Kenny Shiels: Derry City manager still crazy for football after all these years

Kenny Shiels was appointed as Derry City manager in November 2015
Kenny Shiels guided Derry to a European spot in his first two seasons in charge

"I have never met anyone who is as mad about football as I am." - The Herald, January 2012

Kenny Shiels chuckles when asked whether his quote uttered during a rollercoaster of a ride as Kilmarnock manager still rings true.

"Probably yes," nods the 62-year-old, whose lean physique makes it look as if he could do a job for Derry City out on the pitch.

A legacy, perhaps, of a tracksuit manager whose natural habitat remains the training field.

Right from his early days on this earth, the Maghera man's life has been steeped in football.

"I had an operation when I was two and my mother said I had this wee football in the hospital and I was cuddling it. We were just deep into football and played it to a fault."

Shiels recalls the summer days of football matches out in his chicken-farmer father Roy's fields when the children, eight boys and a girl, would play marathon matches against their neighbours, the Leacocks.

"There was two big families, us and the Leacocks. When we got up in the summer school holidays, we were playing eight or nine in the morning until 9 or 10 at night," says the Derry City manager in the Long Tower Youth club next door to the recently redeveloped Brandywell Stadium.

Kenny Shiels with Cobh Ramblers boss Stephen Henderson at the EA Sports Cup Final media day in Dublin on Thursday
Shiels' Derry City side face First Division Cobh Ramblers in Sunday's EA Sports Cup Final at the Brandywell

Derry aiming for first silverware since 2012

Media duties have got the county Londonderry man into many a disciplinary scrape in the past - notably during his memorable stint at Kilmarnock from 2011 to 2013.

But he never tires of jousting with the fourth estate and on this particular week, there are two big upcoming home games to sell as his Candystripes aim for the club's first trophy since 2012 in Sunday's EA Sports Cup final against Cobh Ramblers before Wednesday's probably even more important FAI Cup quarter-final against Bohemians.

Back in March, the opening of the re-developed Brandywell saw big crowds cheering on the Candystripes as they went on a 10-match unbeaten which saw them keep pace with big guns Cork and Dundalk over the opening months of the campaign.

But as results began to wane, the attendances dropped off and the club even had to deal with a boycott by some supporters of the home leg of their Europa League tie against Dinamo Minsk, amid complaints over ticket price hikes.

"We had 10 games unbeaten when we won nine and the new stadium was a novelty. The supporters were right behind us with full houses," says the Candystripes boss.

"Now they are not so full because the novelty wore off or whatever happened and we haven't been doing as well in the league. We need that injection to help us so we need a good crowd in.

"It's unreasonable to expect Derry to start winning the league until we start filling the stadium.

"Cork and Dundalk have filled their stadiums and as a result of people coming through the door and paying the money, it has helped those clubs to get better players.

"But I don't want to be sounding negative. I'm a positive person. We're in a final so we should be talking about good things."

Shiels' moving tribute at McBride's funeral

With Derry having dropped to sixth in the league table, an FAI Cup triumph may now be the only realistic hope of the Candystripes achieving the European spot they managed in Shiels' first two seasons in charge.

After the trauma of the sudden death of club captain Ryan McBride in March 2017, perhaps it was inevitable Derry's form would hit a wall at some point.

Their achievement in keeping the show on the road last season, in no small part helped by Shiels' leadership, was remarkable as they finished fourth behind big two Cork City and Dundalk plus Shamrock Rovers.

Whatever Kenny Shiels achieves during the rest of his Brandywell stint, his finest Derry hour will surely remain his moving and very personal poetic tribute at his late captain's funeral.

"I was sitting there in my car waiting to go in to see the coffin [during the wake]. I wrote the words off the top of my head and tried to get them to rhyme. It must have taken me 10 minutes or 15 minutes," he recalls.

Barry McNamee in action for Cork City in July
Barry McNamee was among the players Derry lost after last season

Candystripes lose influential players

His new two-year contract was the least Shiels could have expected last November but there was no time to rest as the club lost influential duo Barry McNamee and Aaron Barry to champions Cork in the close season with other departures following.

As he struggled to come up with replacements, Shiels could also ruefully look at the presence of former Candystripes' players such as Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney and Dean Jarvis in Dundalk ranks.

The Derry boss has also lost Josh Daniels and Rory Patterson to Irish League clubs Glenavon and Crusaders while by his own admission, several of the replacements he bought have not delivered.

"It's been very difficult. But we're doing a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances."

Derry's full-time structure invariably rules out signing players for whom football is not their primary career.

And there is also the small matter of the other top League of Ireland clubs being able to offer better wages in addition to the difficulty of attracting southern-based players up north.

"Our neighbours are the Irish League. If you've got a mortgage and you're 25, 26 years of age and you've got a job in whatever industry and you've got a football wage as well, you're going to pick the Irish League."

Shiels lost brother during NI troubles

Mention of his beloved 93-year-old mother Elizabeth brings a smile to the Maghera man's face.

Shiels says the mother-of-nine, who "still bakes every day", taught him all his management skills.

"She has been a rock for all us. I saw how she coped under pressure.

"You would wake up in the morning and look to your right and there was a pair of dirty feet and look to your left and there was another pair of dirty feet.

"Whoever got up first got the socks with no holes in them. It was an incredible upbringing."

During the Northern Ireland troubles, the Shiels family endured an awful event in 1990 as Kenny's brother David was shot dead by the IRA on the family's farm in what was believed to be a case of mistaken identity.

"It was difficult. You never get over them things but it's happened to a lot of families."

Kenny Shiels during his time as manager of the Northern Ireland Under-17 team
Kenny Shiels managed the Northern Ireland U17 team before moving cross-channel to become head of youth development at Tranmere Rovers

Shiels's non-sectarian upbringing, which included his father setting up a local youth football club made up of players from both communities, meant he was never going to go down the road of bitterness and recrimination after the tragedy.

Since his return to Northern Ireland after his time in England and Scotland, Shiels has followed his father's example by re-establishing a cross-community football club for south Derry children.

"I had it going before being away for 10 or 11 years. It's going really well again. We have it Upperlands. We want to get all the villages involved and there's quite a few who are really warming to it."

Shiels' own playing career saw him representing several Irish League clubs including Coleraine and Ballymena United before moving into management with county Londonderry junior club Tobermore United in 1992.

Five year later, Shiels went close to guiding Coleraine to the Irish League title as they were pipped by Crusaders on the run-in.

Further management stops followed at Ballymena United and Larne, which ran concurrently with taking charge of the Northern Ireland Under-17 team, before he moved cross-channel to become head of youth development at Tranmere Rovers.

"I wanted to give something back to young footballers. So I've spent my life doing that."

No-one benefited more from Shiels' tutelage than his own son Dean who has forged a professional club and international career despite having an eye removed as a 20-year-old following a childhood accident.

Shiels and son Dean after Kilmarnock's Scottish League Cup triumph over Celtic in March 2012
Shiels guided Kilmarnock to the 2012 Scottish League Cup when his son Dean was part of the team

Fans protested after Shiels' Kilmarnock exit

Shiels' stand-out management achievement came during his two years in charge of Kilmarnock as he guided the club to a shock Scottish League Cup final triumph over Celtic in March 2012.

The Killie line-up included his Northern Ireland international son, now part of the Derry squad.

But within 15 months, Shiels was sacked by the Scottish Premiership club as they eventually lost patience following a series of touchline bans imposed on him by the Scottish FA, arising largely from criticism of match officials.

Kilmarnock fans held rallies to protest at a decision which left Shiels "heartbroken".

"I don't think it [the disciplinary issues] was interpreted in the right way. I was the one that was the victim. I was disappointed in that and how my chairman handled it. It took me a long time to get over it.

"We had beaten Aberdeen away, Rangers away and Celtic away all in the one season. We beat all the big guns. We had a fantastic team," adds Shiels, who will attend a dinner celebrating the 150th anniversary of the club in January.

Within months of his departure from Kilmarnock, Shiels took on the job at struggling Scottish Championship club Greenock Morton but it proved a short stint as he stepped down after being unable to save them from relegation.

Six years on from his League Cup triumph with Kilmarnock, Shiels says clinching Derry's first trophy since 2012 would represent a "great achievement" for him and the club.

Alluding to the series of tragedies which have hit the club in recent years, which included the loss of five members of Josh Daniels' family in a drowning accident plus the death of former striker Mark Farren from a brain tumour, Shiels concludes in measured tones.

"A lot of things have happened and I would like to hopefully bring some silverware to Derry City FC. That's very prevalent in my thoughts."