Manchester United players were 'unhappy' with me - now I'm on the brink of proving them wrong

Kieran McKenna celebrates after an Ipswich Town victory at Portman Road.
Kieran McKenna is on the brink of leading Ipswich Town to the Premier League. -Credit:Stephen Pond/Getty Images.

Not since April 2002 have Manchester United made the long trip to Portman Road to face Ipswich Town.

That could all change next season with the Tractor Boys on the cusp of ending their 22-year-exile from the Premier League. The Suffolk club will be promoted this lunchtime if they avoid defeat at home to Huddersfield Town, who are already all but relegated.

Ipswich took a giant stride towards promotion in midweek, beating Coventry City 2-1. Victory nudged them three points clear of Leeds United with one game left to play.

Should they get the job done, they will become the first club to jump from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons since Southampton in 2012. You might ask how have they managed it. The answer is very simple: Kieran McKenna.

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The former United first-team coach stepped into the cut-throat business of management for the first time in December 2021, answering Ipswich's call. He had been tracked for 18 months by the club's chief executive Mark Ashton who knew within instantly upon meeting McKenna that he was the right man for the job. "We approached him and when I met Kieran I knew within 30 seconds, honestly," said Ashton.

McKenna had spent five years on the coaching staff at Old Trafford, working alongside the likes of Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and very briefly Ralf Rangnick. However, he knew he was ready to test himself as a manager when Ipswich came knocking.

"It was the right time for me to take the step, it's the right profile of club I was looking for and I'm grateful for them giving me this opportunity," said McKenna, explaining why he exited Old Trafford. "I'm confident I'll be able to repay that faith in the future."

If Ipswich get themselves over the line, the Northern Irishman will have done more than repay the faith; he will have etched his name in Ipswich folklore. After achieving an 11th-placed finish in his first season in charge at Portman Road the goal for 2022-23 was clear: win promotion from League One.

Kieran McKenna raises his arms aloft to celebrate after Ipswich Town's 2-1 win at Coventry City.
Kieran McKenna is on the brink of clinching a second successive promotion. -Credit:Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images.

The campaign saw Plymouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich push each other every step of the way in pursuit of the two automatic spots. Ipswich won one of them, finishing second with 98 points.

Often sweeping opponents aside, their pleasing-on-the-eye style of play earned rave reviews. Many anticipated they would make a good fist of it back in the Championship. With just one game to go, they have exceeded those expectations by some distance.

Playing an exciting, expansive and free-flowing brand of football, Ipswich have fought tooth and nail with the three clubs that dropped out of the Premier League last season, all of who are equipped with parachute payments.

McKenna has, by and large, persisted with the same group of players who got the club out of League One, with the exception of one or two new imports, such as Omari Hutchinson and Kieffer Moore. His coaching methods have brought the best out of his squad.

The way in which he has transformed Ipswich's fortunes and managed to get the very best out of individuals will be no surprise to Solskjaer, whose appointment at United saw McKenna earn more responsibilities at Carrington.

"He's the most thorough and analytical, step-by-step, process-driven coach that I've worked with," Solskjaer told The Athletic last year. "He makes it so easy for the players to see and understand what we wanted from them."

Kieran McKenna and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walk down the Old Trafford touchline in conversation.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (right) has been complimentary about Kieran McKenna. -Credit:Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images.

Amid Erik ten Hag's struggles at Old Trafford, McKenna has been linked with a return to M16 to take the top job. The work he has done at Portman Road has been magnificent, but he has not earned the stripes to command that post just yet.

Nevertheless, he has more than earned the opportunity to take on the Premier League, rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest and best coaches in the world. He will relish the opportunity, provided it arrives.

It was once reported that some United players were 'unhappy' with McKenna's coaching methods at Carrington, yet here he is now on the brink of completing one of English football's greatest stories in recent times. It will make for a refreshing change if they are in the Premier League next term.

If they get the job done, he will no doubt be relishing the fixtures with United next season. And if the Tractor Boys' momentum surge continues, United may not be relishing their next visit to Portman Road.