The Kennedy Conundrum
Ireland's 1986 tour of Iceland brought their first trophy, but ended an international career
It is not altogether impossible that some football followers are unaware that Iceland hosted a triangular international tournament in late May 1986 that featured the host nation, Czechoslovakia and the Republic of Ireland. If only Robbie Keane had played in it: he, to be sure, would have celebrated Ireland's victory ostentatiously enough to ensure the whole planet recalled it rather than that trifling World Cup that kicked off in Mexico four days later. Could Diego Maradona even do a cartwheel?
Still, many folks in Ireland do remember the Iceland tournament even though it was not televised in the country, where there is not even any photographic record of the only international competition that Ireland won until prevailing this summer in the inaugural Carling Nations Cup. The tournament, which came after Jack Charlton's first two matches as manager ended in a defeat by Wales and a draw with Uruguay, both in home friendlies, is remembered principally for two things: for being the testing ground for the radical tactical overhaul that Charlton would use to frogmarch in a golden era of Irish relevance on the global stage; and for being the catalyst for a clash between Charlton and David O'Leary, which led to one of the country's most gifted players being controversially left in international exile for almost two years (which would, of course, make his shootout-winning penalty kick against Romania in the 1990 World Cup all the more redemptive).
There was, however, another clash on that trip, which led to another player being cast into an international exile from which he was never recalled. The Blizzard is pleased to be the first publication to reveal the extraordinary details of this long-neglected footnote.
Charlton alludes to it in his 1996 autobiography (entitled, in trademark no-nonsense fashion, Jack Charlton: the Autobiography). "Mick Kennedy had a reputation for being a wild boy — some of his tackles had to be seen to be believed — but he could also play a bit. And when I found myself short of left-sided players, I had no hesitation putting him in. I reckoned he was doing quite well in the game against the Czechs until he put in a ferocious tackle that on a bigger occasion might well have lead to a riot. The ball was there to be won but Kennedy, not holding back, went in with his elbow to catch the player right in the mouth… I visited the Czech dressing room afterwards and their manager was enraged. He called over this player whose teeth were in a right mess, with his teeth all knocked. Instinct tells me to defend my own players but I had seen something I didn't like. Kennedy never played for Ireland again."
It's true that Kennedy never played for Ireland again — the two caps he got in the Iceland tournament were his lot, although Charlton did call him into the squad a couple more times. Which, rather than a lapse of moral rectitude, should be seen as quite courageous given the surely terrifying late-night apparition that Charlton saw before leaving Iceland.
But wait: this Kennedy character needs to be properly introduced. Born in Salford to Irish parents, he did not grow into an especially big man, but he was certainly an intimidating one. Lean and dark-haired, he was similar in appearance to Roy Keane, but a lot more foul-tempered. And foul-happy. He first came to the attention of Charlton when the latter went back to Middlesbrough for a brief second spell as manager in 1984. Kennedy had come to the attention of referees long before that: indeed, he had been sent off on his debut for Middlesbrough, whom he had joined from Huddersfield Town in 1982 at the age of 21. He spent most of his career in the lower leagues and fans of Stoke, Luton Town, Bradford and Portsmouth doubtless recall him as one of the most reckless players ever to wear their shirts, the sort of midfielder whose performances might more appropriately be commentated upon by Danny Dyer than John Motson. Indeed, he might quite like that.
In 1987 Kennedy, having just helped Portsmouth to promotion to the top-flight, was fined £5,000 by the FA for bringing football into disrepute after telling a local newspaper, "I'm the hardest man in football and I'm proud of it." Luton fans still talk about the time, two years later, that he spent most of a match against Wimbledon swapping digs and kicks with John Fashanu (who had a black belt in karate but, as Gary Mabbutt could testify, sometimes struggled to control his elbows) before the pair eventually got bored of the pretence of playing football and just launched into a full-on fight, which led to Kennedy being sent off and Fashanu being substituted through injury. Kennedy, then, was not a nice player to be pitted against.
It is one of the ironies of Charlton's nine-year reign as Republic manager that although his style of play was regularly decried as barbaric and rugbyesque by opponents, the only Irish player ever to be sent off in a competitive match under him was Liam Brady, the artful midfielder whom Charlton was criticised for spurning. The dismissal, for a retaliatory swipe at Ayan Sadkov, came against Bulgaria in the Republic's last group game of the Euro 88 qualifiers and Brady's subsequent ban gave Charlton the perfect excuse to omit him from the Euro 88 squad, ensuring he would only have midfielders who obeyed his instructions not to seek passes from defenders and instead concentrate on penning opponents deep into their own territory after the Irish full-backs had launched the ball in behind them. Kennedy would have done this with relish, which is one of the reasons Charlton selected him.
The other reason Charlton turned to Kennedy was that he did not have many other options. The Liverpool trio of Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan and Jim Beglin did not go to Iceland because their club refused to release them from an end-of-season jolly (English clubs' disdain for the interests of the Irish team had long hampered the country and was one of the main reasons why the FAI had sought to appoint an Englishman as manager, thinking he would have more success liberating players, especially for competitive games, to which clubs, back then, were not obliged to let them go. It should be noted that although this had been a problem for Ireland for decades, and was especially pronounced, coincidentally or otherwise, during the IRA's bombing campaign of the 1970s, the FAI did not do much to convince English clubs that the players were in good hands, particularly when they arranged a tour to South America, including a game in Argentina, in 1982, at the height of the Falklands War). So the Liverpool trio were out. O'Leary was called up in place of Lawrenson but declined on the grounds that he had already booked a family holiday — the reason Charlton shunned him for two years — and Kennedy was called up to fill the gap on the left of midfield, where, in addition to Beglin (who was primarily a left-back anyway), Ireland had lost Kevin Sheedy to injury.
So Kennedy got his first cap in the opening game of the tournament, against Iceland. "I was shitting a brick," he recalls now, before explaining that his nerves were slightly soothed by the fact that the player being deployed in central midfield seemed even more panic-stricken. This was the match in which Charlton first stationed Paul McGrath in midfield rather than in defence. McGrath, of course, would become the unshakable anchor of the Irish midfield for years to come. "I can remember Paul McGrath coming up to me before the game and saying, ‘You're going have to help me, I've never fuckin' played here in my life'," says Kennedy. "I just said, ‘You'll be all right' — and he fuckin' was."
McGrath, in fact, was superb, and even opened the scoring in the match with a close-range volley in the first-half. Arnor Gudjohsen — the father of Eidur — equalised for the hosts before the break but Ireland won thanks to a goal that followed a Kennedy corner; after it was cleared to the edge of the box, the ball was fired back into the net by Gerry Daly, the former Manchester United player who by then was at Shrewsbury Town.
The Czechoslovakia game came two days later. John Aldridge missed a penalty in it, but that was insignificant, as, apparently, was the fact that one of the most deadly predators in Europe went 20 games before scoring an international goal; under Charlton's masterplan his primary job was to harrass opponents into conceding corners. Kennedy, having started the first match, came on against Czechoslovakia as a half-time substitute for Newcastle's John Anderson. He hit the post with a long-range shot soon afterwards. That did not get a mention in any of the contemporary match reports in Ireland, from where very few journalists were sent to cover the game. The reports made no reference, either, to the tackle on Dukla Prague's Milan Luhový in the 56th minute, the tackle that so appalled Charlton, a man who during his own playing days had been reprimanded by the FA for publicly claiming to keep a little black book of players who had wronged him and were, therefore, deserving of retribution. Could Kennedy's tackle really have been as shocking and gruesome as Charlton suggested in his book?
"Well, I can say hand on heart that I went for the ball — it's just that I caught him with my elbow. And what made it worse is that his actual tooth stuck in my elbow. I wouldn't mind but it was a big one, like a fuckin' horse's tooth. I suppose that if that happened in the Premier League now, they'd have a fuckin' field day over it — the fuckin' cameras would be right on top of it."
As it happened, Kennedy bumped into his victim at a banquet after the match, which ended 1-0 thanks to an 83rd-minute strike by Frank Stapleton. "Two or three of their lads came in. Gerry Daly went up to the guy and said, ‘Here, do you want some soup' — because the fucker had no tooth! I thought that was hilarious and everyone was laughing. Jack was walking past at the time and he turned to me and said, ‘You're a fucking disgrace.'"
Over the years many people have surely given Kennedy a tongue-lashing. Few, you suspect, have not suffered reprisals. What followed was not as violent as it might have been, but certainly explains why Charlton did not feel like awarding Kennedy any further caps. "His comment kind of bounced off everyone at the time, no one really got a grasp of it," explains Kennedy. "But when I sat back down I thought ‘I'm not having this.' So later I went up to reception and said, ‘Tell me Jack's room number.' It was 4am but I didn't care. I went up and walloped his door. He got up and told me to come in. I immediately said, ‘Don't you ever fuckin' talk to me like that again.' He just turned off the light and got back into bed. So I fucked off."
When Charlton was starting out on his managerial career, Jock Stein gave him a piece of advice. He said that the first thing a manager should do when he takes over a team is organise an away trip. "That's where you find out what people are really like," explained Stein. It is implicit, perhaps, that the second thing a manager should do is make sure he doesn't go on another trip with certain people.
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