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Shiels can make it in SPL, insist old rivals

By Graham Luney

It’s difficult for players to carve out a career across the water but managers from Northern Ireland who realise their coaching dreams in the professional game are an even rarer species.

It’s refreshing to see Neil Lennon have the opportunity to hunt trophies at Celtic while Brendan Rodgers has just guided Swansea City into the Barclays Premier League.

It won’t be long before former Celtic boss Martin O’Neill is back in a top job and it’s right that football fans in Northern Ireland should celebrate the achievements of those from these shores who climb high up the coaching ladder.

At Kilmarnock, a new Northern Ireland dream team is taking shape with Kenny Shiels and Jimmy Nicholl assuming control of the SPL club, succeeding Mixu Paatelainen.

The duo will need the luck of the Irish when the new season kicks off but they will be encouraged by the support of fans from this small part of the world — and even from managers who enjoyed the odd verbal spat with Shiels down the years,

The 55-year-old from Maghera made his big breakthrough by being appointed Head of Youth and manager of the centre of excellence at Tranmere Rovers in 2007.

Before then, he cut his managerial teeth at Coleraine, Ballymena United, Larne, Tobermore United and Carrick Rangers where he won the County Antrim Shield in the 1992-93 season with a 2-1 triumph over Glentoran.

Shiels is fiercely proud of his spell in charge of the Northern Ireland Under-17s. He took them to the last eight of the European Championships in 2004 — a feat never repeated.

They came up against hosts France, Turkey and finally a Spain team that included teenage Cesc Fabregas, then at Arsenal along with Kenny’s son Dean.

Shiels now has the opportunity to taste success on the SPL stage and no-one can say he hasn’t reached his destination via a simple route.

David Jeffrey and Shiels were often involved in a war or words but the Linfield boss is happy to see his old adversary take charge at Kilmarnock.

“It’s always great to see another manager from Northern Ireland getting an opportunity to work full-time at a top club,” said Jeffrey.

“I’ve had a few ding-dong battles with Kenny in the past but I’m delighted he’s got this job. The Tranmere Rovers move, allowing him to work with their youth academy, gave him an opportunity to work across the water.”

Jimmy Nicholl has worked at Kilmarnock before as part of Jimmy Calderwood’s coaching staff. Jeffrey added: “Jimmy knows the club well.

“That kind of experience and knowledge will really help both of them in the long term.”

The Irish League’s most successful manager Roy Coyle believes Shiels has already got off to a great start with that acquisition.

“It’s a massive task for him but also a fantastic opportunity and he’s already shown good management by appointing a high profile, experienced man in Jimmy Nicholl,” said Coyle.

“Kenny’s not a rookie in managerial terms but it’s a big step up for him and we all hope he can rise to the challenge. It’s great to see a manager from here get a chance in the SPL, following on from Neil (Lennon) who has made the transition from player to manager.

Shiels, who was Paatelainen’s number two last term, now faces a rebuilding job ahead of the new campaign.

“I don't see it as being difficult — I see it as a challenge,” he said.

“A challenge to the skills of myself and Jimmy that we can go back to developing and improving a system that has been very well-received by the Scottish public.

“I feel as though we have a big duty to our supporters that we keep reproducing that over the next few years. We have to start that straight away and we have to pick up where we left off.”

He added: “The players deserve so much credit. Mixu and myself were talent facilitators and we facilitated that talent in a way where we provided entertainment.

“There is a lot of work at every football club and I'm just a little part of that, a small cog in the wheel.

“You are always confident in something that you feel you can do and I feel that we can achieve the same way of playing and we are determined to do that next season.”

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