Kieran McKenna’s suitors ready to fight for humble but world-class coach

<span>Kieran McKenna celebrates Ipswich’s promotion to the Premier League. Players love the variety, intensity and sheer detail of his coaching.</span><span>Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA</span>
Kieran McKenna celebrates Ipswich’s promotion to the Premier League. Players love the variety, intensity and sheer detail of his coaching.Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

The welcome drinks had barely been topped up at the League Managers’ Association awards when news broke that Mauricio Pochettino and Chelsea had ended their relationship. One of the delegations present braced itself immediately for what would come next. Ipswich Town know they have English football’s hottest property in Kieran McKenna and the interest from Stamford Bridge, which has bubbled away for several weeks, would now crash into the wider consciousness.

Hours later McKenna was named the country’s outstanding manager of this season and it speaks volumes that, since 2000, only three others have won that accolade for their work outside the Premier League. McKenna will manage in the top flight from August onwards but, with the merry-go-round gearing up for overdrive before 2023-24 has breathed its last, doubts continue to swirl over around where it might be.

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Brighton have courted the 38‑year‑old for some time and that has accelerated since Roberto De Zerbi’s departure. Should Erik ten Hag depart Manchester United then McKenna, who was an assistant coach before moving to Suffolk in December 2021, would be among the candidates to make sense of the Old Trafford basket case too. Things are hardly any less chaotic at Chelsea but there is a sense their vacancy, and genuine willingness to entertain luring McKenna from Ipswich, has accelerated the race to secure him.

Ipswich believe the 38-year-old McKenna is a world-class talent and, while that notion will have to be borne out at the highest level, the early evidence is compelling.

The side that ran amok through the Championship was only a few tweaks from the one that had come up from League One a year ago. A swathe of the squad can tell tales of being doubted or discarded by other clubs and managers but McKenna has a priceless knack of making players better. They have developed while performing with a sophisticated but adaptable style that will be at home in the Premier League.

During his time at United, McKenna was the subject of leaks questioning his coaching style. Those spoke of the rot within that club rather than any flaws in his methods. Ipswich players love the variety, intensity and sheer detail implemented by the Northern Irishman and his assistant Martyn Pert. They also appreciate a preternatural level of emotional intelligence. It is scant coincidence that nobody on the outskirts of McKenna’s squad will utter a word of complaint about their treatment or sense of worth.

That quality might be particularly useful to Chelsea’s distended cadre. But nobody will simply pluck McKenna from his current employers. Calculations will have to be made by all sides: McKenna is good for Ipswich, but Ipswich are also proving exceptionally good for him.

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The club’s American owners have created one of the most stable, nourishing environments in the country. He has been instrumental in plans for a multimillion‑pound redevelopment of the training ground while his relationship with the chief executive, Mark Ashton, is watertight and the pair have struck up a genuine friendship. It could be argued that two decades have passed since a manager enjoyed similarly smooth sailing at Chelsea, where a kindred spirit in Graham Potter saw a previously high career trajectory hit the skids.

Some in McKenna’s orbit contend that this is the time to move: that moments such as this do not necessarily arise twice in a career. Money is no object for Ipswich’s owners but, next season at least, financial fair play will force them to tread with caution. Staying up will be a stellar achievement at this point and a relegation on his CV would, while surely not terminal, muddy the arguments in favour for future suitors. In some quarters there is a belief that Brighton, who are a model for Ipswich in establishing themselves, would be a sensible next step if Tony Bloom can strike a deal.

Ipswich will fight tooth and nail to keep their man and they will not shy from ensuring McKenna, who signed a new contract last year and is subject to a hefty release clause, is incentivised financially to stay. Chelsea and Brighton would both like to make swift appointments but McKenna may prefer to see whether developments at United, the one job that would surely be irresistible, open the door after the FA Cup final this weekend.

Related: Brighton pushing to seal deal for Ipswich manager Kieran McKenna

McKenna has given Ipswich no indication that he would like to move and the atmosphere at the LMA awards, where he received his trophy from Sir Alex Ferguson, was relaxed. Perhaps it was notable that McKenna sat alongside Ashton and, interviewed later on, did not veer from his usual line of praising the collective and refusing to discuss his own feats. He is adored by their fanbase and is settled in Ipswich, where only an achievement as monumental as promotion will lead to being mobbed. His current surroundings, and the sense Ipswich have unfinished business upon returning, will weigh heavily on his thinking if a major decision has to be made.

The equation for Chelsea and their peers will be whether McKenna, who has never managed a Premier League game but has top‑flight European experience on the touchline with United, can handle the leap straightaway. There is little so far to suggest he cannot: McKenna exudes a quiet self‑belief mixed with a humility that, he says, comes from seeing how hard his family worked to build up their successful hotel business back in County Fermanagh. A manager destined for the stars may soon be asked to plot his route there in shorter order than anyone could have imagined.