IF THERE IS ONE THING YOU COULD never label Kenny Shiels with, it is being predictable. The current head coach of the Northern Ireland senior women’s team has enjoyed a varied career and one where he has always been seen by others as a bit of a maverick, someone who did things his own way.
When he was named Larne manager in the Autumn of 2005 it was another move that few could have predicted. Mainly because he had spent the early part of decade as Ballymena United manager. The Invermen and Braidmen had enjoyed quite the rivalry in those first few years of the millennium.
Both clubs were battling together to get out of the old First Division, striving for the Promised Land of the soon-to-be rejuvenated top flight. Both managed exactly that in the spring of 2003, earning a golden ticket each to the new 16-team Premier League. That, of course, meant the rivalry continued between Shiels’ United side and the plucky upstarts from Inver Park.
A defining moment in that promotion race came in Larne’s penultimate home game of the season. Trailing 1-0 late on to Ballymena, in a game they desperately needed to win. Late pressure finally brought an equaliser, with Tommy Kincaid’s continuing to throw all but the proverbial kitchen sink. Then came the moment which helped to define the season. Mark Parker popped up in the 91st minute to seal a 2-1 win and keep Larne on course for a promotion bid they would seal with a final day away to fellow hopefuls, Bangor. It was the high watermark for Larne fans of the rivalry, in that particular era.
It’s ironic then, little over two years later, that Shiels, having left Ballymena just a few months earlier and Larne, in need of guiding hand to get them away from the foot of the Premiership table, should see each other as the right fit. What about Shiels though, how did he feel about becoming Larne boss not long after had left their rivals?
“No matter where I go I have passion for that club I’m working for,” he maintained.
“I always wanted to do my best for that club, they have put their faith in me and Larne were no different in that respect. I always enjoyed bringing teams to Inver Park, and that is the truth.
“The Larne fans always really got behind their club and as an opposition manager, you notice things like that. You don’t necessary stand on the touchline during the match and think about it, but when the Larne job became vacant it’s the sort of thing you associate with the club.
“I really enjoyed my time at the club. In the short time we were there we had two semi-finals, one in the Irish Cup against Glentoran and one in the County Antrim Shield against Ballymena, so there are a lot of happy memories.”
There is another ironic, unpredictability to the chain of events which would see Shiels become Larne manager. It arrived at the start of April 2005, when Larne and Ballymena came head-to-head again. This time it was in the semi-final of the Irish Cup, at the Oval.
In a game dominated by Ballymena, almost from start to finish, Larne’s big moment came courtesy of a penalty slammed home by Mark Dickson, in front of the jubilant Larne fans at the City End of the ground.
Shiels himself knows that painful, and probably undeserved, 1-0 defeat spelt the beginning for the end for him, with his contract not being renewed at the end of the season.
“I remember that well,” he said.
“We were robbed at the Oval that day to be honest. We were shooting in for most of the match. I thought Jeff (Hughes) took a bit of a roll on the edge of the box that day and we just didn’t come back from the goal.
“In our last 15 games of that season we only lost two games, and one of them was the Irish Cup semi-final. The directorship at Ballymena was poor to be honest, they didn’t really understand football.
“Losing to Larne was not on for them, irrespective of how that game went, it didn’t matter, they just thought we shouldn’t have lost it. In the end I think they regretted it, but they decision was made.
“The fact that the defeat lead to be becoming Larne manager not that long after it, shows how unpredictable football can be.”
The exit from Ballymena meant the door opened for Shiels to be named Larne boss in October of that year. He immediately set about trying to help the team climb away from the relegation zone, after a poor start. Jimmy McGeough had departed for personal reasons, with Sammy Smith put in interim charge before Shiels came in.
“When I came in the main thing we looked to do was build up the confidence of the team,” he said.
“There were so many things that were wrong to be honest, but we looked to try to build from a solid base. The obvious quality there at the time was Gary McCutcheon and Mark Dickson who were our two strikers.
“They were two really good players and you were surprised to find them in a team who were struggling towards the bottom of the table.
“There were some good players to work with to be fair, and we were able to get results quicker than we expected, to be honest.”
Shiels brought a familiar face with him as his assistant, which he feels was instrumental in making the almost immediate impact.
“I had Jim Hagan with me, and he was a good guide and a good person to have in along with you,” he added.
“Jim is a good friend of mine. He played for me at Coleraine and then again at Moyola Park in the twilight of his career. He also had very good connections with the town with him being from there and living in Larne too.
“We were a part of the 16-team Premier League at the time and I liked the make up of that division to be honest. I remember going into the last game of the season, against Portadown at home and we had to beat them and we managed it. In the end I think we actually ended up finishing 12th and avoided relegation quite comfortably.”
Kenny’s time at the club was brought to an abrupt end at the end of the 2006/06 season, when a new full-time youth development job with the IFA stopped him from staying on in the job.
“I would like to have built for the next season to be honest,” he reflected.
“In the end that just wasn’t possible because of the job I had taken up before moving to England.”
After a spell in youth development with Tranmere Rovers, Kenny made his name as Kilmarnock. He ensured his name would go down in folklore at Rugby Park with a 1-0 win over Celtic in the 2012 League Cup final at Hampden. While in Scotland, Kenny wasn’t afraid to give his usual forthright opinion, even if it didn’t always endear him to some in the game.
“My time in Scotland was really good,” he said.
“When we were at Kilmarnock, we enjoyed having the odds against us. We beat the Old Firm home and away and obviously we had the trophy win. I think Celtic came into that game having won 27 out of their previous 28 games.
“I found that, in Scotland, the media was either Rangers or Celtic, there wasn’t a lot in between. Football wise there were leagues within the league and you’re always trying to do the best with what you have.”
The management position at Greenock Morton followed, before a brief stint with BEC Tero Sasana in Thailand. From there it was on to two years at Derry City, which yielded more silverware before his current job with the Northern Ireland women’s side. It’s a role he’s very much enjoying.
“It’s a great job, because you can set down your style of play and how you want it to be,” he said.
“It’s more difficult to do that in the Irish League, for different reasons. At the end of the day, it’s the same game you’re involved with and women’s football is growing all the time, it is becoming very big.
“I see part of my role as having an important element of long-term planning, for the young girls who are coming through. There is an opportunity to stamp my authority and help to develop the game here.
“We have a game coming up against Belarus in April we’re looking forward to it, there are good young players for us to work with.”
What then of a return to the men’s game, is it something Shiels could see on the horizon?
“You never say never, if something came up at the right time then you would have to look at it,” he said.
“I am happy in the role I have, so I certainly wouldn’t be rushing to look for that opportunity. I’m not sure if the product is quite there in the Irish League still. In some clubs, it is good and others not to good to be honest.
“Larne and the likes of Cliftonville try to play, and Institute did last year. After that, you have Glentoran who play off second balls, and that’s not being critical, but just the way I have seen it.
“If you have development programmes at your club who are trying to play then you need to see that at first team level and we’re not really getting that in too many places. There’s no point in saying what people want to hear, I think things need to improve and keep improving and that will lift the standards for everyone.”
As ever, Kenny Shiels is never afraid to call it as he sees it.