When Paddy Kenny sat down to begin his new book, The Gloves Are Off, he was not quite sure where to start.
That time he had his eyebrow bitten off by an old school mate at a curry house? Or the one where he received the longest drugs ban in Premier League history after taking some cough medicine? Maybe that sending-off after being headbutted by one opponent while being bashed over the head with a Lucozade bottle by another? Trouble followed the goalkeeper around for much of his career, some of it self-inflicted, but that is only half the story.
Kenny was an inspiration for many, too. He was plucked from his job as a factory machine engineer and propelled into a world where he lined up against some of the game’s greatest players. It is some tale.
Kenny’s hopes of making it as a professional were dashed when he was released by Halifax Town as a teenager. He set about proving his hometown club wrong, and it was while playing non-league football for Bradford Park Avenue that he was spotted by Bury manager Neil Warnock in 1998. Warnock signed the player on four further occasions – for Sheffield United, Leeds United, Queens Park Rangers and Rotherham United.
“He’s genuine, his man-management is unbelievable,” says Kenny, in an interview that will air on Soccer Saturday. “I have so much respect for him. I remember asking him when I was at Leeds why he kept signing me. He said, ‘I know what I’m going to get from you. I know there’ll be a bit of trouble off the pitch but you’ll always produce on it’.”
That trouble took many forms, but much of it stemmed from the player’s fondness for a night out.
“Most of my scrapes happened back in Halifax,” Kenny adds. “There were a lot of Leeds fans there who didn’t get on with Sheffield United at the time. People would have a pop and I wasn’t strong enough to walk away when I should have done.”
Never was this more apparent than at the beginning of the 2006/07 season, when Sheffield United were back in the Premier League for the first time in 12 years. Kenny’s first spell among the game’s elite coincided with the most turbulent time of his life. His marriage fell apart after his wife left him for a close friend, and departed the family home with their two children.
“All of a sudden my kids had moved back to Halifax with my wife and I was living in a brand new house on my own. I’d gone from giving my kids a bath every night and taking them to nursery and then the next day they weren’t there.”
Football proved to be a valuable form of escape.
“In those days you didn’t tell anyone anything. To go and be with my mates at a training ground with the banter, kicking balls at each other, it was nice to have those few hours a day taking your thoughts away from other things.”
That escapism was never better illustrated than when he woke up on the morning of a game at Manchester City in October and came down from his hotel room to see the news of his break-up plastered all over the newspapers. Kenny kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw before being given a few days off by Warnock to get his head in order.
“I’m an emotional person, that comes across in the book. I cry like everybody else does but then when I have to stand my ground I’ll do that as well.”
Kenny sought the familiarity of nights out in Halifax with a few beers during this time and on a Sunday night in November came the most notorious incident of his career: The Curry House Brawl, as it was described by The Times.
The fight in Ziggy’s Spice House with one of his old school mates spilled out onto the street where Kenny was bitten just above the eye. The injury needed 12 stitches. When Warnock found out on Monday morning he barred Kenny from the training ground until Thursday, just two days before the team was to face Manchester United at Bramall Lane.
“He gave me a rollocking and told me I wasn’t playing. I broke down in front of him. I told him about everything that was going off in my life and said, ‘And now you’re going to stop me playing against Manchester United, who I supported as a kid!’ He patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll let you play.’ That was the gaffer all over.”
Kenny ran out to face Giggs, Scholes, Rooney and Ronaldo with two large sticking plasters covering the stitches above his eye.
There were plenty of scrapes based around the actual football, too. Kenny felt slightly harshly treated when he was sent off at half-time after a tunnel fracas at Millwall in December 2004.
He was defending one of the team’s younger players from perennial wind-up merchant Kevin Muscat after a fiery first half. As the players made their way to the dressing room, Muscat headbutted the goalkeeper, who was then set upon from behind by a Lucozade bottle-wielding Danny Dichio. The Millwall striker was not even playing in the match but had come down to the tunnel in anticipation of a flare-up.
“Warnock was all over that,” Kenny explains. “He said, ‘Brilliant lads, we stick together, well done Paddy’. But then the referee knocked on the dressing room door and called us in to his office where he sent me and Muscat off. I went back to the changing room with a giant bump on my head and Warnock shouted, ‘What the hell are you doing letting us down like that, get out of my sight!’ I had to go and sit in the shower for the rest of half-time.”
There are no regrets from Kenny, but there are certainly a few ‘what-if’ moments.
The name Carlos Tevez sends a shudder through most Sheffield United fans. The Argentine’s arrival at West Ham United alongside compatriot Javier Mascherano in August 2006 led to bitter recriminations. Both players were owned by a third party, which broke Premier League rules. Mascherano moved on to Liverpool later that season but Tevez stayed in London.
Warnock’s side went into the final game of the season one place above West Ham – who were away at Manchester United – on goal difference, and three points above Wigan Athletic, who they were playing.
On a cruel afternoon at Bramall Lane, Wigan’s David Unsworth – who missed a penalty while playing for Sheffield United earlier that season – scored the winning goal from the penalty spot. Relegation was confirmed when news filtered through that West Ham had won at Manchester United with a Tevez goal, his seventh in his last 10 games that season.
“That was hard to take. I remember sitting on the pitch for what seemed like an eternity watching Wigan’s players celebrating,” Kenny reflects. “You could see what everyone was thinking. ‘How the hell has that happened?’ We needed just a point on the final day to stay up.”
Perhaps harder to come to terms with was his nine-month drug ban in September 2009. He had taken the cold relief ChestEze, containing banned substance ephedrine, to alleviate a chest cough ahead of the previous season’s play-off semi-final against Preston North End.
“It was my fault, I got done for negligence, I should have known what I was taking,” Kenny admits. “Nine months was a bit excessive, though, but it was another part of my life where I had to fight back and prove people wrong and I felt I did that.”
A second Premier League promotion came with Queens Park Rangers, after he signed for Warnock for a third time in 2010.
“It was an amazing move. Warnock said, ‘I’m bringing all you old lads in like Shaun Derry and Clint Hill, and then I’ve got Adel Taarabt who will get us promoted!’ We didn’t lose til the 20th game of the season. Taarabt was unbelievable, just unplayable. He had that side to him where he would down tools or not turn up to training which wound a few of the lads up. I remember we were in a hotel about an hour before setting off for a match one day, and Warnock called the senior lads into a room and begged us to stick with him, telling us we’d get promoted if we stuck with him, and we did.”
The following season, QPR survived in the Premier League on a dramatic final day at the Etihad Stadium.
Kenny had the best view in the ground of Sergio Aguero’s injury-time winning goal which gave City the 2011/12 title. By then, Rangers were down to 10 men after Joey Barton had been sent off, but with results going their way elsewhere the players knew they were safe.
“If you watch it, I jump up and start shouting as there were lads in front of me just diving in. I look back now years later and wonder if they would have stayed on their feet if we hadn’t known we were safe. But we’d played 45 minutes with 10 men, City pummelled us, we had no possession and tiredness had kicked in by then. It was crazy that two injury-time goals won them the league.”
Writing the book has helped Kenny appreciate what he achieved in the game.
The fame that came with being a Premier League footballer did not always sit well, and there were times when he wished his personal life was not plastered all over the tabloids, but there were no regrets at a football life lived to the full.
“I didn’t even have a full-time goalkeeping coach til I was 25,” he reveals. “So I didn’t do too badly.”
Hear more from Paddy Kenny on Soccer Saturday this weekend; join Jeff Stelling from midday on Sky Sports News and Sky Sports Premier League.
You read correctly. The £1m Super 6 jackpot is up for grabs for one last time this weekend. Play for free, entries by 3pm Saturday.
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