mark kennedy had a hold on danny mandroiu and was purposely dragging him from the center circle. don’t worry, this wasn’t some spiky boot camp confrontation, this was the magnetic version of mandroiu and they were moving him across the white tactic board in kennedy’s tidy lincoln city office.
Not for the first time Thursday afternoon, Kennedy was in high spirits. he was standing illustrating a phrase from a Turkish trainer in his professional license course: “I feel comfortable being uncomfortable.”
the phrase hit kennedy then, it has stuck and is a way of explaining why kennedy, this man who has turned down interview requests for a decade and more (including, initially, this one), who refuses to use social networks, that he plays golf alone (off 4), that he wants to live his life under the radar, he talks for two hours about where he is, who he is, what has been and what is to come.
“When I look at my career and my life, I’d like to think I’m balanced,” he says. “I would like to think that for everything I have done wrong, I have emotional intelligence.
“I accept the challenges. hearing ‘I’m comfortable being uncomfortable’, I loved it. she was saying that to improve you have to go from here to being here. And I think that’s what I’m good at.”
the ease and articulation suggest that kennedy has been delivering this type of speech for years. but no, he is 46 years old and we may not have heard from him since he was 26.
the nature of the reports caused him to recoil from the uncertain football celebrity
He was past his star years by then, “the most expensive teenager in British football”, had been in and out of liverpool and had his “breaks” while on international duty with ireland.
The nature of the reporting caused him to recoil from the uncertain football celebrity. Kennedy went into the shadows, played for Manchester City, Wolves, Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and ended up at Ipswich Town. There he was signed by Roy Keane, encouraged to coach and appointed by Paul Jewell, and kept on staff by Mick McCarthy. All of the time, or most of it, Kennedy was happy and professionally fulfilled. we just didn’t hear him say that.
but now it’s different. Managing Lincoln City in League One may not seem high-profile to some, but it’s around here. Kennedy has only been on the job 5 1/2 months, 12 league games, but enough has been done in that short time to make us wonder about him again.
last saturday, lincoln became the first team this season to beat promotion favorites ipswich; Lincoln did it by way of a third straight clean sheet; today is sheffield wednesday at sincil bank. win again or perform admirably, and there will be more waves in the game and, locally, more requests for autographs and selfies.
kennedy noticed that the number was advancing. so far, he’s fine with it. but it’s not a status he’s pursuing, we won’t suddenly see mark kennedy as a guest expert on our screens.
However, over tea in his office, Kennedy reveals that he can speak up and has opinions. some are strong, some are measured. he is a seasoned professional; he is also a father of three. he is ambitious but he knows where he comes from, where he is and how fickle football management can be.
this last fact is why kennedy thinks lincoln is a good fit. The two immediate predecessors, Danny Cowley and Michael Appleton, stayed for three years. Kennedy has signed for four.
“We talked for eight and a half hours in various meetings,” he says. “I remember telling them, ‘If I don’t get the job, I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to have these conversations.’ I also said how impressed I was with them and their procedures. I may be new to management but I’ve been in a first team environment for 30 years and they really are a high level group of people. and there are no egos.”
kennedy had been an assistant to lee bowyer in birmingham when lincoln emerged. Previously he had been Loan Manager at Wolves, Head Coach at Disintegrating Macclesfield Town (12 games), Coach at Manchester City Academy and then there were the Ipswich years, six in total as player and manager.
made last Saturday, if not sweeter, then a little personal milestone. Ipswich had 33 shots and 77 percent possession, but Lincoln won and Kennedy’s phone had text messages from his father-in-law and McCarthy, among others, about how Lincoln had walked away with three points.
Lincoln City fans celebrate their team’s first goal of the game, scored by Ben House (not pictured) during the Sky Bet League One match at Portman Road, Ipswich, last weekend.
kennedy laughs when he says, “mick texted me after the game: ‘sparky how did you win? you never had the ball!’”
so how did lincoln do it?
“I don’t really like systems,” Kennedy says. “This season we have played 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and my preferred system is probably 5-3-2.
“The system we’re playing with right now is a bit more defensive. Against Ipswich, the game plan was that we weren’t going to get past them in terms of possession, we’d drop, we’d have a half-block, counter-pressure and counter-attack. although ipswich had 33 shots, carl [rushworth], our goalkeeper, had a relatively quiet game.
“The day worked. look, we could have won 3-0, we could have won 2-0.
“people get emotionally attached to the result: three games ago we lost 2-0 to bolton and, from a defensive point of view, I think we were excellent. we lost 2-0, so no one wants to talk about it. but the result in ipswich was absolutely a product of the work we had done before.”
guardiola, glenn hoddle and pep lijnders, in addition to jewell and mccarthy, are names that kennedy mentions
The work, and the understanding of the work, is what matters. Kennedy has learned that. he’s a pep guardiola devotee, but he emphasizes defense, not attack: “in pep guardiola’s 10 league titles, i think he’s probably conceded the fewest goals nine times [correct]. but people don’t talk about that.
“we were too expansive, to win games you have to be hard to beat. we squeeze I didn’t want us to be a team with 700 passes and the two center halves have 400 between them. I think I have brought realism: we play in league one and sometimes a game looks like league one. but the philosophy has to be around football and possession. we’re not going to hit the ball back and forth. but you don’t need 83 percent possession.”
guardiola, glenn hoddle and pep lijnders, as well as jewell and mccarthy, are names that kennedy mentions.
It was Hoddle, when he was manager of the Wolves, who first stimulated a sense of coaching within Kennedy, albeit indirectly.
“phenomenal trainer,” kennedy says. “We played the derby away from home and in his talk with the team he told me something. I just thought it’s unbelievable to me what he just said. that was the first time I thought about training. he was just giving a team talk, but the way I got the information in my head was that he thought he had seen the game and understood it.
“paul jewell took great care of me. i had my b license, paul followed me. i did my a and then i applied for my pro immediately. I did it in Wales, I can’t congratulate you enough. pep lijnders was on it and he’s the reason i’m sitting here today. he doesn’t know that. I don’t know him very well.
“Basically, I asked him… how he would become assistant manager of liverpool. when he told me, I realized that he didn’t know anything about coaching. clueless I debuted at 16 and had talent, but I didn’t know the game.”
Mccarthy, of course, was the 16-year-old’s manager at Millwall three decades ago and remains a constant in Kennedy’s life.
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“I talk to mick all the time. a great guy, a brilliant manager, a manager of 1000 games; and a father figure to me. used to look after him when he was in millwall. I’m sure that was the way to take care of him.
“I would like to think that since then we have gone through a multitude of phases in our relationship. we are close friends now. I am no longer a child.”
what a child he was. We’re here primarily to talk about coaching, but Kennedy’s playing career can’t be erased. It’s not something he occupies on a daily basis, though coincidentally this week he received a picture via text message from an old Millwall colleague, Mark Beard. He was from Highbury in 1995 when Millwall had beaten Arsenal 2-0 in the FA Cup and Kennedy, then 18, was forcing himself into the imagination of English and Irish football. he would soon join liverpool for a record £1.5m.
“I’m very proud of that, but it’s not something I think about,” Kennedy says of his playing career. “I’m not sure my kids know I played soccer.
“it just disappeared, I’m not minimizing it. I love soccer, all I ever wanted to do was play soccer. but that area of my career is gone and gone. I don’t look back, I don’t see old games.
liverpool? I am very embarrassed when people say that I played for Liverpool
“I am married with three children and that is all that matters to me. We didn’t have kids until we were 35, I just had my career then. it’s different now. I love the school race.
“but really weird, ‘bearded’ texted me this picture on tuesday. i texted him back but you keep going.
liverpool? I am very embarrassed when people say that I played for Liverpool. It was a big thing and I remember the magnitude, but I played 20 games. I tend to make a joke about it: that I was there, not that I played. I’m so proud to have played for millwall.”
Similarly, Kennedy’s 34-game career on the Irish senior team is not something I want to follow in detail today. he is too, he says, proud of it, and knows where his shirts and hats are. the only party he briefly refers to is the first. “He was only 15 years old but I can remember him like it was yesterday. tolka park, under-16 v wales. It’s a great moment.”
8th December 1996: Liverpool’s Mark Kennedy in action against Sheffield on Wednesday at Anfield. File photo: Gary Prior/Allsport
that was the beginning, but the memory and how it felt came back when he first lined up on the touchline at sincil bank as manager in July. the city of exeter were the opposition: “i felt the same anxiety as a 46-year-old man as a 15-year-old boy in tolka park. the same emotion, the same pressure.
“Trust me, I was the most nervous man in the world.
“scoring at highbury was in my skill set. standing on the sidelines for the first time… and I need this to work out because if it doesn’t…”
recites a stat about first-time coaches getting fired and getting a second chance.
but that can wait. Kennedy has moved out of his comfort zone, his center circle. this is new.
“it’s only 12 games. but that’s okay. we are discovering who we are.”