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From Crazy Kenny to King Kenny

Joy and tragedy mark the latest chapter in Shiels' amazing story

By Steven Beacom

It was the greatest moment in the footballing life of Kenny Shiels, but he found it impossible to celebrate.

The 55-year-old from Magherafelt had just watched his Kilmarnock team cause an almighty upset by defeating massive favourites and treble-chasing Celtic 1-0 in the Scottish League Cup final.

Then came despair with the father of Killie player Liam Kelly suffering a heart attack close to the Hampden Park dug-outs. Mr Jack Kelly was to die later in hospital.

Shiels' eyes were filled with sadness and disbelief as he addressed the media after Sunday's match.

“I don't know why the man above sends down these messages to us,” he said.

There was compassion in his voice as he talked about concern for Liam rather than any feelings of joy having inspired Kilmarnock to their first trophy in 15 years.

Kenny Shiels knows all about family tragedies. Just over two decades ago, his younger brother Dave was killed in a terrorist attack by the IRA.

The death had a profound effect on Kenny, who has travelled a long, hard road to get to where he is today.

There has been much praise for Northern Ireland managers in recent months, such as the brilliant Brendan Rodgers at Swansea, Martin O'Neill breathing new life into Sunderland, Steve Lomas displaying promise at St Johnstone and Neil Lennon showing great determination despite desperate circumstances to become a hit at Celtic.

But unlike Shiels, ably assisted by countryman Jimmy Nicholl, none of them, so far, have guided their side to silverware this season.

No wonder Kilmarnock supporters are calling him King Kenny following the club's astonishing victory over Lennon's Celtic, which will secure a new contract at Rugby Park.

Not bad for a bloke once derided, criticised and laughed at when he was a manager in the Irish League.

Shiels' tale truly is remarkable.

He tells the story of how, at 15, he was being watched by some top English clubs but, after a tackle that led to severe ankle problems, he had to settle for a life in local football with the likes of Tobermore, Coleraine, Distillery, Larne and Ballymena United.

Disappointed not to play at a higher level, Kenny threw himself into football coaching, becoming obsessed with the game and how to better himself and those who played for him.

Starting out at junior club Tobermore in 1992 he progressed to Carrick Rangers, where he won the County Antrim Shield and plenty of admirers including the Coleraine board, who appointed him boss in 1994.

It was to be a rocky relationship between directors and Shiels at the Showgrounds.

At one stage he was sacked, then re-instated days later after the players threatened to go on strike.

He led them to promotion to the top flight, won the Ulster Cup and looked set to win the Irish League title, only for the Bannsiders to lose an 11 point lead at the top with old adversaries Crusaders becoming champions.

That was as good as it got in the Irish League for Kenny, who left Coleraine in 2000 before taking over at Ballymena a year later following a short spell with Moyola Park.

His final job in local football came at Larne, which he departed to focus on his commitments as the Northern Ireland under-17 boss.

When Shiels was a manager here, he was an outstanding source for stories.

You would ring him up and away he would go, never afraid to air an opinion or annoy an opponent. As he does now, he shot from the hip and spoke from the heart. If it bothered others, well, so be it.

It wasn't so much a case of Shiels attempting to wind rivals up — he genuinely believed what he was saying, even if at times the comments ranged from the bizarre to baffling.

A complex character, one of the many labels he was given by fans and the press was ‘crazy Kenny.'

He fell out with opposition managers more often than he ate hot dinners, slating them for what he deemed an overly physical approach from their players, while encouraging his men to play the beautiful game.

He still does the latter. Killie are attractive to watch, always looking to pass the ball with purpose rather than hump it forward in hope.

Kenny's son Dean, playing superbly these days with Kilmarnock, is a prime example of that. His dad taught him well.

That's the thing about Kenny. He could always coach.

In his international role, he shone. There was a feeling he had found his niche, tutoring kids, but then came a bitter blow when Nigel Worthington took over as Northern Ireland's senior boss and appointed his own staff at youth levels.

Fuming with that decision, Shiels became head of youth football at Tranmere Rovers in 2007. Three years later, after impressing on Merseyside, Mixu Paatelainen appointed him his number two at Kilmarnock.

When Paatelainen left Rugby Park to become Finland manager last season, Shiels took over.

Many in his native land thought he wouldn't cut it.

Boy, has King Kenny proved them wrong.

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