Meet Blaine McKenna, the Northern Irish coach making waves across continents

Meet Blaine McKenna, the Northern Irish coach making waves across continents

WHEN BLAINE MCKENNA saw a potential Football League career slip away shortly before taking his GCSEs, it would have been so easy for the then-teenager to wind up as just another statistic – one number in a sea of digits signifying the latest batch of wasted potential.

McKenna had a promising move lined up to a League Two club as a teenager until a bad injury left him sidelined. Like so many others, the dream of playing football at a professional level had been within touching distance only for disaster to strike. Unsurprisingly, as so often happens, the club moved on and McKenna was left to complete his exams and wonder what might have been.

“I’ve been kicking a ball from the age I could walk so I’ve always loved football. I wanted to be a player, but I broke my ankle just before my GCSE exams when I was supposed to be going to a League Two club in England,” McKenna tells These Football Times. “Everything happens for a reason. The club didn’t call me back and I couldn’t train so all I could do was study, which I didn’t have much interest in previously as all I wanted to do was a be a player.”

The pondering about ‘what if’ only lasted a brief time because he was soon on the hunt for other avenues into the beautiful game. Coaching beckoned in lieu of a place in the game as a player – and the young McKenna seized the opportunity with both hands. Experience with the likes of Greenisland FC and Larne Youth in Northern Ireland, coaching their underage teams, helped him get a foothold in the game and gave him a humble grounding. “I never really knew [coaching] was a career until I went on work experience with the Irish Football Association when I was 15 and then went to coach in America and Canada during the summer after I’d finished my first year at university,” McKenna says.

A lot has happened in the interim. He has now visited 21 different countries, coaching in 10 of them across five continents and he is arguably the most well-travelled coach from the island of Ireland currently working the circuit today. McKenna’s influences extend from the figures who he learned from early on at Greenisland, all the way up to Brendan Rodgers and Pep Guardiola, so it makes sense that he has country-hopped, drinking in huge quantities of information in stints here and there.

Right now, McKenna is Academy Director at Ubon UMT United in Thai League 1, the top flight in the country, so it’s fair to say that things have turned out well for the Northern Ireland native.

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Steadily building a reputation for himself has not been easy, but he has been caching the eye from far and wide – he was briefly head-hunted to help the Pohnpei-led drive to make Micronesia become FIFA’s 212th member before his Thailand adventure came calling – and with age very much on his side there is no telling what McKenna could go on to achieve in the next few years.

Having travelled far and wide, McKenna has been gleaning as much varied experience as possible in developing and emerging football nations like New Zealand where he worked as a head of coach development, in China and Malawi as a coach educator, and in Kuwait as a coach at Arsenal’s soccer school. Those sorts of obscure destinations have been the springboard for so many of the game’s top coaches, and they offer a football education that is sadly misunderstood and underappreciated across the board.

The circuit he has been working for the last few years is not a smooth one to gain experience on, and it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Perseverance, persistence and dedicated daring are needed in plentiful amounts to firstly win the sort of experience that McKenna is getting and secondly make the most of it. “Working abroad can be very uncomfortable at times as you face many challenges and can often feel very isolated,” says McKenna honestly. “China was the most difficult initially as the culture was so alien to what I’d been used to, despite living in the Middle East before my move there. I ended up in hospital towards the end of my time there which was difficult as usually your family would generally look after you during tough times, but I had to fend for myself which isn’t easy when you’re in a lot of pain.”

Football is a team game and that identity has helped make it a universal pursuit that can unite people unlike any other sport, but McKenna’s realistic depiction of life on the road in foreign landscapes surrounded by unfamiliar people and cultures that are rarely easy to adapt to is a reminder of the discipline that is needed before the rewards of companionship and camaraderie can be reaped.

Then, of course, there are the practical obstacles that accompany everyday life as a coach in a country where no-one speaks your language – and mastering the native tongue is not an easy feat to accomplish in a short amount of time. “At the moment the biggest issue is language as only one coach and one player in the [Ubon UMT] academy speak English. I spend most days alone or surrounded by people who can’t speak English, which can be a pretty lonely time until I get to the pitch with my translator.

“I once told a staff member, in Thai, that I was going for lunch at two o’ clock and he thought I meant there was a session at two. When I got back they were setting up and I was like, ‘what’s going on?’ With the players, we use trigger words which stem from our playing model. The translator explains the words to the players to ensure they know what’s required when I use it.”

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McKenna explains that an added challenge of coaching in testing environments is learning how to deal with people, how to impart your well-thought-out ideas and how to influence the culture of a club that has its own identity and its own ideas about football. “Convincing people your approach is the right away despite the fact it goes against the belief they’ve held their entire lives is a big challenge when working abroad. It’s possible but you also have to respect their beliefs and realise the process takes time to get that buy-in. There are some instances you have to accept that it’s not possible and you have to manage the situation in the best way you can.”

Coaches get labelled pragmatists and philosophers all the time, but McKenna is certainly deserving of the titles and his experience belies his age. Had his playing days extended long enough, the County Derry native would now be coming into his peak years, but coaching extends him a much longer lease of life so he can flesh out his strategies.

As mentioned, building a credible reputation is certainly what any budding top coach wants to achieve, but with McKenna, I get the impression that it’s a sheer love for the idiosyncrasies and nuances of the game that motivates him on top of that. Attempting to impart his own unique ideas might not be an easily accomplished task all the time, but it’s clear that he is trying to implement them because he believes in them – and because he feels they will ultimately benefit the over-arching performance of whatever club he happens to be working in.

His passion resonates in his answers, but more evidently in the endurance behind the scenes; the long hours of travel on the road and through crowded airports, the fatiguing days and the hard work without the headlines.

“It has been a great experience working for Ubon UMT United. It has been very challenging but that’s exactly what I need at this stage of my career. I have a lot more responsibility here which has really accelerated my development. Typically, I’m in the office during the day where I’ve been working on different projects such as the club’s first ever philosophy, academy-wide curriculums, developing school and community projects, scheduling academy activities, recruitment and general all-round academy planning. Then the evening is spent at the pitch leading sessions for one of our Thai Youth League teams. We’ve just managed to secure the funding to start an under-19 team which will bridge the gap that currently exists between the under-17 and first team.”

Shaping a club’s philosophy must not be an easy task but it is key in coaching. McKenna has already been part of a massive improvement at Ubon UMT’s academy, having played a vital role in transforming the mindset there. When he arrived there were only three staff and a helter-skelter age classification, whereas now there are 14 full-time staff and improvements have been made in a few age brackets, not least their under-19s, which attracted almost 1,500 hopefuls to a recent trial – so I’m interested to hear more about the sort of values has McKenna been busy working into the fabric of Ubon UMT.

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“Setting a club-wide philosophy was the first objective I was set by the hierarchy at the club,” he says. “We’re big believers in a person-centred approach and that better people make better players. Having a positive environment which encourages creativity, decision-making, risk-taking, hard work and discipline is key for the type of player and person we aim to develop. We like our teams to be really positive and to take control of games.

“We aim to play from the goalkeeper, through the thirds when the opposition are organised. One of our principles is being really aggressive in transition by playing forward upon winning the ball in positive transition and by pressing to immediately get it back in negative transition. Out of possession we still aim to control the game through setting traps and making them play into areas we want to enable us to press and get the ball back as soon as possible.”

The tactics McKenna has been tasked with infusing into the club are reminiscent of gegenpressing, the tactical phenomenon which has captured all sorts of headlines through figures like Arrigo Sacchi and Jürgen Klopp, but it’s the mention of a combination of creativity, risk-taking and a person-centric roll-out that catches the eye.

It would be easy for any coach or academy director to fall into the trap of stubbornly pursuing their own philosophies at the expense of results and falling foul of the powers-that-be ahead of them in the pecking order. However, McKenna seems to have found a delicate balance to the process. Injecting a strong sense of humanity into the mix, he is also pursuing sensible means that should reap rewards over time.

Although his sights are firmly fixed on the here and now, McKenna certainly has big aspirations for the future and a move away from youth football could become a reality in the future. It’s perhaps no coincidence that McKenna, who cruelly missed out on a playing career as a teenager, is now helping youngsters improve their craft – the trajectory of his career ought to offer hope to anyone who has been cast aside by the beautiful game as an aspiring young footballer that there are other possibilities.

So, what about the future for McKenna? “Coaching in the senior game, at the top level had never really appealed to me, as I love developing young people, but being up close with the professional game in Asia has made me rethink this. I’ve always had a passion for coach education which is why I moved to China originally so that’s definitely something I’ll look at in the future.” 

By Trevor Murray  

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