Paddy Kenny: Setting the record straight on drugs ban & Sheff Utd exit
The life of a professional footballer rarely lends itself to quiet contemplation. Results and performances are what matter – the heat of battle and the roar of the crowd. As soon as one game finishes, preparations for the next immediately begin. There is little chance to stop and reflect.
That situation soon changes in retirement. Many former players find themselves at a loose end, having lost their identity and sense of purpose. Too much time on their hands and not enough to fill it with.
Since leaving football behind, Paddy Kenny has started his own transport business and come to appreciate the freedom of weekends without a game. He’s also looked back over his life and career in great depth while writing his autobiography, The Gloves are Off.
The process made him appreciate quite how much he achieved against the odds.
“To think I was rejected at 15 and didn’t even have a proper, full-time goalkeeper coach until I was 25, to play for my country and get to the Premier League and play over 600 career games was amazing,” Kenny says.
“Sometimes you don’t realise until you start doing something like this and think, ‘Wow, I’ve had an amazing career.’ For the cards I was dealt, I’ve done unbelievably and I’m a lucky boy.”
‘I was just cuddly, that’s all!’
Kenny’s journey to the top started with rejection. As a youngster, he was told by his local club Halifax Town that he was too small to make it as a goalkeeper.
Determined to prove them wrong, he persevered. He was playing part-time in non-league while working as an engineer when his prospects suddenly changed.
“Luckily enough, I was in the right place at the right time and got spotted playing for Bradford Park Avenue,” he says. “Neil Warnock was actually watching a striker from the other team, but he’d also heard about me.
“He came to watch the match and fortunately I had a good game, and they took me on trial. I never looked back from that point. It was a dream to become a professional.”
Stepping up to the Football League, comments about his weight became commonplace, but Kenny never let them dent his confidence. “I was just cuddly, that’s all!” he laughs.
“I used to get all the grief from the fans, but I tried using it as something to help me perform. Rather than let it affect me, I used it as an incentive for me to go and prove them wrong.
“‘Call me what you want, I’m a professional footballer. I’m out on the pitch, you’re watching the match.’ I’d play along with it and have a bit of banter with the crowd over it as well.”
Working with Warnock
Joining Bury in 1998 was the start of a long, productive and sometimes turbulent relationship with Neil Warnock that shaped Kenny’s career. They linked up at five different clubs and enjoyed two promotions together.
A mutual understanding developed over the years, surviving many controversies and disagreements.
“I obviously had a good relationship with him,” Kenny says. “Sometimes we’d fight like cat and dog, but we both knew that if we had a big argument on the Saturday, whether it was about a goal or whatever, it was because we both wanted to win.
“He’d drop me a text, or I’d drop him a text. We’d turn up on Monday morning and it would be forgotten about.
“I spoke to him when I signed for Leeds, and I said, ‘Why do you keep signing me?’ He just said, ‘Well, I know where I stand with you. I know I might have a little bit of trouble off the pitch with you sometimes, but I know what I’m going to get every week. You’re performing and you’re never going to let me down.’
“I haven’t got a bad word to say about him. He was unbelievable for me throughout my career. He’s proved over the years how good a manager he is, with all the promotions he’s got.
“I just think the way he is with people – how he deals with them on the pitch and off the pitch with their personal lives – his man-management is so important. That’s a key part of what he’s got.”
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Warnock was famously blunt with his players and Kenny always appreciated his honesty. Both boisterous, headstrong characters who were more than willing to speak their mind, their bond was cemented at Bramall Lane.
After a few near misses, the Republic of Ireland international was ever-present as Sheffield United reached the Premier League in 2006.
“We had a strong, solid squad. There were no bad eggs. Everyone got on,” he says. “Obviously, it was everyone’s goal to get to the Premier League and play, but it was different.
“Your mentality had to change because you’d gone from winning week in, week out to getting your head around the fact that chances are you’ll lose most of the time. You’ve got to deal with that, and obviously the pace of the game is totally different. It’s a lot quicker.”
Despite their best efforts, the Blades were relegated on goal difference after losing at home to Wigan Athletic on the last day. The Premier League’s decision not to deduct West Ham United any points for breaching third-party ownership rules when signing Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano left a bitter taste.
“It was disappointing because it was in our own hands two games from the end and we lost them both. Under the circumstances, it hurt with what went on with West Ham, but there was nothing we could do about that as players.
“It was up to us to try and do it on the pitch, but unfortunately we didn’t.”
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Nine months out
While on holiday in the summer of 2009, shortly after suffering a play-off final defeat to Burnley, Kenny found out that he’d tested positive for ephedrine, a stimulant found in an over-the-counter cough medicine he’d taken.
He didn’t realise how serious his mistake would be, until handed a nine-month ban by the FA.
“It all came out that I’d got done for drugs. To this day I still get asked, ‘Were you off your tits?’ But I got done for negligence, that’s the difference.
“I got found not guilty for cheating because it was a genuine mistake, but I got done for negligence because I should have known what I was taking, and it was my responsibility. It was a difficult time in my life. Luckily enough, Sheffield United stood by me, which was great of them.”
Under the terms of his ban, Kenny had to train away from the club and wasn’t allowed to attend games. Being isolated from the rest of the squad was tough to deal with, but he was determined to come back and prove himself again.
He returned for the final two games of the season, keeping clean sheets in both, before leaving under a cloud.
After eight years and more than 300 appearances for Sheffield United, Kenny was reunited with Warnock at QPR. It was construed as an act of betrayal as he went from fan favourite to pantomime villain almost overnight in South Yorkshire.
‘I wanted to put a few things straight’
Kenny was accused of deserting a club that had backed him throughout his ban, but he feels that supporters never got to hear his side of the story.
“When I did leave, I was gutted,” he says. This is part of the reason why I wanted to do my book. There are a few things I wanted to get off my chest. I wanted to put a few things straight.
“When I got banned, they gave me a new contract. It cut my wages in half, which I couldn’t argue about. I was lucky to still have a job. But they put a £750,000 buyout clause in my contract, which I found really strange.
“Over the summer there were three clubs – QPR, Ipswich and Bristol City – who activated the buyout clause. I felt that I wasn’t wanted at Sheffield United anymore.
“They told me they were bringing Steve Simonsen in on a free, on less wages, and he had Premier League experience. I basically felt like I wasn’t wanted.”
Kenny believes that he hit top form at QPR, particularly during a title-winning first season inspired by the enigmatic Adel Taarabt.
“He was the best player I played with. He was an unbelievable player. It was hard as a team-mate because sometimes he wouldn’t come into training or he couldn’t be arsed.
“It was difficult at times, but we knew we had to put up with it because he was going to be the difference between us getting promoted or not. When he was at it, he was unplayable.”
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While Taarabt showed occasional flashes of brilliance in the Premier League, Kenny was consistent. He remained first choice as QPR survived by the narrowest of margins, despite losing to Sergio Aguero’s famous injury-time goal at Manchester City on the final day of the season.
An influx of new signings followed, and Kenny was one of those forced to make way.
“I basically got told that if I didn’t leave when I got the chance to go to Leeds then I’d be training three times a day, seven days a week, with the kids,” he says. “I basically got threatened with that, which was disappointing after a couple of amazing years there.
“It just shows you that sometimes football has its horrible side. I know a lot of players get hammered for the way they leave clubs but, obviously, it works both ways.”
Life at Elland Road was characterised by uncertainty and instability.
“When I was there it wasn’t a good place to be around. We had owners who were swapping and changing all the time. Sometimes we didn’t get paid.
“You had that feeling around the training ground that the staff, in my opinion, always seemed to be happier when you’d lost rather than when you’d won. It was just a strange place to be.”
— EFL (@EFL) October 2, 2019
Although Kenny never officially retired, after short stints as a back-up goalkeeper at several clubs, including Bolton Wanderers and Rotherham United, he drifted away from the professional game and moved on with the next stage of his life. He continues to do some one-to-one coaching in his spare time while focusing on work and family.
Throughout a remarkable career, Kenny was exposed to the full range of emotions – highs and lows, joy and despair, acclaim and criticism.
For someone in his position, where errors are so costly, he recognises that there’s a particularly fine line to tread between the two. Pressure and scrutiny are unavoidable.
“You’re in a lonely, lonely place when you’re in that goal, and if you make a mistake it can be a tough thing to take,” he says. “You’ve got to be a strong character, I think, to be a goalkeeper.
“Obviously, it comes with diving at people’s feet and having shots blasted at you from close range. You’ve got to be a bit of a madhead to want to do that in the first place.”
Kenny remains grateful for the harsh lessons that football taught him, even in its sometimes unthinking cruelty.
“Football made me a stronger person. I can deal with a lot of things and don’t let things bother me as much. I got a lot of grief through my career, but it toughened me up.
“People can say what they want and slag me off, things like that don’t affect me in life. Football’s taught me to deal with things like that and just move on.”
By Sean Cole