Engage your audience: how Stephen Kenny is already succeeding where Martin O'Neill failed

By
PADDY O’DEA

This article appeared on The42 on 28 November 2018.


MARTIN O'NEILL.jpg

Exactly a week ago today, Martin O’Neill’s five-year reign as Republic of Ireland football manager came to an abrupt end.  Yes, the football was unpretty, the goals scarce, and the possession stats less than flattering, but with time and distance, O’Neill’s time as Ireland boss will be judged as one of the more successful in Ireland’s football history, despite the modest playing personnel. 

Like all recent break-ups, the wounds are still very raw, and media and fans will continue to pick over the bones of his contribution to Irish football for some days to come.  In the meantime, the FAI has moved swiftly to appoint Mick McCarthy as O’Neill’s short-term replacement, with Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny to succeed him in 2020.  

In his time as the Republic of Ireland manager, O’Neill led the team to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and numerous other unlikely victories along the way.  However, despite his (qualified) successes, O’Neill was generally received by the Irish public with a begrudging respect but rarely love or affection. Why was this?

If one was to trace this ‘unloved’ relationship back to the beginning, O’Neill’s strained interactions with Irish media, and more specifically, his irritable post-match interviews with RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue serve as a compelling starting point.  Win, lose or draw, their on-air interactions were typically sniping and unpleasant affairs. They succeeded only in undermining some of O’Neill’s greatest nights in the job and providing further ammunition for many of his most difficult.

Yes, media, as is their wont, frequently attached too much weight to what was said in these cantankerous exchanges, but it all fed into a narrative that Martin O’Neill believed Ireland were lucky to have him and therefore saw himself to be beyond reproach.  From day one, O’Neill demonstrated little visible joy for the role and too often, his failure to engage with media felt like a failure to engage with fans.  Tony O’Donoghue may be only one journalist but he was also O’Neill’s primary means of communicating with the general public.  His refusal to talk tactics publicly led fans to believe there were no tactics, and O’Neill felt under no obligation to correct this perception.     

An old-school football man

O’Neill’s counter-productive media performances weren’t limited to post-match interviews on RTÉ either. 

O’Neill and Keane both featured as part of ITV’s star-studded World Cup 2018 punditry team.  Post play-off defeat to Denmark, Irish media and ex-players were beginning to question O’Neill’s ‘old-school’ footballing philosophies and ponder whether he was the right man to lead the team forward. 

UK audiences may have been content to watch O’Neill trade in-studio banter and talk in nebulous terms about ‘courage’ and ‘character’.  Irish viewers, on the other hand, were seeking reassurance that O’Neill was indeed a student of the game capable of concocting a fresh blueprint for the national team.  Sadly, the evidence wasn’t forthcoming.  Instead, O’Neill came across as an acerbic if entertaining old-school ‘football man’ whose agricultural footballing worldview was formed many decades ago, and wasn’t for changing. 

Some will argue that a manager is entitled to say whatever he wants to media provided he is delivering results on the pitch.  However, all but the most stubborn of sports personalities (and politicians and chief executives for that matter) recognise that keeping the media onside is part of the job spec, and for very good reason.  One only has to look to England manager Gareth Southgate’s charm offensive with the English media to see this in action. 

As far back as 2003, then Manchester United captain Roy Keane took Alex Ferguson to task over the unwelcome pressure brought upon the club by Ferguson’s very public legal battle with JP McManus and John Magnier over racehorse Rock of Gibraltar.

I told him that I didn’t think it was good for the club, the manager in a legal dispute with shareholders.

Roy Keane, the player, understood that unwelcome attention off the pitch had an ability to bring unwelcome pressure on the pitch.  

STEPHEN KENNY.jpg

Stephen Kenny: a student of the game

Contrast O’Neill’s spiky and defensive soundbites with an interview given by Stephen Kenny to Emmet Malone in The Irish Times last Friday.  Kenny, whose football achievements pale in comparison to O’Neill’s, understood his audience and their appetite for a fresh and discernible footballing philosophy.

He also knew he was a relatively unknown quantity outside of League of Ireland circles.  He strategically sought to utilise The Irish Times interview as an opportunity to preempt and address the potential shortcomings in his CV and position himself as an erudite student of the game, one with a clear vision for how it should be played. 

Kenny talked in emphatic terms about building “a really cohesive team” capable of playing “a more European style of play”.  He discussed earning his players’ respect “on the training ground every day with [his] level of preparation and attention to detail”.  In doing so, he was subliminally referencing all the areas many thought O’Neill to be lacking. 

When O’Neill repeatedly countered any criticism of Irish performances by pointing to the lack of quality or absence of a ‘Robbie Keane’, Kenny sought to accentuate the positives and educate his audience on his own record of playing a positive brand of football against superior opposition:

Every time we went up against a top European team [with Dundalk] I could have said ‘okay, right, they have better players, let’s just look to keep it tight then hope that we nick something’ but we always looked to do much more than that and the people who were at the matches related to that.

Furthermore, at a time when football fans are being exposed to increasingly sophisticated and exhaustive tactical analysis via the likes of Gary Neville at Sky Sports, Jonathan Wilson in The Guardian, and others in The42, the Second Captains podcast, and Newstalk Off The Ball, Kenny relished the opportunity to deep dive into his own footballing blueprint with an influential sports journalist like Malone.  

In short, Kenny went into this interview with a very clear set of objectives and emerged out the other side with every box ticked.  The interview was also heavily referenced across the weekend’s sports media and won over many a ‘swing voter’.  Did the interview go some way toward advancing his case?  Probably. How much so, it’s impossible to say.

What is clear is that Kenny’s media strategy in the days immediately after O’Neill’s departure helped create a groundswell of support that saw him rise from highly regarded League of Ireland manager to the people’s choice for the Ireland job.  As many a seasoned politician will tell you, campaigns can be won or lost in those final 48 hours.  Kenny and his supporters demonstrated the necessary media nous to tap into the football zeitgeist and make it work in their favour.     

Failure to communicate or failure to evolve

Obviously, strong communication skills and a well-developed media strategy are only two elements of the job spec.  They certainly won’t increase a team’s possession stats or put the ball in the back of the net.  However, refusing to play the media game can make the dark days darker and trial by media all the more unforgiving.

O’Neill is clearly an individual of vast intelligence who boasts a playing and managerial career rich with achievement.  He, like anyone at the top of their industry, has had to grow and evolve throughout his career.  However, in recent years, his failure to communicate his footballing (and managerial) evolution has led many to question his capacity for evolution.  Furthermore, what leaked out of the dressing room and into the public domain offered little to suggest his ‘behind closed doors’ persona was any more sophisticated. 

O’Neill will be remembered as an old-school football man and master motivator whose sheer force of personality temporarily restored belief in Irish football.  However, a refusal to communicate his vision to media, and by extension, the football public, left many onlookers to view this football man, rightly or wrongly, as a football dinosaur.


PADDY O’DEA

Paddy is a Client Director at PR360.  He helps clients create engaging corporate stories, cut through the noise, and advance their business objectives.  He is most happy when buried under a pile of newsprint.