Why Jose Mourinho loves Kieran McKenna as Chelsea add next Julian Nagelsmann to manager shortlist

Kieran McKenna and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United

When Chelsea last won the Premier League Kieran McKenna was 32 years old. That would make him the oldest player in the current Blues squad now that Thiago Silva has left, but it demonstrates his youth and also his incredible rise in the game.

At the time he was working as Manchester United's Under-18 manager. Heading up the senior side at Old Trafford was none other than Jose Mourinho when Chelsea lifted the title under Antonio Conte.

McKenna is now a top candidate to become the head coach at Stamford Bridge after Mauricio Pochettino left the club by mutual consent. The Argentine and those at the top of the new hierarchy for the Blues had differences over their visions of how to move forward.

It leaves Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital (the heads of the ownership consortium) looking for a sixth manager in two years, though it will be a third permanent appointment. Why McKenna and why now?

The Northern Irishman has risen to prominence for his work primarily at Ipswich Town. In his first two full years at the club he has seen them get promoted from League One and now up to the Premier League.

When he was appointed in December 2021 Chelsea were reigning European champions, third in the Premier League and just six points off top spot. They were closer to second than fourth and had already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League.

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Ipswich, meanwhile, were 11th in the third tier of English football. Two-and-a-half years on and not only will Chelsea be facing the Tractor Boys - though without any of the impressive reigning titles - but they are also deadly serious about poaching the manager.

A rapid rise

Such has been McKenna's surge into the public spotlight, he is still a relatively unknown figure. Often seen in the Old Trafford dugout between 2018 and 2021 as assistant coach to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mourinho (as well as interim bosses), McKenna caught the eye initially because of a vague likeness to Darren Fletcher.

Quickly he became an important figure in the United coaching staff after Mourinho spotted his talents. "He's [Mourinho] been very open with his staff as he has been at different clubs," McKenna said of the Portuguese head coach in December 2022. "He's very open and honest at the start with 'this is what I want, what I need you to do' and really clear with it.

"Your responsibilities are really clear with Jose but when you earn the trust, the conversations change a little bit and maybe he wants your opinion more, can discuss things more on a level. Of course, you're respectful as a young coach with a man who has won so many titles and Champions League titles and you're respectful with your opinions.

"He was always open with his staff and wanted input and ideas but ultimately was strong. He's the ultimate decision-maker and one of the most important aspects as the first-team staff is once he's made the decision everyone is 100 per cent behind it and you follow his way."

McKenna's role was so impressive that when Mourinho left he was not moved on, instead tasked with helping to lay the foundations under Solskjaer. Such was his previous work with young players he aided the progression of an exciting team under the Norwegian boss.

Owing to his days at Nottingham Forest as a youth coach for 18 months (2010-2011), McKenna also worked at Leicester for a year-and-a-half in a similar role shortly after. He moved to America to become technical coach at Vancouver briefly before heading back to England.

At Tottenham he went via the academy route, at this stage only leaving his mid-20s. As youth coach and Under-18s manager he then ventured to United as a scout before becoming the Under-18s boss. Starting the journey with a sports science degree at the Univeristy of Loughborough, McKenna is well-travelled for his age.

His history as a player is near non-existent at the top level though. He was in Tottenham's academy but never made an appearance for the first team owing to injuries. He was capped by his country at youth level before an early retirement in 2009.

Destined for the top

The rest, as they say, is history. He is now being considered for top jobs across the country despite a small sample of coaching, but his record now speaks for itself. Mourinho is not the type of manager to promote just anybody into his setup regardless of how short a time they spent together.

“To operate at the very top, of course there has to be a level of talent and physical blessings,” McKenna explained of his experiences at Old Trafford. “But it probably hit me working further down the pyramid that sometimes the gaps in the talent levels aren’t that high.

“Often what has made the career of a player has been the mental things; the determination, the resilience in difficult moments, the commitment, the dedication and professionalism. It’s an absolute truth that’s impossible to make it to the top level, certainly to sustain it, without having those amazing characteristics from a psychological point of view.

“That’s not to say players at this level don’t have that. Some do. We have some fantastic professionals here. It’s just about sharing some of my insights because I think a lot of players enjoy hearing about role models and how they can try to emulate them in their own way.

“Of course they are interested in the fact you’ve worked with world-class players. At this level, players are really interested in watching clips of the top players and any little nuggets you can share with them about ‘he did this’ and ‘he did that.' It instantly gets their attention.

“That’s a tool in the armoury but has to be just one of many. Because if a manager has just one way of doing things then players can get very bored of it quickly.

“If I sat here every day and said ‘this player did this, why didn’t you?’ then it’s not going to work for very long. You need different ways to connect with and help players. That's a good one to have, it’s a benefit of where I've coached, but it can’t be the only one.”

As for if he is now ready to make the move up the ladder himself and how he got here? “You’re always following the generations that come before you," McKenna said. You’re standing on the shoulders of giants in a way.

“The likes of Jose came from a non-big playing background and went on to manage massive football clubs and make a huge impact on English football in general. I’ve had some really good conversations with Brendan Rodgers. When he was making his first steps it probably wasn’t as normal as it is now for a young British coach to get an opportunity in the game.

“Those of us who are coming along now are following those who broke down those big boundaries. There are some fantastic managers from an older generation, there are some fantastic managers who had big playing careers, but there are also those of us who have taken a different path who can also make an impact.

“I think we’ve probably been behind other countries in that way. If you look at the Bundesliga for example – you've got Julian Nagelsmann who [was] managing Bayern Munich at 34 years old. In England that would still be unheard of.

(Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Julian Nagelsmann will lead Germany into the Euros this summer -Credit:(Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

“I think Britain has made some good strides and hopefully that will continue. But, again, I stress that it’s not about one thing being better than another.

"It’s about recognising that there are different ways into the job. It should be about your quality and how good you are, not just your age or your past experiences. It’s up to those of us who have been given opportunities to do as well as we can and hopefully, like those before us, we can open up more opportunities for others.”

He is described by a former coach as "a determined and committed character, who is also intelligent and articulate – don’t be surprised if Kieran rises to the top of the game," and so it has proven. United were keen to keep McKenna when Ipswich came calling in 2021 but he wished to pursue his own managerial career.

Four league defeats in his first full year and promotion was the start before he outperformed teams with much larger budgets in the Championship last year. Favouring a 4-2-3-1 system with a double-pivot and possession-based football through the thirds, McKenna is a bright young manager.

They press high when off the ball and attempt to close the pitch down and lock onto a side. Even with less dominance than they had in League One, the fundamentals remain the same. This is ultimately what Chelsea themselves wish to see from their new manager.

Be it McKenna or not, and be it Stamford Bridge or elsewhere for him, it is a name we are going to be seeing and hearing plenty of in the coming years.