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25/10/2021

A road well travelled

A look at the Kenny Shiels' career

A road well travelled

Kenny Shiels, deep in thought, during his time as Derry City manager. (Pic: Seb Daly/Sportsfile)

Maghera man Kenny Shiels transformed the Northern Ireland women's team, without a win for four years, to qualify for next summer's European Championships. Michael McMullan sat down to hear his story...

From Kenny Shiels' front door, through the hall and kitchen, into the sun-room of his Maghera home sets the scene.

A framed Northern Ireland jersey on the wall. Snaps of his son Dean in the colours of Rangers and Hibernian, with three outstretched fingers symbolising his hat-tricks.

A glistening picture of Kenny and Dean, grinning from ear to ear, with the Scottish League Cup after Kilmarnock's 2012 success, sticks out from a row of framed mementos.

There is no doubt this is a football house.

Dean is now the manager of Dungannon Swifts. His other son, Jody, manages the local cross community team Upperlands Aces where Kenny is the Chairman.

“It is only a title,” he admits. Football is in the blood. “I mark out the pitch, cut the grass...just trying to keep them going.”

One of his daughters, Lauren, is married to Coleraine manager Oran Kearney. Armagh City manager Shea Campbell is married to Grace. His wife Gwen's brothers were footballers. You soon get the picture of the football discussion bouncing around the dinner table.

On a Thursday afternoon, on the same day he signed a two-year extension to his contract as Northern Ireland women's manager, Shiels' welcome is a warm one. He sips on a cuppa, relaxed, just shooting the breeze. Talking football comes naturally.

It was always football, even at the age of two. In hospital for a hernia operation, Kenny 'cried his eyes out'. His mother, Elizabeth, tried to pacify him. But, it wasn't the pain, rather, someone had taken his ball. Once it was returned, the tears stopped.

“It must be in my genes somewhere...I was football mad,” Kenny utters.

He turned 65 weeks ago, but the glint remains in his eye. Before Covid-19 took hold, he was a regular at the nearby leisure centre. The mantra is early to bed, early to rise and practice what you preach.

Another passion is music. Tucked in the corner of the kitchen is a record player, with a selection of LPs. Front of the pile is his favourite, John Prine.

“Music is just great,” Kenny offers, painting a picture of the power generated by Labi Siffre's Something Inside So Strong. As the Northern Ireland team are about to leave their hotel, the words of the song set the scene. The song changes, depending on the atmosphere. The words and crescendo...they both matter.

Shiels gained a degree in psychology along his footballing journey. As he speaks, he picks his words well. An hour in his company gives a taste of how Northern Ireland women, who went four years without a win, will mix with Europe's elite next summer.

***

Shiels' first gig in management came in Beagh Primary School at the age of eight. The nearby, much bigger, Maghera County school came to play a friendly match.

“Shiels...pick that team,” bellowed Principal Mr Gillen.

“It was a hiding to nothing,” said Shiels of the game, in which he helped himself to five goals in an eight all draw.

“There were no tactics,” Kenny laughs. “I got the ball and dribbled. They were trying to kick lumps out of me, but couldn't get near me.”

Football was never away from the family home on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Maghera. Kenny was fourth of nine children, which included eight boys.

Their father Roy had installed lights in the front yard. Every Saturday night, they'd re-emerge after Match of the Day, singing the tune as they raced outside, playing until after midnight.

“My father was a Unionist Councillor...this town was polarised at one time,” Kenny points out. Roy Shiels was able to drink in any of the 13 pubs in Maghera. One of the few that could.

“He got houses for everybody, no matter what creed they were...he was a very popular man.”

With a deep interest in football, Roy formed a team comprising Catholics from the upper part of the town and Protestants from the bottom end.

“He was bringing communities together to go and compete together in a sporting environment,” Kenny proudly states. “They came together and became friends to this day. Larry Cudden, who played for us, texted me a few minutes ago.”

Roy took a cattle trailer, with the whole team in it and sometimes a couple in the boot of the car. It wouldn't conform with today's regulations. Roy's Chicks, as they were called, hammered everyone in sight in tournaments across the North. After bagging seven goals in a game, Kenny was accused of being overage.

The following year, the Chicks went international, on a five-day trip to France. Seamus Heffron, a French teacher on his year out, helped Roy organise the trip, which was funded by a raffle for a ball signed by the England and Spanish national teams.

“Off they went to France, in the late seventies,” said Kenny, now too old to go. “Children got to Portrush for a weekend and that was it.”

Kenny was 'football mad' and sneaked away for a fleeting Gaelic football spell with Glen minors in 1972, at the height of the troubles. On the Saturday evening he'd leave a kitbag in a lane near his home. The following morning, his mother would have him kitted out in a shirt and tie for Sunday school.

“I would change into my ordinary clothes and go on to a game,” he recalls. “Playing Gaelic, when I think back at the height of the troubles, I was mincemeat. It was a brave thing to do.”

While his 'toe to hand' wasn't up to scratch as a newcomer to the game, he just dribbled his way through defences.

***

An ankle injury at the age of 16 threatened to end the promising Shiels' football career. Medical advice told him to hang up his boots, but he ploughed on. He went on to play for Distillery, Coleraine, Ballymena and Larne in the Irish league.

In his third spell with Tobermore United, as player manager, he brought home silverware before a call out of the blue gave him his big break in management.

“It was the day of my father's funeral,” Kenny remembers. “I can still see it. I came home from the funeral, I was hanging up my coat and the phone rang.”

Bottom of the table Carrick Rangers were offering him the manager post. The following season, he led them to the County Antrim Shield. After a semi-final win over Glenavon, they defeated then league champions Glentoran in the final.

“That was a fantastic giant killing act,” he said of their 2-1 replay win.

The Glens had taken English professional player Billy Whitehirst for the final, whereas Kenny built a team by dipping into local junior clubs Roe Valley, Dungiven and Magherafelt Sky Blues. Brian Martin scored the first goal, with David Montgomery netting the winner.

When Felix Healy resigned as Coleraine manager midway through the 1994/95 season, a Bannsiders' fan like his father, Shiels was headhunted to steer the ship.

Coleraine narrowly missed out on a place in the top flight, as the old 16-team division split into two leagues for the first time. The following season, with his younger brother Sammy banging in the goals, Kenny got Coleraine promoted and won the inaugural Irish News Cup, a competition for North West Clubs in the Irish League and League of Ireland.

After six years with Coleraine, he had a spell with Moyola Park before taking charge of Ballymena United in mid-season. He was unable to save them from the drop to the second tier. After two seasons, which saw them finish as low as fifth, Shiels rebuilt the team.

His now son in law Shea Campbell was leading the attack when they gained promotion and with ex Nottingham Forest striker Nigel Jemson on board, they finished sixth in the top flight and qualified for Europe via the Intertoto Cup. Following a draw with Danish side Odense, they lost the second leg.

After leaving the Showgrounds, Kenny took over at Larne, but at the time, he was appointed as manager of Northern Ireland U17s, who he steered  to the 2004 European Championships.

“That was the only time they qualified for Europe,” said Shiels. “We beat Belgium away and Scotland away to qualify, that was massive.”

At the tournament in France, Northern Ireland came up against a Cesc Fàbregas-led Spain and the hosts that included Karim Benzema.

The eight years with the U17s helped him secure a job in England, the Head of Youth at Tranmere Rovers, where he stayed for three seasons before taking over as Mixu Paatelainen's number two at Kilmarnock. When Paatelainen moved to take charge of Finland, Shiels was promoted to manager.

The 2012 season proved to be a fantastic season. He became the first Killie manager to beat Rangers twice in one season. Ally McCoist was looking to equal an 82-year record by going 15 away games unbeaten, but Kilmarnock overturned them at Rugby Park. When the sides met in the return fixture at a packed Ibrox, Shiels' son Dean scored the 12 minute winner.

In the League Cup, Kilmarnock went all the way to their final meeting with Celtic at Hampden Park without conceding a goal. Goalkeeper Cammy Bell's inspirational performance kept a clean sheet in the decider. Shiels brought Lee Johnston and Dieter Van Tornhout off the bench, with both combining for the latter to score the winning goal to take the title and cap off a fine season.


Kenny and Dean Shiels celebrate Kilmarnock's 2012 Scottish Cup success.

The following season, Shiels led Killie to victory over Celtic at Parkhead, but after finishing ninth in the table, triggering a get-out clause, allowed the club to sack him, if they ended up in the bottom four. It sparked protests by fans, disappointed with the club's decision.

Shiels had spells at Scottish side Greenock Morton and BEC Tero Sasana in Thailand, before joining Derry City in 2015.

In his first two seasons, the Candystripes finished third and fourth, qualifying for lucrative spots in Europe, where they beat Dinamo Minsk.

“What a result that was,” Kenny said of the win. “It was the first game in their new refurbished stadium and I later took Northern Ireland (women) back there when we played Belarus.”

In his third season in charge, Derry City finished third bottom of the table following a poor run of results.

Shiels delivered the League Cup, their last piece of silverware. His son Dean was again part of the success in a 3-1 victory over Cobh Ramblers at the Brandywell. It wasn't enough to save his job. His tenure as manager coincided with the death of Derry skipper and club legend Ryan McBride, something that affected him badly. Kenny read out an emotional poem, In Your Absence, at Ryan's funeral, which was greeted with a rapturous applause.

“We lost eight players in the August of the third year,” Kenny states. “They wanted away some of them. I made a couple of bad signings, which you do.”

Part of him wanted to stay, but he sensed an element of the dressing room wasn't in his corner.

“I felt it,” he admits. “I've always prided myself in having a good dynamic in the dressing room. In the professional game, you have a term where you are doing well and a term when it is not so good.”

The mutual decision saw them part ways. He knows that 'bad times' are 'inevitable'. It could happen in his current role.

“It happens to everybody,” Kenny admits.

***

Carrick Rangers' win over Glentoran was a seismic result in its own right, but one thing pleased Kenny Shiels more, watching his side pass them off the pitch.

“I had a style of play and I still have it,” Kenny now states. “We got on the ball and we play, with our passing style and patterns.”

He enjoys the tactical side of the game, but taking charge of Northern Ireland women was a different preposition.

Transforming them into the first side to qualify for the European Championships is 'top of the tree' in a footballing career that is glittered with success.

“If you dig deep into it,” Kenny explains. “These girls hadn't won a match in almost four years, prior to us coming in.”

Magherafelt's Simone Magill (Everton) and Rebecca Holloway (Birmingham City) are the sole professional players. Sarah McFadden, also from Magherafelt, plays part-time with Durham. The rest are amateur.

The fallow spell had corroded any bleak sign of confidence. Standing in Greenmount College, with felt tip pen in hand, their new manager steered his side's mentality in a very definite direction. Two words were etched onto the flip-chart...trust and integrity. His two cornerstones.

“You can't have one without the other and I told them they were the focal points in their time with me,” Shiels said. “That's what we work off, in everything we do. They are related to team spirit and teamwork in any sport.”

Even now, sitting on his sofa, reciting that first meeting, his eyes are dancing. You can see how he was able to hold a team in the palm of his hand. It wasn't about just trusting each other.

The squad needed to believe in the staff, the process of improvement. But, most of all, they had to trust themselves.

“You can't get better without trust,” he told them. “The best and most important relationship you can have anywhere in the world, with any person...is the relationship with yourself.

“If you don't trust and believe in yourself, and you haven't got a strong relationship with yourself, you'll never achieve anything in your life.”

Shiels had to pick them off the canvas. Unlike a club environment, there is no transfer market. It was a case of building a team from scratch.

In the opposite corner, they were pitting themselves against players from Barcelona and Lyon, stars from the top English clubs, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.

“Wales, who we eliminated over two games, they have a full team, maybe 16 of them, playing in the Women's Super League,” Shiels adds.

Their resolve was tested by two 6-0 defeats by former European and World Champions Norway, either side of their two draws with Wales.

“My full backs go forward, we play an attacking game,” Shiels points out. “Norway beat us 6-0 in Belfast, but in the second half, we had the same or more possession than them and it was a great learning curve.”

Northern Ireland finished the group with four wins, twice each against Belarus and the Faroe Islands to book their play-off with Ukraine.


Simone Magill and Rachel Furness celebrate Northern Ireland's 1-0 win over Belarus in the Dinamo National Olympic Stadium, Minsk. (Pic: Philip Magowan/Press Eye)

As part of the preparations, Shiels accepted an approach to play England in St George's Park, something seen as a gamble of sorts. After rebuilding the confidence, a hiding, by more than six goals, could've set them back.

Trailing 3-0 after facing a stiff breeze, Northern Ireland played much better in the second-half but went down 6-0 in the end, but Shiels was happy. It was another learning curve.

Going into the first leg of the play-off, Shiels had four players out with cruciate ligament injuries, Lauren Wade had an ankle injury and goalscorer Rachel Furness hobbled off minutes with a broken ankle.

A Magill goal saw Shiels' side come home with a 2-1 win from Ukraine before winning 2-0 in the second leg, to book their place in the finals.

“They have 44 million of a population and have recently been in the finals,” he said of Ukraine's pedigree.

Of the 16 teams in next summer's finals, ranked by coefficient, only Scotland from the 'top 16' ranked teams have failed to qualify. Northern Ireland are ranked 27th.

“We are in with the big shots now,” Shiels points out. The rankings are based on results, discipline, performances, essentially anything quantifiable.

“The coefficient we got in the fifth year, was twice as much as the other four years combined. That is massive.”

He has come a long way from dribbling through the tackles on the tarmac of Beagh Primary School, but Shiels is still leading the way. And he's far from finished.

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