Ashton and McKenna on their 'meeting of minds' and their key relationship at the top of Ipswich Town
- Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com
If things go as well as everyone hopes at Ipswich Town over the next few years, much will be owed to a late-night meeting back in December.
As Sunday night turned into Monday morning, somewhere between Birmingham and Manchester at a hastily arranged meeting point, Kieran McKenna and Mark Ashton were engaged in what the latter has since described as a ‘meeting of minds’.
He’d found his new manager.
“It wasn’t a sales pitch at all, from either side,” Ashton said. “But our values matched each other’s with honesty, integrity and hard work.
“I would describe it as a meeting of minds.
“Kieran has got a very high level of IQ and is an outstanding communicator. That all came across. I talked about the club and how we’re trying to build it, while Kieran talked about his values and philosophy.
“I genuinely felt like there was a meeting of minds. We had a moment in time where everything felt right and, if either party hadn’t felt like that for whatever reason, it wouldn’t have happened.”
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The relationship between the two is, by their own admission, the most important at a football club looking to rebuild itself after two decades of decline.
McKenna had done his research before meeting Ashton, with both sides seeking plenty of references before ultimately coming together as a partnership.
Leaving a job as assistant manager of Manchester United, arguably the biggest club in the world, was always going to be a risk.
A few days after his first meeting with Ashton, Town were dumped out of the FA Cup at Barrow. The nature of that loss could have prompted some understandable second thoughts from any prospective manager.
But the former Manchester United assistant had already given his word. He was in, even if the Red Devils’ interim boss, Ralf Rangnick, had tried very hard to talk him out of it.
“From my point of view it’s very important,” McKenna said of his relationship with Ashton.
“Preparing to go into management, everyone I spoke to gave the advice to be very careful of the club you choose and the board, sporting director, or in this case the CEO.
“He’s done his research on me but it was important for me to do my research too. I spoke to people like Brendan Rodgers, who Mark gave a first opportunity in management to (at Watford in 2008), and we talked about how Mark was at that time and got good feedback about how he will make your job easier most days and not harder.
“It’s important to have the clear link with Mark and my findings so far is that he’s been a clear help to me on the day-to-day running of the club but also on the long-term vision.”
Sitting with the two of them in Ashton’s Portman Road office, it’s clear to see the two are united in what they’re trying to achieve.
Ashton continued: “Kieran’s a really good communicator and the feedback from the players shows that.
“I think it’s the key relationship. Communication between those two is key.
“My job is to sometimes to make a bubble around the manager and help make his job easier by removing the need for him to worry about everything going on.
“It’s a partnership and there are other key people involved as well of course, whether that’s Martyn Pert (assistant manager), Andy Rolls (director of performance) or many others. It’s a team effort but Kieran has to lead that.”
Yes, leaving Old Trafford for Ipswich is something of a journey into the unknown for McKenna, as he goes it alone for the first time.
But serving as assistant to both Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and everything working at United entails, was the perhaps the perfect education for what was to come.
“I don’t think anything has massively surprised me because at Manchester United I was close to so much and had as good a preparation as I could get without having done the job myself,” the Town boss said.
“The fundamentals aren’t too different. When I coached at United I had a lot of responsibility and my job was to come in in the mornings and prepare training and everything the players needed to prepare as a team.
“That hasn’t changed now I’m a manager but there are some extra bits with media and recruitment. But I’ve been involved with all of those things in the past.
"At United, when I’ve coached the youth teams, you have to do MUTV (in-house television channel) twice a week, so it’s not too different.
"At academy level you are looking to recruit the best talent and then retain it, which is a massive part of the job.
“I think the bits that hit you, every once in a while, is the scale of representing the club as a figurehead. I did the AGM last week and it hit me how important it is.
“You’re an instantly recognisable face of a club which means so much to everyone in Suffolk, not just in Ipswich. Obviously seeing 7,000 fans coming to watch us play (away at MK Dons) helps it hit home, but it’s a pleasant thing.
“You feel privileged and feel the responsibility to do things in the right way because it means so much to everyone.
“The final responsibility is on my shoulders now and, so far, the reminders of that have been positive. It’s a responsibility I enjoy.”
McKenna is a modern appointment for Ipswich Town. A highly-qualified, detailed coach who embraces technology and leaves no stone unturned, while also fitting into a club system which is increasingly trying to catch up with the modern game.
There’s a reason he was given the traditional title of ‘manager’, though.
“I wanted it to be really clear that Kieran was coming in as a manager, not a head coach,” Ashton said. “It wasn’t just semantics.
“He’s a manager with everything that entails and all of the responsibilities which come with it.
“So far, so good.”
McKenna said: “The job title wasn’t something I particularly pushed on or anything like that, but it’s about what the role entails.
“You want to be somewhere you feel supported, where you have the oxygen to focus on the work with the players but also one where you have the ability to impact things in other areas of the club. You have the support around you but also a good say in all aspects of the club.
“It’s about the scope of the job and the responsibility you are given. In this job it’s as manager, but it’s not about the title, it’s about the support you have from everyone which makes it such an enjoyable one.”
Hopefully that enjoyment continues.
In the words of Mark Ashton - so far, so good.