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Friday, June 14, 2024

RIATH AL-SAMARRAI: Kieran McKenna is a smart man.

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To apply a little context to what has made Kieran McKenna so popular of late, you have to travel a decent distance into the past to find the last manager who made the same magnificent jump through the divisions. That would be Nigel Adkins and it might be an idea to ask him about the thanks he got for it.He was the bright young thing once. Like McKenna, he was emotionally intelligent and tactically strong. And like McKenna at Ipswich, Adkins found an unfavourable table when he embarked upon the peculiar business of sporting miracles in September 2010 — Southampton were 22nd in League One.That just wouldn’t do for a club with a good infrastructure and rated as favourites to go up under Alan Pardew a few weeks earlier. But what a ride they went on — led by Adkins, then 45, Southampton went up automatically eight months later. League One being League One, it got some attention but not a lot. Same goes for when they signed only three players and lost Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain to Arsenal ahead of their next push. We mostly thought mid-table would be decent, in so much as we thought about it at all. But it worked out very differently — Southampton never once stepped outside the top two and played sugar-sweet football all the way to the Premier League. How we loved the Adkins yarn then, for what good it did him.With Southampton’s results trending the right way and 15th in the top flight, Adkins was sacked in the January of 2013 and replaced by a brighter, younger thing — Mauricio Pochettino. Ipswich boss Kieran McKenna has become one of football’s most-sought after managers Nigel Adkins embarked on a similar miraculous journey to McKenna, taking Southampton from League One to the Premier League in back-to-back seasons between 2010 and 2012 McKenna has worked wonders at Ipswich, taking them back to the top flight after 22 years Adkins is 59 now and managing at Tranmere Rovers in League Two, with most of the intervening period spent in League One and the Championship. It’s been a fine and honest career for a fine and honest bloke who remains the only manager I’ve known to recite the poetry of Dale Wimbrow in times of stress. But if there’s a message for McKenna within Adkins’s experience, it would be that the risks of staying put can be every bit as iffy as those that accompany a big move.Given his willingness to talk to other clubs, we know McKenna is open to striking while his iron glows red. Which is to say he is willing at 38 to stake a great, emerging reputation on nutters whose nuttiness is no surprise by this point, if we excuse Brighton from that conversation.Naturally this is where the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea come in, because they seem to have reached the Baldrick stage of the Blackadder episode, where the current plan appears to be the one reserved for after the pencils in the nose don’t work.To go by sources who are well placed to know, their interest has been less diligently nurtured than at Brighton. The latter have had McKenna in their sights for the better part of a year.They watched him, studied him, mentioned him regularly in succession chats right back to when Roberto De Zerbi was still shining a halo. They are sensible like that and have made a habit of getting it right through necessity. Whatever United and Chelsea might go on to claim, their fascination is not believed to come from such a deep place, which tells us plenty about two strange clubs who are trapped in strange times. There is no original observation to be had around football’s ‘now’ culture. We know this. But throughout the recent years of the Premier League, has there been a more bizarre intersection in the arcs of a talented man on the rise and two desperate, sliding giants reduced to punting on promise?In United’s case, the escalation of their interest was reported on Thursday, which by chance happened to be around the time that the remarkable story emerged of Carlo Acutis and his posthumous sainthood. If you aren’t familiar with the details, the Catholic church evidently have a means of investigating miracles and a threshold for determining how many you need for canonisation: if two are traced to you after death, you’re in the club. For United and Chelsea, it is two great seasons at Portman Road.That they are even considering this route is surreal and possibly alarming for such decisive phases of their respective regimes.United’s next managerial appointment is Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s biggest decision to date at Old Trafford; for the Boehly-Eghbali axis of calamity, they need to show there was coherent thinking in the ‘mutual’ aspect of their divorce from Pochettino. Todd Boehly (centre) and Behdad Eghbali (second from right) want McKenna at Chelsea However, Sir Jim Ratcliffe (right) will battle to bring the Ipswich boss to Manchester UnitedWithin those parameters, you have to query the thickness of the line between brave and foolhardy, such is the combustible, suffocating, changeable environment they view as appropriate for a manager without a top-flight fixture to his name. It is an incredibly wild game of jeopardy.None of which is a slur on McKenna. He has done a wonderful job at Ipswich. And Ipswich have done a wonderful job with him. Together they have climbed at a speed we thought improbable at a stage when parachute payments have closed much of the shop in the Championship.For McKenna, the risk of leaving would be greater than it is to either United or Chelsea. Clubs move on from a fire; a burnt manager often stays burnt, especially the younger ones. We can assume that supporting United as a lad, and then working there as a man, would make him especially attuned to how hot it gets at the club he is understood to favour.A great dilemma to have, no doubt. And good on him for earning it — who knows, he might even be the miracle two clubs crave. But he is a smart man, because it takes a smart man to navigate from League One to these discussions. Just as a smart man might see the pencils in a couple of those noses and seriously question if bigger is better. For McKenna, the risk of leaving would be greater than it is to either United or ChelseaDon’t bank on Novak declineWhen the end comes in sport, it can often be foretold in alarming instalments. For that reason it might be tempting to read a lot into Novak Djokovic’s third-set hiding against Tomas Machac on Friday and his ongoing failure to win a title in 2024.It would also be a misplaced exercise in wishful thinking for those wanting to hasten the changing of the guard.Even if his 37-year-old legs are starting to lose some spring, that mind will be worth at least three games every set when the Slams kick in.  It would be a misplaced exercise in wishful thinking to write off Serbian star Novak DjokovicRooney’s fightWhen we talk about the prevailing desire to go big and go fast, there is something delightfully warming about Wayne Rooney taking over at Plymouth.He might never cut it in management, which has followed the opposite path he took as a player. But his willingness to scrap and fight is still right there and deeply admirable when easier ways to find purpose are waiting on a broadcaster’s couch.  There is something delightfully warming about Wayne Rooney taking over at Plymouth

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