Former defender says premature end to playing career through injury has given him a head start in Celtic coaching role
JOHN Kennedy would be forgiven if he nursed a sense of grievance that his career was stolen from him the night Romanian striker Ionel Ganea’s studs crunched sickeningly into his left knee at Hampden.
But in one of the most admirable examples of how to turn a negative into a positive, Kennedy instead believes the premature end to his time as a player has allowed him to steal a march on others in the coaching and managerial side of the game.
Since being forced to hang up his boots at the age of 26, five years after that shocking challenge from Ganea wrecked his Scotland debut, Kennedy has refused to dwell on his misfortune.
Still just 31, this season has proved hugely rewarding for Kennedy after he was promoted from his role in charge of Celtic’s development squad last summer to become first-team coach under manager Ronny Deila and his assistant John Collins.
His appreciation of the opportunity he has been given to carve out a high-level coaching career has allowed him to banish all regrets at the circumstances which have brought it about.
“I’ve got no anger left about my injury,” said Kennedy. “It’s totally gone, 100 per cent. Early on, I was given the hope of coming back to play and managed to do that for a short period.
“But as soon as it happened, I thought ‘Right, that’s it. It’s gone’. There was no point in me wasting energy on a tackle that put me out the game for two years.
“It is done and dusted and I gave myself the goal of trying to get back fit again. When I got fit again I tried to get back in the first team.
“From there, I set a new target and eventually reached the end. But there is no bitterness there at all.
“It’s not something I think about anymore – it’s only when you guys ask me about it! Seriously, even when I speak about it now, there are no hard feelings towards anyone.
“I don’t regret anything. When I got injured it happened and I gave it everything to get back to where I was. But I’m in a new place now, a new position and that’s all I focus on.
“My playing career was cut short but this is an opportunity for me to get a head start on guys who will play until they are 35 or so before they go into coaching. I’m in a position which I didn’t expect to be in so soon and I want to build on that.”
Winning the Scottish Premiership and League Cup has ensured a productive first season in charge for Deila and his backroom staff. Kennedy takes satisfaction from playing his part in turning Celtic’s fortunes around after an unconvincing start to the campaign under the Norwegian.
“It’s been a big season for me,” he added. “The manager always talks about development and I can look at my own development here, firstly as a player then as a youth coach. But this is a different step altogether.
“Early on, when things were tough, we had to be strong as a backroom team. We had to remain focused and stick by what we believed.
“But as the season has gone on, it’s just got better and better. You get more pride and more self-belief in what you’re doing because you see things coming to fruition. We’re now at a good level where I feel the foundations are in place for next season.
“We were always sure what we wanted. We were always sure of what we thought we needed to get is there. It’s just that sometimes it takes longer than you hope.
“That was the biggest thing in the start. We were looking to get to a certain level and it was moving slower than we hoped for. In that period you just need to manage your way through the situation.
“We had to make sure we were winning games as often as possible but at the same time make sure we were taking steps forward.
“We needed to have a longer term view than that and that’s what the manager brought. It was sticky to start with but we came through it, albeit we never got into the Champions League. But looking back now, we’re probably a stronger group on the back of that.”
Kennedy admits he has ambitions to become a manager in his own right eventually. For the moment, however, he is more than content with life as one of Deila’s lieutenants.
“Further down the line I’d like to be my own man, but there’s no rush,” he said. “I’m 32 in the summer and I’m in no rush to jump and be my own man.
“I’m in a good place working for good people. You are in an environment where you have to push yourself to get results and perform and there’s no better place to perform.
“I think Ronny became a manager at 32, but each to their own. At no time did I think I’d be first-team coach at Celtic by the age of 31.
“You never know what’s round the corner, but for the foreseeable future I’m happy where I am. Ronny has a different view from managers I’ve worked with in the past, he’s very development driven and the way he deals with a player one on one is different.
“Very rarely does he get really angry and uptight and just tell a player what to do. He sits them down and that’s something from my perspective that’s important.
“He gives them things constantly and in today’s culture that’s the way ahead. If you don’t do that then they will never learn. That’s what the gaffer has done this year.”
Celtic play their final away fixture of the season at St Johnstone tonight. Midfielder Stefan Johansen and Nir Bitton will be rested, with Charlie Mulgrew back in the squad for the first time since suffering a knee injury in December.