15 Aug 2022

The yin to Staunton's yang, former Dundalk and Newry defender Kenny Kearns 'wasted' his football ability


The yin to Staunton's yang, former Dundalk and Newry defender Kenny Kearns 'wasted' his football ability

While Steve Staunton went on to play 102 times for his country, including at three World Cups, Kenny Kearns lost interest.

Kenny Kearns was once the yin to Stephen Staunton’s yang. A left-back that acted as the line of defence behind a swashbuckling colleague with whom he would room whenever their Leinster Youths team were on duty. But while Staunton went on to play 102 times for his country, including at three World Cups, Kearns lost interest.

It may seem crude, but that’s the long and the short of it. Manchester United and Glasgow Celtic were among the British giants to have taken an interest amid his Newry Town career, though he clearly lacked something for them not to pursue a deal, and it wasn’t ability.

“As soon as I stopped playing I even stopped looking at football; no interest in it whatsoever,” Kearns tells The Democrat.

“It wouldn’t bother me if I never saw football again. I’d barely even watch it on telly. I’d watch an odd European game, but I’d lose interest and probably switch it off after about 15 or 20 minutes.”

Democrat: “Was your ability and talent wasted?”

Kenny: “Yeah, definitely.”

Democrat: “And that doesn’t annoy you?”

Kenny: “Sometimes, but not really. I don’t let it annoy me. It was definitely wasted though.”

Knee injuries didn’t help and following a replacement of one last year, he’s awaiting the call to get his other leg dug into.

“If you haven’t got Lady Luck, you’ve no luck at all.”

True, but in Kearns’ case, and it’s not hard to detect, he didn’t find fulfilment in football. Why else would he have failed to realise the potential he had stored away?

His football journey began as a juvenile with Rangers under Gerry Gover and yet after his debut season, in which he won the player of the year award, he stepped away and didn’t play for several years, until his CBS friends got him roped into joining Quay Celtic. From there he would sign for Dundalk’s underage outfit, then the B- and first-team before lining out for Newry Town.

Four seasons and lots of promise and impressive displays later, he blew the full-time whistle.

“Overnight I just decided, ‘I’m not playing any more’. I hated training. You were coming home from work and you had to make your way down to training. I just hated it, training, and I completely lost interest in playing football.

“If it was now, training is far more interesting and you’re clean. When we were training, the old way of training, it was a ‘hape’ of laps, shuttles and a game of football; you’re mucked from head to toe from playing in a field. I didn’t want to go back to that.”

Kearns played thrice for Dundalk’s first-team prior to penning a deal with Newry, joining an ever-growing cohort of local lads at the Down club, Ollie Ralph, John Whyte, Willie Crawley, etc.

He was a prospect, having come off a provincial team which would provide a large quantity of future League of Ireland players, but with Martin Lawlor the established No3 at Oriel Park, opportunities were limited and Kearns, much to manager Turlough O’Connor’s displeasure, wasn’t prepared to hang about.

The Lilywhites wanted him to go to Finn Harps on-loan, to travel up with Dennis Cunningham and Tom McNulty, but he rejected the offer, as he did with Monaghan United’s proposal, in favour of going north.

“It suited me, a young fella, the furthest you had to go was Coleraine and you were home and back in Dundalk for seven o’clock on a Saturday night. You’d the whole weekend from there to yourself.

“In the League of Ireland, you had to stay in the whole weekend and on a Sunday, you were away the whole day; the weekend was gone. League of Ireland didn’t really suit me, to be honest.

“There were headlines in the ’paper with Turlough O’Connor giving out to the Newry manager for poaching all the Dundalk players. But I was the same as every other player, if you’re not playing first-team football you had to move on; if you hadn’t got a Dublin accent you didn’t get on.

“Martin Lawlor was the best left-full in the League of Ireland and so it was always going to be hard to get chances ahead of him, but I reckon I got an awful lot better when I got first-team opportunities with Newry.”

A member of the Dundalk Youths team that reached the FAI Cup final - an U17 side qualifying for the U18 competition’s decider - Kearns’ pedigree, of course, didn’t go unnoticed, even if he was sent-off in the aforementioned final. “I ‘ballsed’ it up,” he quips.

Ralph and Newry knew what they were taking across the border and until his hasty retirement in 1993, Kearns was one of the Irish League’s best full-backs.

Democrat: “Have you any stories?”

Kenny: “Not really, no.”

Democrat: “Nothing about the day when the Windsor Park folk weren’t best pleased.”

Kenny: “Haha. Who was telling you about that? It had to be Ollie Ralph, or Willie (Crawley), or John (Whyte).”

Democrat: “Well, I’ve interviewed all three!”

Kenny: “I know!”

Democrat: “Do you want to go into it?”

Kenny: “I forget really what happened. What did they tell you and I can confirm or deny it?”

Democrat: “Was there a corner being swung in - everybody was watching the ball, except you… You caught Lee Doherty, the Linfield legend, nicely with an elbow and nobody saw it?”

Kenny: “Well, no. It was the opposite way around. He caught me with an elbow just outside the box so I gave him a couple of thumps and kicks and that was that.”

Democrat: “And nobody saw it?”

Kenny: “No, but there was a big melee when he was lying on the ground; players from everywhere coming in, but it was all sorted.

“They were advertising Irish League football on UTV one time and it showed a clip of it. Now, if you’re advertising football, you don’t show a clip of fighting, do ya? But, thanks be to God, nobody knew it was me.”

Democrat: “Maybe they did?”

Kenny: “No. It was away in the distance and we’d our away jerseys on - black togs and yellow jerseys - so they wouldn’t even have known it was Newry Town, luckily enough!”

Democrat: “Going down into those venues, at a time of societal conflict, did it affect you in any way?”

Kenny: “No, never any hassle. After games in Windsor you could go up and have a drink and you were always welcome. And sure I marked Dessie Gorman in Windsor and he was a hero down there; they loved him.

“But I remember playing Linfield in Newry and there were riots; jeeps coming from everywhere and that time you were boxed in with railings. There were tri-colours one side and Union Jacks being burnt on railings. You could see the police running down and battering fellas, and the game is going on.

“You’d be running down the line and you could see things flashing; they’d be throwing money at ya. The wee linesmen used to clean up at half- and full-time, lifting the money.

Democrat: “There were never any notes thrown at you? You might have stopped then?”

Kenny: “Haha, no. None of that. Haha.”

All during his term in the North, Kearns continued his link with Quay Celtic in the Summer League, fielding in a backline which also contained League of Ireland experience via Mickey Coburn, who he rates as the best player he lined out alongside, and Damien Savage.

Indeed, success followed in prolific doses, league and Cup medals to beat the band, not that Kearns recalls any of them that readily. Nonetheless, his displays clearly caught the eyes of the Summer League selectors, who voted him on to the league’s team of the 90s.

Democrat: “If Mickey Coburn was the best player you played with, who was the best, the toughest you played against?”

Kenny: “Brendan O’Callaghan was hard to mark.”

Democrat: “Elbows?”

Kenny: “Big and awkward. You couldn’t get around him.”

A good finish.

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