What we've learnt about Kieran McKenna after 10 games in charge
- Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com
Ipswich Town now have a shot of making the League One play-offs following a superb run of form under new boss Kieran McKenna. STUART WATSON looks at what we've learned about the Northern Irishman following his first 10 games in charge.
From his very first press conference, Kieran McKenna's low-key demeanour was apparent.
There's a clear self-confidence that he is ready for this first opportunity in senior management, after many years of learning his coaching trade at an elite level, but nothing about him is loud or brash.
He's celebrated some big wins with a metronomic single-armed punching of the air. If he's really getting carried away, two arms might be involved.
“Kieran is what you see; he’s calm, he’s considered, he’s methodical in his approach," said Blues chief executive Mark Ashton recently.
Town fans have witnessed Mick McCarthy tell them to 'f*** off' and Paul Lambert brawl on the touchlines over recent years. It's highly unlikely we'll see such histrionics with McKenna.
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Then again, there may be parts of his personality yet to be exposed by the pressures of the job.
When asked what the differences were between him and assistant Martyn Pert, he replied: "I can be a little bit more fiery with, I don’t know whether you can call it, an Irish temperament at times."
Paul Cook rigidly stuck to his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, crowbarring players in at times (see Scott Fraser), and repeatedly insisting 'he's not really bothered' about the opposition and that 'it's about what we do'.
McKenna, by complete contrast, has picked his system based on what best suits the strengths of the personnel available to him and has come up with bespoke game plans.
The base formation has always been 3-4-3 but there have often been subtle tweaks to how the front three line-up.
“It’s different profiles for different games," he explained, when asked about his rotation of the forward players following a 1-0 win at Doncaster.
"Sometimes we’ve felt like two strikers a bit closer together was the best way. Sometimes split strikers down the sides of the centre-backs has been what we’ve felt is the best way and sometimes, like tonight, we’ve used players in number 10 positions between the lines to play off a central striker.
“It’s about finding a way to use the resources at our disposal the best.”
Whoever plays, the underlying principles have been the same - McKenna wants his team to dominate the ball.
In all 10 games played under the Northern Irishman so far, the Blues have finished with the lion's share of possession. They're averaging close to 600 passes per game (those are Manchester City and Liverpool type numbers).
"The fans can see that we're trying to develop a style of play that is going to be really important for us over the next few years, that is going to help us win a lot of games and climb to where we want to climb," said McKenna, after Ipswich laboured to a 1-0 home win against a Gillingham sat that sat in to defend their box.
"We have to develop that style of play and become a dominant, pro-active team who are ready to take the ball against any opposition and play in their half and control games.
"We need to be patient with that, we need to trust the process, because I'm very, very confident that this is the way forward for the football club."
LIKES A SMALL SQUAD
It would have been tempting for someone in their first senior management role, with the backing of wealthy owners, to go into their first transfer window like a kid in a sweet shop.
McKenna, however, took the calculated decision to trim rather than bloat.
Nine players departed either permanently or on loan, with just two fresh faces arriving. That brought the squad size down to a far more manageable 23.
Of that 23, just one - defender Cameron Burgess - hasn't had any game time under McKenna yet. The Blues boss is keen to make every member of his squad feel like they've got a vital role to play.
CAN IMPROVE PLAYERS
Luke Woolfenden (a player once linked with a Premier League move) and Kayden Jackson (who the club paid £1.6m for) were out in the cold when McKenna arrived. Both are now playing some of the best football of their careers.
"I feel like a footballer again," enthused Jackson, after his man-of-the-match display in Saturday's 3-0 home win against Burton.
"He empowers you. Other managers in the past have concentrated on what I can’t do, rather than what I can do. That’s probably why I haven’t played at times and maybe haven’t been used to my strengths.
“All I want to do is work under the manager because I know how much he can improve me as a player.”
Woolfenden said: “The way that they work is the way I see myself – football-based, relaxed and learning. It can’t all be emotional and blood, sweat and fire. There are times you have to sit back and analyse, looking sensibly at what can be done better.”
EYE FOR DETAIL
'Methodical' is a word many have used about McKenna.
The 35-year-old, a self titled 'student of the game', reviews hours and hours of game footage.
He's also looked for marginal gains in things like the flow of the training ground, size of the Portman Road pitch, receiving early game day weather reports and travel arrangements.
Instead of pushing for new players, he's been pushing for improvements to club infrastructure.
"A new pitch, a new (oxygen) chamber, a new watt bike, a new TV screen isn’t going to win you a game on Saturday, but one of the attractions of this job for me was I knew I was going to get the backing to put in place the things are know are right," he said, in a recent interview for the Kings of Anglia podcast.
“When I leave, whenever that may be and for whatever reason, I want the club to be in a better place behind the scenes. That’s a really important part of what I want to do."
A GOOD COMMUNICATOR
Ipswich Town fans aren't used to being made to feel part of the ride.
McCarthy often said you were either 'on the inside p*****g out, or the outside *p*****g in'. Paul Jewell and Paul Lambert were both known to sneer and say 'you wouldn't understand' when it came to more in-depth football questions. Paul Cook wouldn't even tell anyone basic injury news.
Now, finally, Blues supporters have got a humble and open manager who is not afraid to show their working in great depth.
"A few people have said to me that they've really appreciated that," said McKenna, with a note of surprise in his voice. "I know not all managers do it, but why would you not? The game's done, you're not going to play them again for another six months and you're probably going to have a different plan by then anyway, so why would you not be open and honest?"
Those same communication skills are going down well with players, too.
"He’s really approachable," said Kane Vincent-Young. "We're clear on the ideas, clear on the principles. He'll come round and speak to you individually about your role. In training the coaching is very deliberate in terms of knowing where to be and when to be there. We’re a cohesive unit and we’re all really enjoying working under him."