Manchester United first team coach, and Enniskillen man, Kieran McKenna chats to Gareth Cauldwell about his time at the club so far

GC: It is well documented that you were a Manchester United supporter growing up. Was it an easy decision to make when the club came calling for you to take the U18 job when you were at Spurs?

KMcK: I had that connection going on 16 years at Tottenham from being a 14 year old going over there on trial and it was a really good club to be at and I had a fantastic time but I felt the move came at a really good time for me. It is important to step out of that environment and become your own man. It was also important to be able to go to another club where you can implement your own ideas in the way you want. I thought that was a massive step for me and obviously it is a club that I have a massive personal affinity for as well which sort of made it all the more exciting as a challenge. It has been a really positive move and something that I have really enjoyed so far.

GC: How did you enjoy working with the U18s, which obviously was something you had been doing at Spurs?

KMcK: It was brilliant. Something I have always been really passionate about since I started coaching is helping younger players to improve and progress in their careers so the move to United to work with the U18s was great. Nicky Butt was Academy manager and he gave me a lot of responsibility to lead and develop the whole U18 programme as I saw fit and thankfully it went really well. I had some really good support staff and a couple of really talented youth team groups in the years that I was working with that team. I felt we progressed the individuals well and progressed the programme well so it was a really positive couple of years.

GC: Did it come as a surprise to you when you were asked to move up to work with Jose Mourinho with the first team?

KMcK: It was a massive privilege to be honest. Obviously, the opportunity to work under Jose Mourinho, someone who is such an icon for all coaches of my generation, for him to have seen some value in my work and for him to want to take me as part of his staff team was a massive confidence boost and a massive opportunity. I’m very grateful to him for that wonderful opportunity and I enjoyed the working relationship in that time.

GC: It is a big move to go from working with the U18s to working with first team players and players that are known around the world. Did it take much adjusting to it?

KMcK: Probably not as much as you would think. In terms of day to day and the processes, they aren’t all that different to what I was doing with the U18s to be honest. Internally the processes of how you work, how you prepare your training sessions, how you prepare video sessions and just the work to help the players individually and to try and develop the team, that process is not too different. Probably the big differences are the external factors around it all, the interest and the scrutiny from the outside, the logistics of the travel, the whole scale of the operation and playing in front of the big crowds, all things around the game, these are different but actually the process of the work I have not found it to be a massive adjustment, I have felt that has gone pretty smoothly.

GC: It must be both challenging and exciting though to work with some of the best players in the league and in the game?

KMcK: That is a great challenge and responsibility and it is very enjoyable to work with top players day in, day out. I think the most important thing to do though is just to remember that they are normal people and they have had to work very hard to get to where they are at. Most of them are respectful and have good values. I think if, as players, they see that in yourself as well, if they see you have the right values and you are trustworthy and humble and you want the best for them in their careers then they tend to be responsive and treat you well. On top of that, if they see that you are knowledgeable and experienced in what you do then they are receptive, they want to improve in their own careers and they want to be part of a successful group. It is the basic things in your personality and in your work that they respond to well and I have found them for the vast majority to be fantastic professionals and really good to work with.

GC: When Jose left and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over, you stayed on along with Michael Carrick and I suppose that showed what the club’s thoughts were on the work you had been doing?

KMcK: Right through my few years at the club they have been very positive and been very supportive of my work. Obviously with Ole coming in it was a big change for everyone at the club and a new start and I can only say that he has been great to work with. I think any of the staff or players who work under him would say that he is a great guy to work for, a good human being, he treats people well, he supports people in their roles and he allows people to be the best they can be. It has been a change and a transition last year to work with him but it has been something that I have really enjoyed and hopefully it can continue in the future for a long time.

GC: You yourself worked with the youth at the club and Manchester United has always been a club that has been renowned for bring youth players through to the first team to complement the stars that they buy. You worked with the likes Williams, Greenwood and Chong, is it important that these players can see a pathway into the first team?

KMcK: I think all clubs want and like to have youth players come through but at United it is a necessity. Recently we passed 4000 games, going back to 1937, were there has always been an academy graduate in the first team match day squad. That record is pretty much unparalleled across the world and that is something the club and the supporters are massively proud of.You can see that connection with the crowd when there is a home grown player on the pitch. It is a huge part of the club and it is a credit to all the people who have helped to keep that run going. I think this year we have again had the most academy graduates of any club playing in the first team and, on a personal note, to have so many boys who I worked with when I was in the youth team set up who have now been getting that opportunity with the first team is a real positive. I think everyone at the club is determined to continue that.

GC: What advice would you have for the likes of Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams if they are to continue progressing and become established Premier League players?

KMcK: Those two that you have mentioned have certainly made a good impact this year, they have played a lot of games and shown that they can operate at this level. The messages that we are continually giving them is that it is very, very early days in their career and they need to keep their feet on the floor and continue working hard in training, not take anything for granted and still appreciate day to day the privilege of the position that they are in. They have to keep pushing on and improving and eventually look to really establish themselves as first choice players in the team. We are lucky we have some good people around the club who have been there and seen it both in terms of the staff and some good senior pros in the team who set a good example and who keep on top of the young lads to make sure they keep doing everything right. The young players are certainly in a good place to continue that progression.

GC: Manchester United are regarded as one of the biggest in the world and are constantly in the spotlight. Is that something that is hard to deal with, always being in the media glare with stories every day in the press?

KMcK: I have realised especially over the last couple of years working with the first team that it is just part and parcel of it for all the players and staff. There is so much scrutiny and attention on Manchester United, it is always a massive story and everyone always wants a piece. You need to be prepared for the fact that when things don’t go well, or when the team doesn’t win, there is going to be a lot of noise and a lot of criticism. There is a lot of stories that come out that have no truth at all and everyone inside the club just needs to be ready to deal with that. On the other side of that, we also know that when the team is successful and doing well there is a lot of positive noise and people want to jump on the bandwagon. Inside the club the most important thing is that everyone does their best to block out the noise externally and not get too high or too low throughout different spells. We can just control what we can control inside the club and keep working very hard to move in the right direction.

GC: Ole has said previously that this is not a quick fix and no doubt there has been ups and downs since he has taken over but certainly in recent months things do look as if they are moving in the right direction. What are your thoughts?

KMcK: We were on a positive run before the stoppage but everyone inside the club knew it was going to be a big transition, especially this season. There has been a lot of experienced players who have left in the last 18 months and, as I said, I think we have the youngest team and the youngest squad in the league. There has also been a massive fixture programme with the Europa League and the progressing in the cups and we have been operating with quite a small and young squad with some big injuries to some big players so it has been a challenge throughout the year.

With all things considered though there has been a lot of positives to take from it. There has been some big performances and results against big teams and at times when the performances have been good there has been signs that the playing style is getting to where we want it. But, everyone knows there has been inconsistencies as well and some below par performances with points dropped.

As you said, it has been up and down and the most important thing that everyone inside the club is aware of is that we need to stay balanced, stay working hard behind the scenes and keep pushing. Everyone needs to do everything they can to get the club back up to the top of the league and back competing for the top honours in England and in Europe.

GC: United are a club that need to be winning silverware and if, and when, this season does get back up and running then there is still a couple of cups up for grabs and a top four spot in the league.

KMcK: We wanted to still be in some competitions at this stage of the season and ready to push for trophies but what has happened at the moment is out of everyone’s hands. I think the leagues and the federations have made the right decision to shut football down at the moment and the health and the safety of everyone is the most important thing. I think everyone is uncertain about how or when the season might resume so I think we might just need to wait and see. We have to be ready though to be in the best possible shape to push on if the competitions do resume in the not too distant future.

GC: Coronavirus has made a major impact on football and life as a whole. How do you as a club handle that?

KMcK: It is obviously a difficult time for everybody but I think for everyone involved in the club it is the same as the general population in that the main priority is to stay inside, be with your family as much as possible and just follow the guidelines. That is what everyone is doing at the moment, trying to work from home and we are working with the players and staff online and trying to communicate and prepare as best we can for when we come back.

Like everyone else, we are very grateful to the people on the front line who are doing their best to fight the infection.

GC: I suppose in one way it is nice to have that time to spend with your family because it is not something you are able to do as much during the season?

KMcK: I think that is something that everyone is appreciating at the moment, although it is obviously not good circumstance. But having the chance to spend time at home with the family and the kids is nice.

I think everyone involved in football is preparing for the fact that we won’t have much of an off season when football eventually gets going again so we are maybe using this as a wee bit of time to spend with family and switch off and be ready to really hit the ground running when we get back.

GC: How do you keep up to date with what the players are doing in terms of fitness work at this time?

KMcK: It is very important and there is a lot of communication. There’s WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and Facetime so the fitness coaches are really on top of their individual programmes physically. As coaching staff we try and communicate with them as much as possible and send them out videos and things to do with the team’s performance. Mostly it is just trying to keep the lines of communication open and let the players know that we are here supporting them. It is a difficult time but everyone is in it together.

GC: You are obviously a local lad and a former Enniskillen Town and Ballinamallard United player. Do you still like to keep an eye on how they are going?

KMcK: For sure. My brother (James) played for Ballinamallard and is now playing this year with the Town so I always keep an eye on how they are doing. It is good to see Ballinamallard are moving back in the right direction this year and Harry has been doing a really good job with that. I also like to keep an eye on the Gaelic side of things and how the Fermanagh side are doing. I’m always on contact with people back home and it is good to see when my clubs are doing well.

GC: Finally, you were to be the guest for Harry McConkey’s ‘Having A Ball’ Fundraiser which fell victim to the current crisis but has now been rescheduled for November. Is it important to give a bit back for the likes of this?

KMcK: Absolutely. I haven’t had the opportunity to get home much at all really in the last couple of years so it was something that we were all looking forward to and I was looking forward to supporting Harry and the causes that it was in aid of. I was disappointed that it was cancelled but they have it rescheduled and I will certainly try my best to be part of it, if possible.


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