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Shiels is Kilmarnock's pass master

IT all started with the son.

Kenny Shiels
Kenny Shiels

The father was constantly in the stands but was always open to a quiet chat about both his son and football. Kenny Shiels has always been an articulate, gregarious presence around a pitch. His views can be trenchant and controversial but they are also informative and engaging.

The dialogue with Mixu Paatelainen, when the Finn was a manager and Dean Shiels was a player at Easter Road, could be seen as one of the major steps on the road to a cup final victory at Hampden.

''Kenny would come to the matches and he would watch training,'' says Paatelainen, who managed Hibernian from 2008 to 2009. ''We started talking then and when I went on scouting missions to England I would meet up with him and we would talk football.''

Shiels had been in charge of the under-17 Northern Ireland squad, and was then head of youth at Tranmere Rovers. ''I discovered our philosophies were very similar,'' says Paatelainen, who now coaches Finland. ''Our friendship developed over the years and when I was appointed at Kilmarnock I knew he would be a good choice for my assistant.'

''He was an excellent colleague,'' he says of Shiels' spell as assistant from June 2010 until Paatelainen left for his homeland in March the following year.

The Finnish manager was impressed by the way Shiels could set up a team but he insists his friend's abilities stretch far beyond the technical.

''First,'' he says, "he has very good ideas. Like most managers he thinks about football all the time and he is an extremely intelligent man.''

However, he believes that bravery is the essence of the manager who took Kilmarnock to victory in the Scottish Communities League Cup final on Sunday.

''He is not scared,'' says Paatelainen simply. He elaborates: ''He is not afraid to say how he feels. I respect that. He is also not afraid to play the game the way he feels it should be played.''

There is a tendency for a manager facing the Old Firm to play conservatively, particularly in a final. The wide spaces at Hampden, in contrast, encouraged Shiels to continue with a passing game that has brought victories against Rangers in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League both at Ibrox and Rugby Park this season.

Paatelainen, too, feels that the match against Celtic at Rugby Park in October would have strengthened his former colleague's belief that his side must play constructively against Neil Lennon's men.

Celtic came back from three goals down to earn a point in that match and it has been seen as a turning point in the Parkhead club's season. However, Shiels would have been stressing to his players that they consistently caused problems for Celtic in that match. The return fixture at Celtic Park on December 24 was also a difficult contest for Celtic who won 2-1, with Gary Harkins having an excellent chance to level matters towards the end of the match.

''Kenny always wants players to play to their ability. He would accept that Kilmarnock were underdogs on Sunday but would stress there was nothing to lose in playing the passing game. The match at Rugby Park gave him every reason to believe. There was a reason, after all, that Kilmarnock were 3-0 up,'' says Paatelainen.

Paatelainen described Shiels as ''the ideal candidate'' to replace him at Kilmarnock but points out: ''You are never sure something will work out in football. He knew everybody at the club, he knew how he wanted to approach the job and he undoubtedly had the qualities of a leader. But it is never 100% certain.''

''His greatest attribute may be his honesty. He is straight. This may have got him into trouble on occasion but players respect that.''

Shiels was helped by his previous experience as a manager in Northern Ireland with Carrick Rangers, Coleraine, Ballymena United and Larne. He has endured difficult patches this season including defeats to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Dunfermline at Rugby Park.

Yet he has continued to emphasise the importance of playing passing football. Shiels is a passionate believer in football as an entertainment but the enjoyment seems to be shared by his players. ''There is no doubt that his style of football involves a bit of risk,'' says Paatelainen. ''But you just have to look at the performances of his players to see how they enjoy it. It has also brought out the best of them. James Fowler and Garry Hay, for example, have been at Kilmarnock for years but it is now obvious to everyone just what good footballers they are. They deserve the praise they are now receiving.''

Shiels has a cadre of players at Kilmarnock now that can hold their own in any company in Scotland: Cameron Bell, who had an outstanding match in goal on Sunday, Fowler, combative and intelligent in midfield, Harkins, technically gifted in playing off the main striker, Liam Kelly, for whom a cup final victory turned to dreadful tragedy, and, of course, Shiels.

The son of the manager slowly imposed himself on events at Hampden, though, when put through on goal in the second half he could not finish. It may all have started with him, however.

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