Belfast Telegraph

50 not out: What makes landmark-hitting Coleraine boss Oran Kearney so special by the people that know him best

Winning admirers: Coleraine boss Oran Kearney
Winning admirers: Coleraine boss Oran Kearney
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

"I don't know anybody who will say anything different about him than I do," says beaming Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry in closing.

Sourcing a range of views on Oran Kearney's unquestionably successful management style immediately uncovers one universal aspect; everybody loves Oran.

Handily, that's just the beginning of the story because affection alone cannot carry a man to 50 games unbeaten in national Northern Irish competition.

Since Linfield edged a tight Premiership encounter 2-1 at Windsor Park on 18 November 2017, Kearney has yet to suffer a reverse in the league, the League Cup or the Irish Cup. Won 34, drew 16, lost zero. Goal difference +80. Scored 117, conceded 37.

Gazing through that astounding lens, it's little wonder that his Coleraine side are top of the league, a point clear of Cliftonville, after having already beaten the two pre-season favourites Linfield and Crusaders twice. Each.

"It doesn't just happen overnight though," begins Oran's wife Lauren. "He works really, really hard. He puts in a lot of hours."

If anyone can vouch for that, it's the former Linfield star himself, who was part of the Belfast club's clean sweep team in 2006 and retired due to injury just three years later, aged only 30 and having undergone knee and hip operations.

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While he admitted himself at the time that it was a sobering decision, his future was already very much in hand.

On the advice of Lauren's father and current Northern Ireland women's manager Kenny Shiels, Oran had completed his UEFA A license aged only 21, one of the youngest ever Northern Irishmen to pass the course.

"He's a very, very well organised young man that has the ability to see things very, very early," says Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry.

The pair go back to February 2011, when McKendry made the big push to bring Oran in from Limavady United, where had had cut his managerial teeth.

Just a week after hanging up his boots, Kearney had been appointed by the Championship club, targeting a fifth place finish with a team that had just come in 13th in the second tier.

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Oran Kearney celebrates with Linfield manager David Jeffrey after scoring a penalty against Derry City in the Setanta Cup

Fast forward 12 months and United had actually come in third, missing out on a promotion play-off buy only two points.

It hadn't taken long to hone his managerial skills, all based upon, unsurprisingly, a series of well considered decisions.

"He took advice from a lot of other managers on the direction to go," continued McKendry. "He could bring older Irish League players to Limavady or he could take the bold step to run with young lads.

"He made that decision early to go with the young players and that's carried with him at Coleraine. It was one of the first things he said to me and it has always stuck in my mind. It was a courageous thing to do for a young manager."

Among them was a midfielder by the name of Stephen Lowry. He had by then been let go by Ballymena as his first attempt to make the grade in the top tier was cut short, sent back to his local team.

Within eight months, Kearney had helped fire him back to the Premier League, earning a move to Coleraine, where the boss would join him little over a year later.

"Oran turned my career around," Lowry concedes.

"He's just got that personality that you trust. He's helped me a lot. He's always given me the right advice for me, even if it's not right for him or for Coleraine.

"That means that when I'm playing for him, I want to do well for him. I feel like I want to repay him.

"Even when I did leave for a few years at Linfield, there were never any hard feelings.

"He was a big factor in me coming back to Coleraine last year as well. If it wasn't for him, I probably would have stayed at Linfield. You want to play for him and be around him because you know good things aren't far away. That's why the right advice is usually to stay with him."

When Kearney did arrive on Lowry's heels at the Showgrounds, he didn't have it all his own way.

The tough spells included a run of nine straight league defeats spanning the festive period in 2013 and a spell of only three wins in 14 Premiership games near the end of the 15/16 campaign.

"He might answer differently but I think those times have made him stronger," says wife Lauren. "He's always been a very positive person though, he would never really get too down. It was probably harder for his family than for him."

Pressure was certainly mounting, but not with the one man the really mattered.

"I had total belief and confidence in his ability," says chairman McKendry, who was then questioned for his faith, but is now lauded for his loyalty. "Was he under pressure? Yes he was absolutely because he put himself under that as much as the club did.

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Winners: Coleraine boss Oran Kearney toasts his side’s Irish Cup success with club chairman Colin McKendry

"The board certainly were pushing to look at alternatives but I had been at nearly every training session and I could see what was coming through the academy as well. I could see that he was testing the water with these young guys and that his structure was in place. It just needed that time to take shape.

"That's what I kept telling everybody but it's a hard message to tell fans who pay their money and want to see results."

All of that was part of the inner drive that Kearney had brought to Coleraine. It would emerge in a post-match interview at Carrick Rangers on September 10, 2016.

His side had just beaten their hosts to stay within three points of leaders Crusaders with seven games played.

"You must be aiming for a European place given the start?" he was asked.

"Well, we want to win the league," he replied, with a steely glare that insisted he was very serious.

It wasn't the normal answer for a boss who, in his first five full seasons at the club, had secured only two top six finishes and got within 30 points of the champions only once.

"His determination I could only compare to one man and that's Bertie Peacock," says McKendry, remembering the legend that remains the only manager to bring the title to Coleraine. "When Bertie won the league in 1974, it wasn't just by chance. That had to be built.

"Oran has that determination as well. I have no doubt that he believes that he can win every game he goes into."

By that day at Carrick, the green shoots of the background plan that had held McKendry's faith were beginning to show.

Six players aged 21 or under were in the match-day squad, while Gareth McConaghie and James McLaughlin had been plucked from junior football and had new life breathed into their careers.

"I don’t think it’s the fact he develops the young players but he makes you so confident in your own ability," says Brad Lyons, who is now at Blackburn Rovers having been given his first step into senior football at the Showgrounds. "He makes you believe that you deserve to be in the first team and then just keeps pushing you."

A special team was forming, one whose true potential would not become apparent until the following season, when Kearney shepherded the Bannsiders to a second place in the league, closing the gap to the winners from 24 the season before to only two by the end of a gruelling campaign.

For some of the final day, it looked like the dream was on, with the Gibson Cup sitting with NIFL officials at Nutts' Corner between Coleraine's game at Glenavon and Crusaders' match at Ballymena.

The Braidmen were winning, handing the title to their rivals, until a late Crues' double snatched it away.

It was 'heartbreaking', admits Lauren but better followed soon after.

Coleraine's 3-1 Irish Cup final victory over Cliftonville provided the iconic scene of his first spell in charge as he galloped down the touchline to join the celebrations after Eoin Bradley's late chincher.

Finally, he was a winner once more. Like the days as a player at Linfield when, as Lauren puts it, they 'didn't know what it was like to lose', Kearney once again had his hands on silverware - both the Cup and the Manager of the Year award that his old mentor had won so often.

"We keep him going all the time about learning things from our old Linfield boss Davy Jeffrey," says former team-mate Stephen Douglas, who still turns out for Coleraine aged 42.

"It's the discipline and the way that he runs things. He has a lot of the same structures in place to make things tick. He has such respect from the players. He insists on there being no drink in the days before games and the players will stick to that but then, like Big Davy, he'd be the first to buy you a drink afterwards and let the players enjoy themselves.

"He takes a lot of all that from Big Davy but he brings his own aspects to it as well, obviously.

"He has a good footballing brain. He talks about the game in a different way to people. Sometimes when I was travelling to Linfield games with him, you would have been wondering what he was talking about."

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Oran Kearney celebrates winning the Irish Cup

It's not a problem his squad has now, as Kearney has honed a straight-talking style that, while it doesn't compromise the close relationship between boss and player, Lowry describes as 'no bulls**t'

"Everyone knows where they stand and he doesn't make up excuses when somebody isn't playing," added the midfielder.

"You don't want to lose your man or make a mistake and let yourself be that person after the match. There's an expectation and there's no hiding place. If Oran doesn't want you in the squad, he won't have you. Simple as that. He's kind of ruthless like that as well. He knows what he wants and there's no stopping him."

Kearney, of course, would go on to pull off what McKendry describes as a 'minor miracle' by keeping St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership, when he left the Bannsiders for a spell across the water last September.

Lyons also arrived with him, having been brought north on loan from Blackburn.

"I thought he was brilliant and he took to full time football instantly," says the 22-year-old. "I thought he worked with the senior players like Anton Ferdinand more closely because he knew they’d been through it all and always took their advice on board.

"He’s always willing to learn and it just showed how good a manager he is."

A difference with chairman Gordon Scott led to a summer departure, the rewards for a successful spell in full-time football for now evading him.

He would come back to Coleraine, who had lost 13 Premiership matches and finished sixth in his 10-month absence.

"The players were Oran's," says Lowry. "It didn't matter who it was coming in, it would probably have been a similar thing. It just happened to be Rod (McAree, who had taken over on Kearney's departure). I felt terrible about that.

"I think the players have probably had a look at themselves. It's hard to put your finger on how he has made such a difference since coming back again."

Kearney's return means, too, that he is back with his family, who had remained at home in Ballymoney during his Scottish sojourn. That's to the particular delight of nine-year-old son Luca, who was last night joining the team at training.

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Oran and wife Lauren with their twins Ava and Luca

That won't be out of the ordinary, much to be contrary, thanks to the work Lauren has helped to undertake, accompanied by daughter Ava.

"We've tried to make Coleraine a real family club," she says. "All the players' wives are close off the pitch and we've really put the effort into building that side of things. That team spirit really spreads throughout the club and there's a really nice atmosphere there."

Every aspect of the plan has been meticulously put in place.

But as Lauren admits, there was a 'what-if' around Oran's departure last year as the club were top of the table before St Mirren pressed pause on the ultimate dream.

Now he's back, and Kearney's Coleraine have resumed where they left off - 16 games unbeaten at top of the tree once more.

If they can continue to put the long-held plan into action, it will only serve to back up the apparent reality; that everybody loves Oran.

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