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Kieran McKenna interview: Ipswich hopes, working under Jose Mourinho at Man Utd and Tottenham coaching education

Ipswich boss Kieran McKenna tells Sky Sports about his coaching journey from Spurs to Suffolk, working under Jose Mourinho and alongside Michael Carrick at Manchester United and his aims with the Tractor Boys

At 36 years old Kieran McKenna is the youngest manager in the English professional game.

But you would hardly know it when speaking to him, or from the work he has done in his 16 months at Ipswich Town so far.

Forced into retirement due to injury at 22, McKenna had already made the decision to step into coaching, and spent the next 13 years in the youth setups at Tottenham and Manchester United.

He is an experienced head on young managerial shoulders.

"When I started in coaching I knew that I wanted to make the move into management eventually, and I wanted to do it at an age people would perceive as young," he tells Sky Sports - after winning the Sky Bet League One Manager of the Month award for March.

"I was 35 when I took the job here, but when you've started coaching full-time at 22, 35 isn't that young. I've worked in some really good environments and I've accumulated a lot of experiences that have prepared me for the job. But until you make that last step you don't know how you'll adapt."

McKenna admits it was a surprise when Ipswich came calling, even though he had gained a reputation as an elite coach first in Tottenham's academy, and then at Manchester United's, before going on to join the first-team staff under Jose Mourinho, then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and briefly Ralf Rangnick.

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He took over at Portman Road midway through last season, and has steered a club who had laboured for three years in League One mid-table into the thick of an intense promotion battle.

"Obviously there are different elements in terms of how you lead a club, but it's not hugely different to what I was doing as a first-team coach or a youth-team coach," he says. "I've been pleased with how I've adapted.

"I'm happy with the staff I have around me and I'm pleased with the work we do here day to day. If the feel at the training ground is right and we focus on our processes and doing the right things, then we have faith the results will take care of themselves.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One match between Cheltenham and Ipswich

"We've made some big improvements across all areas of the club. There's work going on at the stadium of course, but from a football perspective we've improved the squad, the style of play, and we're coming to the business end of the season and we're in with a chance of fighting for the things we wanted to fight for.

"I've really enjoyed it. It's an important step for me and I certainly feel like I'm in the right place. I feel like the club is developing well, and that I'm developing well."

It is, in essence, wrong to look at McKenna as a young manager. While he may have been just 35 when he took the Ipswich job, with 13 years of coaching behind him he already had a wealth of experience to call upon.

A career that was cut short before he had even had the opportunity to make a senior appearance for Tottenham has led him to where he is now.

Rather than get absorbed in the disappointment of the demise of a dream, McKenna had already chosen to get himself ahead of the next step of the game.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One match between Ipswich and Wycombe

"I'd made the decision even before I'd finished," he recalls. "It was a long-term chronic injury. I'd had a couple of surgeries and my last couple of years at Tottenham I was with the physios more than the coaches.

"In that time I had the chance to reflect and speak to different people, and I was ready for the transition at that point.

"I knew I'd have to look down different paths, and with the passion I had for football and the personality type I had in terms of liking leadership and communication, and how I thought about the game, I felt like coaching was right for me.

"I was pretty much straight out on the coaching pitch on crutches after my last surgery, working and assisting with some brilliant coaches and a really talented youth team. It certainly stood me in good stead for where I am now."

It was McKenna's years at Tottenham where he developed, working in the youth system under a succession of very different managers, picking up bits and pieces from each of them to help mould his own methodology going forward.

"I certainly learned a lot there," he says. "As a player initially then as a staff member in various different roles. The club gave me really good access, and I could always speak to the managers. Although of course some of them were understandably more open than others. But I feel like I picked up a lot from each of them.

"It was a great experience for me in my 20s. You develop and integrate the things you learn off them into your own style. There was Harry Redknapp and how he communicated and man-managed to just give his players that confidence. Then there was Andre Villas-Boas who was more methodology-based in his training and tactical periodisation.

"There was Tim Sherwood who had his own way, then Mauricio Pochettino who came in and put such a big stamp throughout the club, and we integrated a lot of his work into the academy."

In 2016 he moved on to Manchester United and spent a couple of years there before being brought fully into the first-team setup by Mourinho.

Image: McKenna (C) worked alongside Michael Carrick with Jose Mourinho at Man Utd

"It was really good," he says. "I've said before it was a privilege for me to come onto his coaching staff, he's such an iconic figure for coaches of my generation.

"It was a relatively short period, but even then it was great to work and learn from him. There was a lot I took from him, and you can see why he's been so successful in his career."

Mourinho is a modern figurehead of McKenna's pathway. An icon of the managerial game who did not have an illustrious playing career on his CV.

McKenna thinks it is becoming a more common and understood pathway into management, and the game in this country has benefited from it.

"It's certainly becoming more prevalent," he says. "I think the coaches that have come before us, Brendan Rodgers, Mourinho, people of that ilk who went into management through different pathways, have laid the groundwork and shown what can be achieved by coaches from different backgrounds.

"I think the game has moved on and everyone understands now that there's different ways to gain experience as a coach or as a manager. I don't think one way or another is an advantage.

"There are obviously big advantages to being say, a Michael Carrick, who has 20 years at the highest level and those experiences to draw upon.

"But the other route which is probably becoming a bit more common, especially in Europe, is for coaches who have started early, or finished playing early for different reasons, accumulating a lot of knowledge and experience from an early age.

Freddie Ladapo celebrates with team-mates after opening the scoring for Ipswich at Exeter CIty

"Having 15 years of practical day-to-day coaching behind you. It's all good for the development of our game in Britain, having people with different backgrounds and expertise in the game can only be a positive.

"Certainly in my case when you've worked as hard as I have from such a young age you've earned the right to be confident in what you're doing, and you're ready for the challenges of such a demanding job."

McKenna brings up Carrick as the two worked together on the coaching staff at Manchester United and represents the archetypal other side of the managerial coin.

A world-class midfielder who won it all, now excelling in the Championship at the helm of Middlesbrough.

"He's such a fantastic man and someone I consider a good friend," says McKenna. "It's such a tough profession and you can never say anything is nailed on. But I never had any doubts he had the capability to do well at whatever he wanted.

"I loved working with him. And I'm happy for him he saw that opportunity at Middlesbrough and found somewhere he could make an impact. He's certainly had a great start there."

Perhaps the most impressive things about Carrick and McKenna is that they have not compromised on their styles since moving into senior managerial work at the EFL.

Ipswich have scored more than any other side in League One, and no side has conceded fewer. The job is different for the Northern Irishman, but the processes remain very much the same.

"I think first and foremost it's about getting the environment right at the training ground," he says. "To improve the players individually and to make every day enjoyable but educational and challenging as well. From there you give yourself the chance to improve the style.

"I've always coached my teams at every level to be dominant, brave in their attacking and to look to take the initiatives in games with and without the ball. Then, of course, you work really hard at the training ground to make sure you get it right on the match day.

"As a manager you are of course judged on how many games you win. But my belief is that it always starts at the very first step, which is getting things right day to day.

"Of course there's a difference between working with players at Manchester United to working at this level. But it's a misconception in my opinion that you can't implement a certain style at this level or that you can't do certain things.

"If you give trust to the players and improve their understanding of what they're capable of, the level you can get is usually higher than what they believe of themselves.

"Of course League One presents its own challenges, like the pitches and some conditions, and you have to be adaptable at times. But in the main we've been able to implement what we want."

The future looks bright for McKenna. But with Ipswich still caught in a tussle to try and battle out of League One, he is refusing to look too far into the future.

"I've worked very hard from a young age and progressed through two fantastic academies," he says. "I've coached at Champions League level at 31, and I've picked up some great experience working with some world-class players right at the top level.

"Now I'm developing as a manager at a really big, fantastic football club that it is a privilege to represent.

"It is an honour to put my team out in front of nearly 30,000 at Portman Road and play the type of football we are. We want to try and bring the club back to where it wants to be.

"But in this job you can't plan too far around the corner, so I'm not going to look too far ahead."

Although McKenna may not be looking too far ahead, you can be sure there will be plenty with an eye on him now and in the future.

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