Ipswich Town: Is Mourinho's ex-right-hand man Kieran McKenna proving he's the new 'special one'?

Ipswich Town boss Kieran McKenna has been named Championship Manager of the Month.
Ipswich Town boss Kieran McKenna has been named Championship Manager of the Year. Credit: PA

He was already considered by many experts to be one of the brightest young managers in the country, and now it's official.

The remarkable rise of Kieran McKenna has been a sight to behold over the last couple of years - taking sleeping giants Ipswich Town from mid-table mediocrity in League One, all the way back to the big time.

With Ipswich becoming the first club since Southampton 12 years ago to go from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons, McKenna was recently named Championship Manager of the Year at the EFL Awards.

But who is the man behind the miracle and how has he managed to turn Town around in such a short space of time?

  • A special promotion from the Special One

McKenna worked alongside Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. Credit: PA

With his own playing career prematurely curtailed by a persistent hip injury at the age of just 22, McKenna turned to coaching to give him his footballing fix.

The Northern Irishman's first big break came at Tottenham. It was there he spent much of his career as a youth player, and went on to coach many of the club's age groups before eventually being put in charge of their under-18s side.

His work at Spurs led to him being poached by Manchester United - a switch that would see him learn his trade alongside from one of the greatest managers of all-time.

Having once again made a big impression at academy level, McKenna was promoted to role of assistant manager to then-boss Jose Mourinho - a man who had himself been mentored by Ipswich legend Sir Bobby Robson.

"It was a privilege for me to come onto his coaching staff - he's such an iconic figure for coaches of my generation," McKenna told Sky Sports News last year.

"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."

  • Ipswich come calling

McKenna celebrates winning promotion from League One with Ipswich Town last year. Credit: PA

Even after Mourinho's departure from Old Trafford in 2018, McKenna was kept on the coaching staff at United - going on to work under both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.

Becoming a number one in his own right was always the ultimate ambition for McKenna though, and in December 2021, that ambition became a reality.

At the time, Ipswich Town were 12th in League One having just sacked Paul Cook - the club desperately in need of some new direction after a couple of underwhelming seasons in the third tier.

In McKenna, then aged just 35, they found it. His impact was almost instant, as he quickly oversaw an upturn in form that saw Town win seven of his first 10 matches in charge.

The play-offs proved to be a step too far in that first season, but 12 months later Ipswich bypassed them altogether - racking up a club record 98 points and more than 100 goals, only just pipped to the title by Plymouth Argyle.

With McKenna at the wheel, hopes were high that Town could be a force back in the Championship as well, but few could have predicted just how strong they would be...

  • Taking the Championship by storm

Ipswich Town are top of the Championship heading into the final few games of the season. Credit: PA

Ipswich's staggering total of 96 points is a record for a newly promoted club.

It means Ipswich are the first club ever to rack up 90 points in two successive EFL seasons, the kind of relentless consistency that helped them secure a return to the Premier League for the first time since 2002.

The fact that McKenna is still yet to lose two games in a row during his tenure so far is testament to the standards he has set during his time at Portman Road, while they topped the Championship scoring charts - netting 92 goals.

They also scored the most late goals in the division, finding the net on more than 25 occasions between minutes 76 and 90+ over the course of the campaign - evidence of the belief and never-say-die attitude that now flows through the veins of every single player.

What is perhaps most impressive though is that McKenna has found a way to compete against the might of Leicester City, Leeds United and Southampton - three clubs armed with substantial parachute payments following their relegation from the Premier League last season.

Before a ball was kicked, all three were expected to be fighting it out for automatic promotion, as has proved to be the case, but Ipswich's presence alongside them is real heart-warming stuff for the football romantics.

  • How good is he?

McKenna is arguably the hottest managerial prospect in the EFL. Credit: PA

As you'd expect, Ipswich players have been queuing up to sing the praises of their boss, with captain Sam Morsy hailing McKenna's attention to detail as "incredible".

It's a statement backed up by ex-Manchester United manager Solskjaer who described him as "the most thorough and analytical, step-by-step, process-driven coach that I’ve worked with," during an interview with The Athletic, while Peterborough United chairman Darragh MacAnthony recently told TalkSport that McKenna is a "top six manager in the making."

McKenna's work ethic means he's often the first to arrive at the training round, and the last to leave - his drive and determination powered by his insatiable thirst for knowledge which he quenches by listening to podcasts and watching documentaries about elite coaches in other sports.

His soaring reputation at Portman Road has inevitably seen him linked with clubs higher up the food chain, with Crystal Palace reportedly failing in a bid to persuade him to replace Roy Hodgson, but the 37-year-old will be now be patrolling a Premier League touchline in the very near future with the Ipswich Town crest on his chest.

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