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‘It’s the reason I’m here’: Ipswich manager Kieran McKenna is inspired by Sir Bobby Robson’s team

Northern Ireland's Kieran McKenna was appointed manager of Ipswich Town in December

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Outside the manager’s office hangs a large framed print of Sir Bobby Robson smiling as he cradles the UEFA Cup, reminding Kieran McKenna of the footsteps he follows every time he opens his door.

Around the corner is another view of Robson’s amazing team of talent and the familiar faces of legends like Terry Butcher, John Wark and Mick Mills.


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Forty years have passed since these glorious times and not everyone finds it helpful to hold on to the past, but McKenna politely declined the chance to have the photos taken when he was named boss of Ipswich Town.

Northern Ireland’s Kieran McKenna was appointed manager of Ipswich Town in December

There is a print of Sir Bobby Robson rocking the UEFA Cup outside McKenna's office

There is a print of Sir Bobby Robson rocking the UEFA Cup outside McKenna’s office

“That’s why we play to a packed house at Portman Road,” said McKenna, who, having graduated through the coaching staff of Tottenham and Manchester United, will appreciate the power of history when used correctly.

“That’s why we were acquired by ambitious American owners. It’s because of the success and the managers and players who have been here. They have shown what the potential is, what this club can do and where it can come if it all goes in the right direction.

“It’s the reason I’m here, the reason the players are here. Everyone is hungry to take the club back to the highest level and we have to embrace it, be proud of the past while knowing we have to move forward, modernize all areas.”

Mckenna (left) had coaching experience with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur

Mckenna (left) had coaching experience with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur

Ipswich, at last, is stirring. They have languished outside the Premier League for 20 years and are entering their fourth straight season in League One, but hopes have been revived since a US-based consortium called Gamechanger 20 bought the club in April last year.

They have invested in new players and are on top after nine games, still unbeaten as they prepare for Sunday’s game against Plymouth Argyle, the third-placed player, and their 36-year-old manager is building a good reputation.

The Northern Irishman was linked with the Brighton vacancy before choosing to succeed Roberto De Zerbi as Graham Potter’s successor.

McKenna was linked to the job at Brighton before manager Roberto De Zerbi was appointed

McKenna was linked to the job at Brighton before manager Roberto De Zerbi was appointed

“It didn’t feel like a big step,” McKenna told Sportsmail, 10 months into his first executive role. “It was always the goal from the start of my coaching career at the age of 22. I had the path from then on and pretty much wrote it down and discussed it. The end goal was always to move up to management. As a head coach at major academies, you manage players and staff and build your playing style. Many of the roles are similar and you develop confidence.

“I’ve had exposure at Manchester United, the biggest club in the world, with world-class players in the latter stages of the Champions League and the upper echelons of the Premier League.

“When you first come to Ipswich as a manager you sometimes stand in front of the media and the face of the club, but from day to day it feels very similar and very natural. It feels like the right time, with the right preparation behind me. I feel completely ready for anything that comes my way.’ McKenna’s coaching career began on crutches when a second major surgery for a chronic hip problem ended a promising playing career at Spurs, where he worked his way through the youth ranks with Jamie O’Hara, now on talkSPORT, and reality TV. star Mark Wright.

“That age group has outperformed us on the field in the media,” McKenna smiled.

But when he finished playing at Tottenham, he found immediate support and encouragement from academy bosses Alex Inglethorpe, now Liverpool’s academy director, and John McDermott, now the FA’s technical director. They invited him to begin his coaching journey in the academy, until he left for three years to study sports science at Loughborough University, during which time he coached the university teams and Nottingham Forest’s Under 10s and Under 11s.

McKenna worked with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (center) and with Ralf Rangnick at Man United

McKenna worked with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (center) and with Ralf Rangnick at Man United

He spent summers in the US coaching a college team in New York, and in Canada with Vancouver Whitecaps he was involved from the under-10s to the first team. So by the time he returned to the Spurs to coach the Under 18s and found the analysis department of the club’s academy, McKenna could boast a wealth of experience.

In 2016, an approach to coach the Under 18s at Old Trafford was too good to turn down for a young man who grew up supporting Manchester United in County Fermanagh. Two years later, when Jose Mourinho’s long-serving assistant Rui Faria retired, he was promoted to the first-team staff and took on a more prominent role under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, working briefly with Ralf Rangnick until the move to Suffolk in December.

“It was a great experience,” McKenna said. “I was really proud at such a young age to be involved in some big wins against some of the best teams and best managers in the world.

McKenna has made a promising start in Ipswich, which top League One

McKenna has made a promising start in Ipswich, which top League One

“There were big losses and disappointing days along the way, but when you work at that level, every result is a great victory or an absolute crisis. The control is off the scale because it is the most successful club in British football and the most supported club worldwide.”

Solskjaer and Michael Carrick have been to Ipswich games to support McKenna, who has a strong former United presence in his backroom squad. Assistant manager Martyn Pert, first-team coach Lee Grant and head of recruitment Sam Williams are among those who followed him from Old Trafford to Portman Road.

“I have my own goals, my own beliefs, my own values ​​and I stick to them,” McKenna said. ‘I have good contacts, but I like to work with my own judgment, think carefully and try to be authentic and sincere, and see where it takes me. Your journey in football is unique. You can’t map it out. The best thing is to try to improve yourself, focus on the areas where you can improve, try to help the club you are in to develop and improve, play well and win matches.

McKenna hopes to help Ipswich Town climb back up the English football ladder

McKenna hopes to help Ipswich Town climb back up the English football ladder

“After that, football will take you where it takes you. The best thing you can do is try to enjoy that journey.’

At Ipswich, they hope it can bring them back to the Premier League. “I’ve enjoyed working at that level and it’s somewhere I’m comfortable with,” McKenna said. “It’s definitely an ambition to manage at that level and something I think I’m capable of.

The ownership group wants the club back in the Premier League. That is their stated goal and that filters down. It’s a fantastic ambition, an ambition we all share, but it’s Ipswich’s fourth season in League One without it coming close to a serious promotion push, so everyone is well grounded in the reality of how difficult this competition is.

“There is no guarantee that you will win games because you are Ipswich Town or Derby County or because you have history and a large number of supporters. It will be nothing but hard work that will get us there.’