Kenny Shiels leaves home in Maghera at 7am every day to drive to Belfast to coach the Northern Ireland women’s team buoyed by the knowledge this is his FIFTH decade in management.
He started out 36 years ago in the 1980s and has been a boss in the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. Shiels tells me his dream is to reach 50 years as manager. That would take him through to 2036 when he would be 79. With Kenny it is wise never to rule anything out. Even Tom Cruise doesn’t do Mission Impossible like this guy.
Last year Shiels inspired the Northern Ireland women’s team to qualify for their first major tournament, this summer’s Euro finals.
Long before that he created history by guiding the Northern Ireland Under-17 boys to the Euro 2004 finals. In between Shiels shocked Scottish football leading Kilmarnock to League Cup final glory over Celtic in 2012 and he is immensely proud of taking Coleraine, Ballymena United and Derry City into Europe.
All the while he’s done it his way with a straight-talking manner off the pitch and an attractive style on it.
“I started out as a manager with our village team, Upperlands, 36 years ago and we went on to win the Constitution Cup under the Coleraine and District League umbrella which was a massive thing for us,” recalls Shiels.
“No one expected us to do it and it was an incredible feeling winning with the Upperlands team because we were friends and neighbours.
“It was 30 years ago that I first managed in senior football with Carrick Rangers in 1992. I remember going in and wanting to play out from the back and being determined to do that.
“We were losing heavily but I stuck with it and suddenly we started beating big teams and being involved in entertaining matches. People loved watching us. We reached the County Antrim Shield final in 1993 and beat Glentoran 2-1 in a final replay. We were magnificent.
“That was one of my greatest achievements because the players, including my own brother Sammy, came from junior football. For us to win a trophy was remarkable.
“I signed John McClelland the former Rangers and Watford defender who was a World Cup hero with Northern Ireland because he wanted to live near to his mother and I remember him saying to me ‘what the hell are you doing?’ when he saw how we played. I told him my ideas on the game and he joked ‘You are mad’ but it is the way I’ve always been.”
Kenny’s son Dean, coach of the Northern Ireland’s women’s team, faced similar questions early on as Dungannon Swifts boss.
Like his dad he stuck to his principles and last weekend secured the best result of his fledging management career winning 1-0 at title chasing Larne.
“Dean has the same football beliefs as me in trying to play a certain way,” says Shiels.
“I’m Dean’s father so it is natural I am proud of him as my son but it has been wonderful to see what he is doing at Dungannon and the improvements in the team.
“It’s not just about the results for me, it’s about the way he has gone about it, sticking by his principles even when there was criticism.”
Talking of family, Kenny says it means everything to him though admits at times it can come second to his football life. It’s just as well then that the beautiful game is in his children’s blood. There’s former Northern Ireland star Dean of course while youngest son Jody manages Upperlands and daughters Lauren and Grace are married to Coleraine boss Oran Kearney and Armagh City manager Shea Campbell respectively.
Holding it all together is Kenny’s wife Gwen.
“My wife has been unbelievable through the years,” says the 65-year-old.
“I can’t thank Gwen enough for the support she has given me. She has always been there for me as have my family. I am blessed to have two great girls in Lauren and Grace and two great boys in Dean and Jody.
“Football is in our family and my wife is always thinking about how their teams are doing. On a Saturday she can be worrying about the results of four teams hoping they all win! Gwen is a huge support to all of us.
“I’m really looking forward to having Gwen, our children and grandchildren at the Euro finals in England in the summer. That’s going to be a big experience when the Northern Ireland women’s team play in their first major tournament. I want to do right by my team and do my job well so we have the best chance possible going into the matches. I also want the girls and their families to enjoy it and embrace the tournament in what will be a special time.”
Shiels was one of nine children for dad Roy and mum Elizabeth to care for.
He talks about coming from a working class background, having an outside toilet and growing up inside a family circle filled with love.
“My father Roy was a great character. Everyone knew him in the village of Maghera. He loved football and ran a cross community team in the area. He brought people together, Catholics and Protestants, and I think I have that in me as well,” says Shiels.
“My mum was an inspiration to me growing up. She was my role model and there for us. She had to bring up nine children, eight boys and one girl, and our dinner would come out of the garden. We had a chicken farm, so we had chicken, eggs, carrots, beetroot, rhubarb and lots more. You name it, my mother made it. As a family we had good times.”
There was also heartbreak and devastation. In 1990 Kenny’s brother Dave was murdered by the IRA in a case of mistaken identity. Just four weeks earlier Dave and wife Gladys had a baby son, Steven.
Saving up to buy a house, they were living in a caravan when Dave, just 30, was killed in a hail of gunfire. Somehow Gladys, who sadly passed away in 2019, and Steven escaped death in the terrorist attack.
The dates of Steven’s birth and his brother’s death are forever etched in Kenny’s mind. He says: “I was number four in my family and Dave was number five so we were close. There were several IRA gunmen and they kept shooting and Dave was killed.
“There have been too many tragedies in Northern Ireland and like many other families ours was devastated by Dave’s death.
“I think about my brother Dave every day. It never goes away. We were numbed by it, there was sadness and disbelief at the time and strong feelings of hurt and being hard done by. It was horrific for everyone. You just have to try and go on the best you can.”
Shiels has done that carving out an eventful and extraordinary managerial career. He is far from finished.
“I have been in management now 36 years and I would like to keep going in management for another 14. I know that is a long time but I think for me with my enthusiasm and love for football it is possible,” he says.
“That would mean 50 years as a manager and then that would be enough. I don’t know if I will reach that number but we can give it a go. I love football now as much as I did when I started out. It’s like a drug to me.”