Outside the manager’s office hangs a large framed print of Sir Bobby Robson smiling as he cradles the UEFA Cup and reminding Kieran McKenna each time he opens his door of the footsteps he follows.
Around the corner, another image features Robson’s wonderful team packed with talent and the familiar faces of legends such as Terry Butcher, John Wark and Mick Mills.
Forty years have passed since these glorious times and not everyone finds it useful to cling to the past, but McKenna politely declined the chance to have the photographs taken down when appointed Ipswich Town boss.
‘It’s the reason we are playing in front of a full house at Portman Road,’ said McKenna, who, having graduated through the coaching ranks of Tottenham and Manchester United, will appreciate the power of history when harnessed properly.
‘It’s the reason we have been taken over by ambitious American owners. It’s because of the success, and the managers and players who have been through here. They have shown the potential, what this club can do and where it can get to when it’s all going in the right direction.
‘It’s the reason I’m here, the reason the players are here. Everyone has the hunger to bring the club back to the highest level and we have to embrace it, take pride in the past while knowing we have to move forward, modernise all areas.’
Ipswich, finally, are stirring. They have languished outside the Premier League for 20 years and are embarking upon their fourth successive season in League One but hope has been rekindled since a US-based consortium called Gamechanger 20 bought the club in April last year.
They have invested in new players and sit top after nine games, still unbeaten as they prepare for Sunday’s clash at third-placed Plymouth Argyle, and their 36-year-old manager is earning a fine reputation.
The Northern Irishman was linked with the vacancy at Brighton before they opted for Roberto De Zerbi to succeed Graham Potter.
‘It hasn’t felt like a big step,’ McKenna told Sportsmail, 10 months into his first managerial role. ‘It was always the goal from the start of my coaching career at 22. I had the path from that moment and pretty much wrote it down and discussed it. The end goal was always to move into management. As a lead coach at big academies, you are managing players and staff, and building your playing style. A lot of the roles are similar and you develop confidence.
‘I’ve had the exposure at Manchester United, the biggest club in the world, with world-class players in the latter stages of the Champions League and upper echelons of the Premier League.
‘Coming to Ipswich as a manager for the first time, you are in front of the media and the face of the club at times, but day-to-day it’s felt very similar and very natural. It feels like the right time, with the right preparation behind me. I feel fully ready for everything that’s coming my way.’ McKenna’s coaching career began on crutches when a second major operation on a chronic hip problem ended a promising playing career at Spurs, where he made his way through the youth ranks with Jamie O’Hara, now on talkSPORT, and reality TV star Mark Wright.
‘That age group have done better in the media than we did on the pitch,’ smiled McKenna.
But when he finished playing at Tottenham, he found immediate support and encouragement from academy bosses Alex Inglethorpe, now Liverpool’s academy director, and John McDermott, now the FA’s technical director. They invited him to start his coaching journey in the academy until he left for three years to study sports science at Loughborough University, during which time he coached the university teams and Nottingham Forest’s Under 10s and Under 11s.
Summers were spent in the USA coaching a college team in New York, and in Canada at Vancouver Whitecaps he was involved from the Under 10s to first-team level. So by the time he returned to Spurs to coach the Under 18s and establish the club’s academy analysis department, McKenna boasted a wealth of experience.
In 2016, an approach to coach the Under 18s at Old Trafford was too good to turn down for a young man who grew up supporting Manchester United in County Fermanagh. Two years later, when Jose Mourinho’s long-serving assistant Rui Faria quit, he was promoted to the first-team staff and went on to fulfil a more prominent role under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and worked briefly with Ralf Rangnick until the move to Suffolk in December.
‘It was a great experience,’ said McKenna. ‘I was really proud at such a young age to be involved in some big victories against some of the best teams and best managers in the world.
‘There were big losses and disappointing days along the way but if you work at that level, every result is a fantastic win or an absolute crisis. The scrutiny is off the scale because it’s the most successful club in British football and the most widely supported worldwide.’
Solskjaer and Michael Carrick have been to Ipswich games to support McKenna, who has a strong former United presence running through his backroom team. Assistant manager Martyn Pert, first-team coach Lee Grant and head of recruitment Sam Williams are among those who followed him from Old Trafford to Portman Road.
‘I have my own goals, my own beliefs, my own values and I stick to them,’ said McKenna. ‘I have good contacts but I like to work with my own judgment, think things through and try to be authentic and true, and see where it takes me. Your journey in football is unique. You can’t plot it out. The best thing to do is to try and improve yourself, focus on the areas where you can get better, try to help the club you are at to develop and improve, play well and win games.
‘After that, football will take you where it takes you. The best thing to do is try to enjoy that journey.’
At Ipswich, they hope it can take them back into the Premier League. ‘I’ve enjoyed working at that level and it’s somewhere I feel comfortable,’ said McKenna. ‘It’s certainly an aspiration to manage at that level and something I feel I’m capable of.
‘The ownership group want the club back in the Premier League. That’s their stated goal and that filters down. It’s a fantastic ambition, one we all share, but it’s the fourth season for Ipswich in League One without being anywhere close to a serious promotion push so everyone is well grounded in the realities of how difficult this league is.
‘There’s no guarantees that because you are Ipswich Town or Derby County or because you have history and a big supporter base you will win games. It’s going to be nothing other than hard work that gets us there.’