them with one or two of the players who were here last season, saying they thought it would be difficult getting out of League One playing a brave brand of football where you open the pitch up, play with the ball on the floor, try to make sure it stays in play, build from the back and look to open space up.
“There was certainly a narrative that it was not the recipe to get out of the division. It took a lot of conviction in our beliefs, conviction from the club to back us, conviction from the players to buy into it. For me, that makes the achievement all the more satisfying because it’s not been easy.”
McKenna took on a squad that mixed well-paid signings with those who had been around longer and seen various approaches fail. But he carried them with him, persuading them to “not over-obsess about results” and trust dedication to their approach would reap due rewards.
They overwhelmed their opposition on most metrics and, in the final third of the season, reached the peak that took them up with the champions, Plymouth: Ipswich won 13 and drew two of their last 15 games, scoring 45 and conceding four. Under McKenna they have never let in a goal through errors passing out from defence. “That’s something we did take pride in,” he says.
As that football-obsessed child, McKenna saw his family create an award-winning project of their own. His father had been a car mechanic in London and his mother a nurse; they decided to buy the Manor House Country hotel, located by Lough Erne to the north of Enniskillen, and built up a venue that is consistently named among Ireland’s best. “Seeing the work they’ve put in, the hours, the way they managed people, the passion they put into it, definitely influenced me,” he says.
“My dad pretty much lived in the hotel in the way some might say I live at this football club. I’d see my grandad come over from London on his holidays and within a day he’d be up a scaffold painting the top of the hotel or fixing tiles on the roof. It was a life’s work from the whole family.”
Now football is his. McKenna, a gifted player as well as a diligent student, left home at 16 to join Spurs’ academy and was close to the first team when a hip injury hit. It forced him to retire in 2009, when he was 22, but perhaps his course was already set.
“I remember Jimmy Neighbour and Mike Stone, my youth-team coaches, telling me three or four months into my first year as a scholar that I’d be the one who became a manager. I didn’t know what they meant: I’d never thought of it, never seen it in myself. As a player you’re so focused. It was only around the time of the injuries that I looked back at those conversations and thought: ‘Maybe this is something I could use.’”
Spurs immediately gave him a role on their under-18s coaching staff and he would have happily stayed. But John McDermott, who headed up the academy, persuaded him to gain broader experience by studying sports science at Loughborough and coaching simultaneously. “At the time it felt a step backwards,” he says.
“You’re coaching Loughborough in step eight of non-league or Nottingham Forest’s under-nines and you’re thinking: ‘Six months ago I was working with Spurs’ youth team.’ But it was an excellent move. You’re taking in such a bigger breadth of knowledge, experience and critical thinking. It gave me a chance to step back, hone my beliefs and work with people from different fields.”
A job was waiting for him at Spurs on finishing his degree but, until his success at Ipswich, he was best known for a role occupied in between. In 2016 he joined Manchester United, the club he supported, to coach their under-18s but within two years José Mourinho had spotted a precocious talent and promoted him to the first-team setup alongside Michael Carrick. There he remained, subsequently serving under his friend Ole Gunnar Solskjær and briefly Ralf Rangnick, before Ipswich called. It was a useful grounding in public scrutiny, particularly during lower moments. Solskjær’s staff, in particular, were often subjected to the microscope.
“If you can block out the noise in that environment and still concentrate on delivering good sessions to help the players, while staying true to who you are as a person, then you feel you can go anywhere and do it,” he says. “Not many places will have more intensity than there and you need a thick skin. That experience was massive for me. There was a lot of good stuff done over that period and I know how that was recognised and received internally. I was always proud of the work we did there.”
Carrick has since thrived at Middlesbrough. Both men seemed destined for a return to the top as managers but the quietly spoken McKenna, who lives in Ipswich with his wife and two young children, will never court the spotlight. “I don’t have any interest in fame or external validation. My family, my close friends, my coaching staff, those are the important things and that won’t change.
“When you come home from getting promoted against Exeter and your daughter wants donkey rides around the living room within two minutes, and then you’re up at 6am watching cartoons, it keeps you grounded. You know where your reality is.”
Ipswich hope to continue soaring under McKenna. His methods should translate easily into the Championship and, with money available, there are grounds to expect a swift adaptation. “No one wants to put a ceiling on what this club can achieve,” he says. “But we need to stay really humble.
“It’s a big thing for me. To get out of League One we needed to be more humble in terms of how we thought, how we embraced the challenge, and next season has to be the same. It’s going to be a big step up for everyone. We have big aspirations, no upper limit, but we will continue to work hard and build this club in the right way.”