It’s Kenny vs Lenny as Kilmarnock take on Celtic
They were both born in Northern Ireland, but for two men about to go head-to-head in a key Scottish Premier League clash tonight, that’s where the similarities begin and end.
Neil Lennon will lead Celtic into battle with Kenny Shiels’ Kilmarnock at Rugby Park and while they will meet on a level footing in terms of the division they are playing in, their routes to the top flight of Scottish football have been very different.
While one spent his entire playing career in the upper echelons of the English and Scottish games, captaining the club he loved as a boy, winning numerous honours and costing a total of £7 million in transfer fees, the other never left Northern Ireland and spent quite a bit of time performing in intermediate divisions.
Lennon fulfiled all his dreams as a player. He signed for Manchester City straight after leaving St Michael’s Grammar School in Lurgan and although he had to wait for another 12 years, his biggest wish came true in 2002 when Martin O’Neill took him to Celtic, four years after the midfielder had joined him at Leicester City.
Playing wise, Shiels’ career was largely disappointing. He missed out on major honours, being dropped from the Ballymena United team for the 1984 Irish Cup final, with short-term signing Michael Ring being preferred in the victory over Carrick Rangers.
While Lennon was enjoying the halcyon days of his playing career, winning 10 trophies at Parkhead, including five league titles and captaining the club in the latter stages of his stay, Shiels was rebuilding his managerial career, first with Moyola Park, Ballymena United and then Larne.
He’d been sacked by Coleraine in 1999 having earlier led the club into the Premier League after missing the cut when the top flight of Northern Ireland football was reduced by half, from 16 teams to eight in 1995. Immediately after returning to the top flight the Bannsiders finished second in the league, pushing Crusaders all the way in the title race and qualifying for Europe after a 10-year absence.
Shiels was unable to hit those heights again, but his coaching style won admirers and he was appointed by the Irish FA to manage the Northern Ireland under-17 team, which he did successfully, qualifying for the 2004 European Championship finals with a squad that included Kyle Lafferty, and Jonathan Tuffey.
His ability with young players won Shiels a post at Tranmere Rovers, before Mixu Paatelainen invited him to be his number two at Kilmarnock, with Shiels now in caretaker charge after the boss quit to take charge of Finland.
Away from the pitch and the dugout, instantly recognisable Lennon — who became Celtic boss 13 months ago after Tony Mowbray was sacked — has suffered physical assaults when out in Glasgow.
Shiels could take a dander down Sauchiehall Street without a single eyebrow being raised.
None of what has gone on in the past will matter come 7.45pm in Ayrshire though.
Kilmarnock have won plaudits for their style of football this season. Regularly they have been praised for the way they play the game and Shiels will maintain that approach.
A win tonight would go a long way to securing the Kilmarnock job on a permanent basis and then the common ground between him and Lennon will be easier to find.