'Student of the game' who learnt from Mourinho - Kieran McKenna in his own words

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho (left) alongside coaches Kieran McKenna (centre) and Michael

Kieran McKenna (centre) assisted Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho (left) alongside Michael Carrick (right). - Credit: PA

Kieran McKenna is the new manager of Ipswich Town.The 35-year-old former Tottenham and Manchester United coach detailed his journey and philosophies in an Q&A session with Coaches' Voice earlier this year.


I finished as a young professional at Tottenham Hotspur with a chronic (hip) injury. Fortunately by that stage I had already started to transition into coaching at the latter stages of my rehab, so I was lucky enough to go straight into work as an assistant with the youth team at Tottenham under Alex Inglethorpe and John McDermott with a really fantastic and talented group. That was great gaining some really good experience and exposure early on.

After that I had three years of really high level and intense studying and developing myself. I spent three years at Loughborough University studying for a sports science degree, also coaching university level football, coaching non-league football and working in the foundation phase at Nottingham Forest. I also did European trips abroad to study different methods in academies and got some coaching experience in North America with the Vancouver Whitecaps. 

So that was a really intense but enjoyable period. I was probably doing around eight sessions a week, games on top of that as well, not earning a lot of money but was picking up some fantastic experiences.

From there I was able to go back into Tottenham, originally as assistant Under-18 coach but also involved with setting up an analysis department in the academy. That was another area to learn from.

I was made the Under-18 lead coach at 26. That was a big responsibility and a big step at a young age but I really enjoyed that. I had three years in that role and then had the opportunity to move to Manchester United to fulfil a similar role. That was a dream move really, a massive opportunity and, again, a big responsibility. I had really good couple of years working with some good young groups.

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Then, thankfully, I got the opportunity to step up with the first team. Originally with Jose (Mourinho) and then with Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer). 

It's been a really intense journey, it's felt pretty much non-stop, but I've really enjoyed it. I think I'm developing myself along the way and, hopefully, I've got a lot of developing to do and am only at the early stages of my journey still.

Manchester United's Juan Mata (left) and Manchester United Assistant Coach Kieran McKenna

Kieran McKenna (right) in discussions with Manchester United's Juan Mata. - Credit: PA


If you have that ambition to be a professional coach then have the belief in yourself that you can do it. You need to know that it takes a lot of sacrifices, a lot of dedication, a lot of commitment. You need to spend a massive amount of hours on the grass picking up experiences and developing yourself and gaining as much exposure as you can to different environments and different coaches.

If it's your goal to do it then believe in it. It's a fantastic profession. Just really dedicate yourself to it and develop yourself as much as you can. From there opportunities will arise.


I don't think I could say I've had one role model. It's more a case of learning and picking up things from different people along the way.

I was very fortunate at the start of my career to come under the influence of Alex Inglethorpe and John McDermott in the Spurs academy. Alex (now the academy manager at Liverpool), at that stage, was a young coach but working at a really high level of technical and tactical detail. He put on really organised, purposeful sessions that were detailed for the individuals. 

John McDermott (now technical director at The FA) was the academy manager, a really strong leader, very good at developing people and managing staff. He demanded high standards of the people around him and was really strong on the principles of youth development, so I think I got off to a really insightful start working under people like that.

Since then I've watched a lot of different coaches and picked things up as I go along. I study and watch managers across Europe. I've always been a big student of the game. Anyone who is around me will attest I'm always watching games from all over the world.

I've studied the top managers from over the last decade, in England but especially in Europe. I study their teams and try to understand their principles and the key tactical bits from their team. If you can study a manager and a team over time and really try and understand their principles then you can deduce some of the training principles and practices as well.

I read a lot as well, trying to pick things up that you can incorporate into your own work, trying to find our what works best for me and trying to become your own man as well.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba during the UEFA Champions League, Group F match at the Gewiss Stadium

New Ipswich Town manager Kieran McKenna has coached the likes of Paul Pogba at Manchester United. - Credit: PA


I don't think that's really hampered me in a big way. I haven't felt that.

There are a lot of top coaches now in the game who have made their way without having a very big professional career. I think our generation are fortunate that some people came before us and developed that pathway for coaches from different areas. 

If you haven't had that career it's more common to start at a lower rung in the football pyramid or working with younger players, but I think that's a big benefit to gain those early experiences if you haven't had that big reputation.

Maybe I was fortunate that I played at a high enough level (Tottenham reserves and Northern Ireland U21s) that I feel I can see some of the pictures on the pitch that players will see and I can empathise with them and feel what they might feel in certain situations. 

Beyond that it's about filling in your knowledge gaps. If you haven't got experience of something as a coach, whether that's playing in big competitions or playing in front of big crowds, or if you haven't played in a certain position, maybe you haven't played as a centre-back but you're coaching centre-backs on some details, it's just about filling in your knowledge gaps. Speak to people who have had those experiences, speak to people who have done things you haven't done.

I'm fortunate to work alongside Michael Carrick. Obviously he's been a fantastic player, is a fantastic man and has a huge wealth of experiences that I don't have. I can draw on that from him.

It's about trying to educate yourself as much as possible.

On top of that, to be honest, my experience of senior players is that they are a little bit interested in your playing career and what you did but they are a lot more interested in their own one! So as long as you can show empathy with them and show you can understand their situation and you can help them develop in their careers then I don't think it's a big barrier.

So don't let your background be a barrier. Educate and develop yourself as much as you possibly can and there's no reason that you can't go on to coach at a high level.

Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti (left) and Manchester United Coach Kieran McKenna gesture on the tou

Kieran McKenna (right), pictured on the touchline alongside former Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti. - Credit: PA


There are a lot more similarities than there are differences to be honest if you're talking about high level Under-18 players.

You still plan your sessions in accordance to the level of the players, you still try and adapt for individuals, you still try and develop a good relationship with the players and you still want to make it enjoyable.

Obviously the importance of winning at first team level is a lot more prevalent. That can change the content and context of your work.

With younger players you are working with a little bit more of a blank canvas in terms of some of their experiences and prejudices. One of the joys of working with young players is you're filling their vases and working on concepts that maybe they haven't learned before.

With senior players at times they have a more developed perspective on the game and have worked under different managers and different philosophies. So you need to be skillful in understanding their pathways, their prior learning and where they are at with certain things. It's about finding a more co-operative way, at times, to work on different concepts.


There are a lot of important areas.

It's important to respect and develop the individual differences within the player, both in their qualities as a player and a person. I'm not sure there's one magic ingredient. It's about making them the best version of themselves.

When players are on the very cusp of making the first team I think it's normal that they all have highly developed technical skills and physical qualities and game understanding. The margins tend to be very, very slim at that level. At that stage the small mental differences are probably the biggest thing that can help the player make the jump and establish themselves at that first team level.

Some players might have a fantastic competitiveness and burning desire to win, and that's the key factor for them, while others are maybe a little bit more laid back but have a good way of dealing with pressure and not seeming to be phased by playing with senior players or playing in front of crowds.

So I think it's really important to identify, recognise and develop the mental characteristics. It's very often a mental characteristics that can hinder a player, so the earlier you can speak to the players on those areas and come up with a plan the better. 

It's so important to be a good psychologist as a coach.

Nottingham Forest manager Chris Hughton ahead of the Sky Bet Championship match at Brentford Communi

Kieran McKenna says Chris Hughton helped him transition from the Tottenham youth team to the senior set-up. - Credit: PA


It's really important that the academy work with the first team staff to make sure that the work is co-ordinated across the club so that when they step up it's not going to be something vastly different.

You have to have similar threads and ideas to the work going on through the club, especially between the first team and the older age groups within the academy.

At Manchester United there's really good joined up thinking and relationships between the first team and the academy. Hopefully that is making the transition a little bit easier for the players.

On top of that the first team players are really important. When a young player steps up to the first team gaining that peer approval from first team players is one of the most important elements for them. If you have first team players who have already progressed from your academy then that's a fantastic asset because they can speak with the young players from a position of empathy. 

Ideally you have some senior players on top of that who can set the standard and be demanding of the young players because that's important at the right time. As staff it's our job to encourage that senior leadership from the players and make sure that mentorship is an important part of their role.

The best example I had as a young player was Chris Hughton. He was fantastic with young players coming up. He would always come and meet you before the session, speak to you on a personal level, let you know he's been watching your games, why you were training with the first team, what the content of the work would be and what they were looking to see from you. 

I try and have that personal touch with the young players to make them feel comfortable and encourage them to express themselves and be confident in their ability.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho (left) alongside coaches Kieran McKenna (centre) and Michael

Kieran McKenna (centre) assisted Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho (left) alongside Michael Carrick (right). - Credit: PA


Jose is an absolute top manager. He's a very intelligent man, a fantastic communicator across a lot of different languages. It's impossible not to pick things up from someone like him.

One of the biggest insights that I gained was just seeing the levels of organisation around his training process and his match preparation. It was about the small details within the sessions, the transition between practices, the flow of work, the delegation and clarity of duties from different staff - it was all organised to a higher level then I had experienced before.

Seeing how he went from studying the opposition, identifying things to then turning that into training practices was great. I saw how he took the analysis and broke it down in order to filter that information to the players. 

I picked up a lot of things from him that I use now and will look to use in the future.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (centre) with both first team coach's Michael Carrick

Kieran McKenna (right) became a key first team coach at Manchester United under the management of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (centre) and Michael Carrick (left). - Credit: PA


Ole is a really enjoyable manager to work with, mostly because he has fantastic human qualities. He trusts his staff and he trusts his players. He allows them to express themselves.

I think he's someone who has a really strong connection with the ethos of the club but is also modern in his thinking.

In terms of partnerships in coaching it's important because people bring their own strengths and experiences to the table. The more that people are allowed to do that the higher the accumulative quality can be.

I think Ole values and has been appreciative of the qualities I can bring.

Ole's really good at managing and utilising the blend of qualities and experience on his staff.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (top) speaks with assistant first-team coach Kieran M

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (top) speaks with assistant first-team coach Kieran McKenna during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester. - Credit: PA


I think you need a wide range of qualities because the context can change so much depending on who the manager is and the composition of the other staff.

The primary quality would be a loyalty and commitment to the manager. Obviously you are there to assist and help him implement his philosophy and way of playing. You can offer suggestions and ideas, but the manager is ultimately the leader of the club.

It's important that when a decision is made the coaching staff present a united front to the players and outside world.

The second quality I would say is the ability to build relationships and trust with the players. You spend so much time together over the course of a year, you see the pressure they are under to go out and perform, so it's so important that they have that network of trust around them.

Sometimes, as the coaching staff, you have to be the buffer between the players and he manager maybe. They might come and speak to you about something before they go and speak to the manager. It's important to have that trust and rapport.

Thirdly, I'd say you need a high level of technical knowledge. It's important that the players trust and believe in what the coaches are saying if you are giving information on the opposition or delivering the game plan. You need to be ready, if the players are unsure of anything, to have a well thought out and well reasoned answer. You don't always have to agree, but you have to have strong principles behind what you are saying. The players need to know you are knowledgeable and can help them with their game.

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