Refusing to mention ‘Premier League’, trusting in players to help decide food and travel plans and filming training with drones… how former Man United assistant Kieran McKenna has taken Ipswich top of the Championship

13 December 2023 0 By Total Football News
  • Ipswich Town went top of the Championship after a comeback win at Watford
  • Kieran McKenna’s appointment has proven a masterstroke at Portman Road
  • On a packed train, how DO you ask a celebrity to move from a seat you have reserved? It’s All Kicking Off 

It would be so, so easy for Kieran McKenna and Ipswich Town to get carried away. 

They are winning – a lot – but it’s more than that. It would be so easy to get swept up in the headlines, the hugs and backslaps from Ipswich sponsor and superfan Ed Sheeran, all the talk of the Premier League, the rewriting of Championship history books. And yet the fact they aren’t is precisely why McKenna has the Tractor Boys on course for back-to-back promotions. 

‘I can honestly say to you the words ‘Premier League’ very rarely get mentioned,’ Ipswich CEO Mark Ashton told East Anglian Daily Times. ‘We talk about Premier League processes and setting the highest standards.

‘The conversations are all about the quality of pitches at the training ground and how we probably need to stitch one or more of the pitches because that will drive the standards even higher.

‘If we keep focused on processes we firmly believe that will take us where we want to get to. When? There but for the width of a post I can’t tell you. I promise you though, that’s our mantra – to stay on the process.’

Kieran McKenna has lots of clubs looking at him after a brilliant two years with Ipswich Town

Kieran McKenna has lots of clubs looking at him after a brilliant two years with Ipswich Town

Sam Morsy (right) fired Ipswich to top of the Championship after a comeback win at Watford

Sam Morsy (right) fired Ipswich to top of the Championship after a comeback win at Watford

Ahead of Leicester City's match on Wednesday night, Ipswich found themselves in top spot

Ahead of Leicester City’s match on Wednesday night, Ipswich found themselves in top spot

And that process is to get to the Premier League, ideally at the first time of asking. 

After 20 games Ipswich Town and Leicester City, who could go back top of the table this evening should they beat Millwall, recorded the best-ever start to a Championship season.

Not content with that, Ipswich laid down the gauntlet to Leicester with a come-from-behind win at Watford to propel themselves top. 

Make that 51 points from a possible 63 for McKenna’s men (W16 D3 L2).

‘It was all about character tonight and we showed fantastic character to get the result,’ McKenna told TownTV, still high from a warm tunnel embrace via Sheeran, who had been at Vicarage Road alongside Watford superfan Sir Elton John.

‘Firstly was the bravery to react to the first goal. We made a mistake, recovered well but they were still able to score off the rebound. The reaction was fantastic because the build-up was always going to be important today and we knew they would be man-to-man all over the pitch, aside from the two centre-halves.

‘The bravery to recycle the ball and build was going to be key to getting any control against a really physical team and, after the mistake, the players did exactly what I thought they would do, doubling down and were braver while trying to find the right solutions. I wouldn’t expect anything less.’

He added, still waxing lyrical about the tenacity on show, ending in a winning goal from Sam Morsy 10 minutes from time: ‘Then there was the physical resilience in the second half, which is obviously tied to the mental side of the game. There were a lot of tired bodies out there coming off a really tough game at Middlesbrough.

‘I didn’t think this was the most high quality game we’ve been involved in this season but we dug in really well and the effort was fantastic. We emptied everything out there.’

McKenna is meticulous in his planning and is determined to not skip steps towards success

McKenna is meticulous in his planning and is determined to not skip steps towards success

He trusts in his players, leaning on the dressing room leadership group, and it has worked well

He trusts in his players, leaning on the dressing room leadership group, and it has worked well

The big question for those not paying attention in the Championship this season – where have you been? – is how this former Manchester United assistant, once a trusted aide for Jose Mourinho, has Ipswich on course for the promise land of the top flight.  

Having coached at the highest level at Manchester United, where there is never any expense spared in terms of stacking the deck in a bid to get ahead. Whether it is nutrition, analytics, physiotherapy, you name it, they’ll have it.

And so McKenna knows exactly what Premier League standards look like. It perhaps should be no surprise that he’s been slowly integrating them into everyday life at Ipswich since he took over two years ago. 

McKenna, who is the second-youngest manager in the Football League only behind Daniel Rohl, Sheffield Wednesday’s 34-year-old coach, inherited an Ipswich side that looked to be going nowhere.

Eleventh in League One at the time, McKenna spent the remainder of the season observing, noting and implementing as best he could. Ipswich would finish 11th and the real work would start that summer.  

What followed a season on was a 98-point promotion-winning term playing a brand of football that had fans excited again. McKenna-ball was live.

When you speak to people close to Ipswich and McKenna they all speak of how meticulous McKenna is; he hates leaving too much to chance.  

Take his analysis bunker room at Portman Road – a home away from home inside the stadium. 

McKenna is in there three times on a matchday – pre-match, half-time and full-time – forensically analysing the key moments he wants to address. It is of tantamount importance to him that his messaging to players is not only accurate but also clear and concise. In the final few minutes available for a speech pre-game and in-game, he can ill afford to waste them.

First-team coach Charlie Turnbull, who goes back to McKenna’s days at Loughborough University, is a close confidant in the analysis suite, with the pair bouncing ideas off the other before heading in to speak to the players.  

McKenna in the Manchester United dug-out with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in March 2019

McKenna in the Manchester United dug-out with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in March 2019

Promotion was won from League One in second place behind champions Plymouth Argyle

Promotion was won from League One in second place behind champions Plymouth Argyle

McKenna has proven to be the perfect choice for Ipswich's ambitious American owners

McKenna has proven to be the perfect choice for Ipswich’s ambitious American owners

It is not just a matchday either. McKenna, who was a promising youth player at Tottenham Hotspur before dedicating himself to coaching, has seen first hand what the likes of Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino do day-in, day-out on the training pitch.

Rarely do the game’s greatest coaches luck into winning formulas. 

At Ipswich McKenna uses drones to provide a different camera angle when filming training; there is an 80-inch TV on the back of a golf buggy – the big screen is a staple of Germany manager Julian Nagelsmann’s sessions – so he can point out tweaks and mistakes to players in real-time; there are also TVs installed in the canteen with annotated training ground film, one of many revelations in a BBC Sport long-read.

But while McKenna has modernised structures off the pitch, one of his biggest successes, and one of the reasons his side have gathered speed like a steam train, is that on it he has shown a lot of trust to keep things as they are.

It would have been easy – and no doubt tempting – to go into the Championship and undertake a squad overhaul. Take on a series of ex-Premier League stars down on their luck and hope the hunger is still there to fight for another promotion.

Forget that, McKenna clearly thought. He rewarded many of those who took them to the Championship and of the six players he did sign during the summer, three of them were goalkeepers.

There is a trust in players to do the right things for themselves, too, not just because McKenna has certain standards he wants them to maintain. 

‘It’s something that the players vote for, it’s a set-up that I like,’ McKenna told BBC Radio Suffolk earlier this season when asked about his mini-leadership group. 

‘We got them to vote for four players to join Sam [Morsy, club captain] in the leadership group.

Many have waited to see if Ipswich will run out of steam but they look far from that right now

Many have waited to see if Ipswich will run out of steam but they look far from that right now

IT’S ALL KICKING OFF! 

It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football, launching with a preview show today and every week this season.

It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube , Apple Music and Spotify

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‘The players selected a group they thought would represent the dressing room well, I sit in irregularly but otherwise they will meet with [coaches] Martyn Pert and Lee Grant and discuss off-pitch issues, areas where we think we can progress, and they will come back to me with things they think I need to know.

‘It might be anything from the schedule to infrastructure around the building, travel, food on the menus, anything they think can be improved.’

The Championship is a topsy-turvy season at the best of times and yet Ipswich have been a model of consistency.

The McKenna formula? Don’t mention the Premier League.