'˜My heart's at Bramall Lane' ... Former Blades keeper Paddy Kenny talks United, derbies, Neil Warnock, Chris Wilder, stick from fans and what he's up to now
Our coffees arrive with little cookies in wrappers on the side.
I slide mine across the table. “Here, you can have that.” Paddy Kenny turns it down.
“I bet it’s gone by the end of the interview,” I say and we both grin.
We’re sat in the lounge of the Bannatyne’s health club frequented by the former Sheffield United goalkeeper discussing a career which included more than 600 professional matches and spells in the Premier League with the Blades and QPR.
He was on the books of 10 clubs, but there’s no doubt which one means the most to him.
“My happiest memories, by a country mile, are my time with Sheffield United,” he says. “I had two good years at QPR, winning promotion to the Premier League and staying up on the last day of the season, but, going back, my heart’s at United.
“It’s such a special club. People don’t realise how special. People inside the club, I still speak to them on a weekly basis and I haven’t been there for six or seven years.
“Whenever you want to go to a game, they can’t do enough with tickets and looking after you. I watched quite a few games last season. My next game is Norwich City. I’ve been invited down for a meal - you see, they look after you.”
He arrives in a blue Mercedes. It’s sleek, sharp. Not flash. Definitely not flash. There’s nothing ‘big time’ about this twice-married dad of four who was born in Halifax, brought up on a council estate and has a warm, twinkly-eyed common touch.
A smile is never far away. There are no airs and graces, just a strong handshake and a disarming giggle. We’re immediately mates.
Kenny, who lives in the village of Laughton on the outskirts of Rotherham, never cut the most athletic figure as a sportsman, and good-naturedly accepted the stick from rival supporters.
But he was still good enough to grace the top flight and play for the Republic of Ireland. Good enough too for Neil Warnock, the man who gave him his first break and also brought him to the Blades, to sign him five times.
“I’m big-boned!” he protests. “I always carried a bit of weight. The United fitness coach of the time, Tony Daley, once decided I needed to shed some. I lost 10 or 12lbs and for about a month or six weeks I was playing horrendous. I felt miles off it.
“Warnock told me to put it back on! He just said: ‘Get it back on. Stop at McDonald’s on your way home. You’re meant to be your size.
“I used to enjoy the abuse from opposition fans because I’d think: ‘Right, I’m going to prove you wrong. Abuse me as much as you want.’ I got most grief in Sheffield derbies and loved it. I’d give them it back and dance in front of them when we scored. That was part of me. I always enjoyed it.
“I played in a few. I remember winning 2-1 at Hillsborough (February 2006). Ade Akinbiyi scored and Michael Tonge. I’ve got a few friends who are Wednesday fans, so that was a good one to rub in!
“I don’t have any regrets when I look back; not one. I can’t have regrets. I just feel privileged to have achieved what I did after being told at 15 I wouldn’t make it and then not making my pro debut until I was 20. I was late coming into the game.”
We’ve been talking for five minutes when there’s a rustle of packaging and my gingerbread offering is gone.
“That didn’t last long, did it?” he laughs, managing to look pleased and a touch forlorn at the same time.
Fifteen stone was his best playing weight and he’s around a stone over that now. In slim-fit jeans and T-shirt, he looks well. Big tattoos on bigger arms. Five gym sessions a week suit him. He says five. It’s probably more like four. Maybe three if he has a better offer.
Kenny spent eight years at the Lane from 2002 to 2010, playing in 306 games, the majority of them under Warnock, and the pair reached the Premier League together with United in 2006.
“I still speak to him,” he says. “He gave me my break in pro football at Bury. He signed me from Bradford Park Avenue. I didn’t play in my first season - Dean Kiely was the goalie at the time - but when they sold Dean in the summer, Warnock told me to come in and see him.
“He just said: ‘We haven’t got any money. You’ve got five games to prove yourself or I’m bringing someone else in.’ I thought: ‘No pressure then!’
“There are so many memories down the years. I’ve seen him lose the plot a few times. He’s seen me lose it as well! He’s a good character and that’s why he’s done so well in the game, and is still doing well at Cardiff City.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, on the field and off the field. We’d argue like mad sometimes over goals. But he’s one of those people where if you have a fall-out with him Saturday morning by Saturday afternoon it’s forgotten about and it never gets mentioned again. That’s good because you can get things off your chest, forget about it and move on.
“His secret? I just think it’s the way he treats people, his man-management, the way he deals with players. He rewards you with days off when you do well for him and stuff like that. He has a ‘crack’ with the lads.
“He always checks up to see how I am and vice versa. When you’ve been with someone that long - 15 years on and off - you think a lot about each other. We’ve both done massive things for each other through our careers.”
Interestingly, he refers to him as Warnock, not Neil.
Kenny was the keeper who let in the most famous goal in Premier League history, at the City of Manchester Stadium in 2012. “Aguerooooooooooo.”
Now 39, he left the pro game in January after a spell at Northampton Town as goalkeeper coach and has yet to decide on his next challenge, whether that be in football or not.
“I’m looking for work,” he says, still sipping his coffee. “Nothing’s cropped up yet. I’ve been playing a lot of golf and having a lot of family time, so I’ve been keeping myself busy. It’s nice to have some time with my kids.
“I’m happy with my life. You have to be, don’t you? Life goes on. It’s a different time in my life now I’m out of the professional game. You have to deal with it and move on. I’ve got a young family. I have to bring them up. They keep me occupied, which is a good thing.
“What I miss the most is that buzz I used to get just as I was about to go out on to the pitch. I used to get the ‘goosies’, the butterflies - all that lot. You walk out and it just hits you. There’s nothing else in life like it.
“I was told at 15 I’d never make it as a goalkeeper because I was too small. My dad told the bloke at the time, a manager called George Mulhall, we’d prove him wrong.
“He didn’t quite say it like that! There might have been swearwords! So to have had the career I have had ...”
He doesn’t finish his sentence, but you know what he means. The laid-back lad who qualified as a toolmaker engineer two weeks before Warnock came calling is at ease with his achievements and himself.
He’d been wary of the Monday meeting I’d suggested because of a Sunday “sesh” he’d had planned over the weekend - “Ecclesall Road, then back to Wickersley in Rotherham. Yeah, it was a good one. I think it was. I don’t really remember the end” - so we rearrange it for the following day.
He turns up a few minutes late, having been decent enough to ring and warn me first. Then I have to delay ordering our drinks because he’s chatting to a gym receptionist. She laughs a lot and I don’t mind waiting.
He’d been up at 2am to drive to Scotland, helping out a pal in the car trade. “You have to do something. There’s only so much golf you can play,” he says.
In the days after the interview, he becomes uncharacteristically coy and decides not to have his picture taken.
So, should he have saved that shot from Sergio Augero which won Manchester City the title in the last minute of the final game?
“The amount of people who ask me that!” he sighs in mock indignation. “Do you not know, he hit from about eight yards and just how hard he hits that ball?
“It was a great finish. People say I got beat at the near post. No, I didn’t! Have you seen the size of his legs? Eight yards. He could probably shoot from four miles!”
By now our coffees have been drained but neither of us really notice. He’s good company, most animated when he’s telling stories against himself. He’d be brilliant company in a pub with the beers and banter flowing.
“’Nobbie’ Fowler ... he scored three penalties past me that season in the Premier League,” he recalls. “He does that stutter on his run-up, doesn’t he? All three penalties, I was getting back up off the floor before he’d even taken them. I’d already dived. I bought it every time.”
To assist another friend, he’s signed for non-league Maltby Main but hurt his hamstring nine minutes into his debut at Worksop Town, so his next experience of football will be United’s Canaries encounter at the Lane this Saturday.
Maybe he’ll bump into Chris Wilder, the boss who took the Blades back to the Championship and who reminds him of a certain someone.
“I think they’ve got a good manager now,” he says. “They’re looking up again. Maybe, over the next few seasons, they can get back to the top again. They deserve to be there.
“I played in a ‘Blades Legends’ match with Chris Wilder a few months ago. You know you’re past it when they ask you to play in ‘legends’ matches!
“We spoke after the match. We had a beer, and he’s the same sort of character Warnock is. Okay, I think there was more than one beer! He asked me about Warnock and his ways. I told him and said how much he reminded me of him.”
The easy conversation is drawing towards a natural close and he eyes the empty cups. “Do you want another?” he enquires.
“I’m okay,” I tell him and a look of fleeting disappointment crosses his face.
I suspect he was thinking about the biscuits.
Questions and answers
Most memorable game? Man City v QPR. It has to be. Even though we lost the game, it was such a special day because they won the league and we stayed up (Bolton Wanderers were relegated after managing to only draw against Stoke City), so we were both celebrating at the same time. We’d looked doomed. We won our last five home games of the season, beating Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool. For us to stay up was remarkable.
Best friends in football? I still speak to a lot of the old lads. I speak to Monty (Nick Montgomery) regularly. I speak to Morgs (Chris Morgan). There’s Paul Green from my time at Leeds.
Best trainer? The most competitive, someone who wanted to do it spot on every day, was Joey Barton at QPR. I got on well with him and I liked him. He wanted to win. He crossed that line slightly sometimes but he was a good lad to have around the dressing room. He was demanding in training. He wanted it done right because he knew if you couldn’t do it right in training you wouldn’t do it right on Saturdays.
Best team faced? Man United. I followed them when I was kid. That Man United team when the Blades were in the Premier League that year was the best.
Best player played with? Adel Taarabt at QPR. He was unbelievable. When he wanted to be, he was unplayable. He was frightening. He could be rubbish in training. Him and Joey didn’t get on too well! On his game, he was the best I’ve played with by a mile.
Best player played against? I played against Ronaldo. Then there was Denis Bergkamp. Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard - all that lot.
Best ground? Wembley. Even though I lost 1-0 there in the Championship Play-off Final (1-0 against Burnley, 2009).
Best fans? The Blades fans are as good as anybody when they’re at it. Other than them, Liverpool. Anfield is good when you go there. The atmosphere is something else, and they sign that song (You’ll Never Walk Alone) at the start.