THE first memory that comes to mind when Conor O'Grady reflects on his time mentoring Johnny Kenny in the Sligo Rovers Under-15 team is his tiny frame.

“I remember people were looking at us when we took Johnny in and they were saying 'Are you mad? He's going to get killed'. You wouldn't believe [how small he was],” recalls Sligo's head of academy of Celtic's latest signing. “It is only in the last year that Johnny has flown up. There is a picture of our team photo, he's sitting beside one of the coaches and his feet are barely touching the ground. I'd say you could have put him on a wedding cake back then.”

Kenny – who arrived at the club this week in a £150,000 deal which could rise and who scored 11 goals for Sligo in the League of Ireland last season – is officially listed on the Celtic website as 5ft 8ins whereas O'Grady thinks he's closer to 6ft. Minor quibbles over a matter of inches aside there has been exponential growth since the first day when a skelf of a 14-year-old turned up for training at Sligo. O'Grady was particularly intrigued because here was the son of a Sligo Rovers legend Johnny Kenny Sr – O'Grady's own hero – following his his father's footsteps but he says it was only in the last 18 months or so that the work put in on Johnny Jr's talent truly started to vest. When he made his debut for the first team last year, O'Grady said it was the closest thing to watching his own son play for Sligo.

“It's funny because his dad was my hero and [Johnny Jr] was my young fella's hero. It's funny how it goes around. I would have known the family going back [years] and I would have played against Johnny Sr [in the League of Ireland] and I would have watched Johnny Sr from the stands as a kid. I suppose from nine, 10, 11, you could see the natural talent was there. Did we think he was going to Celtic at 18? He didn't stand out any more than anyone else but you could see a huge amount of potential there.

“It was his last year in Under-17s that he went to another level. He was hitting over 25 goals in that league. He did the same in the Under-19s and was scoring as many goals. Then it was just a natural progression up to the first team. Last year he hit the ground running, really. I know it's not the standard of the SPFL but to score 11 goals in your first season, no crowds, no atmosphere, all the things that he did and – not just his goals – but the way he played in general, he fitted into it famously.”


O'Grady says Kenny was always a quick learner and he puts it down to a strong work ethic that was imbued in him by growing up on the family farm in Riverstown (or 'Roverstown' as O'Grady calls it because so many players have come out of it or live there).

“They wouldn't be lying in their beds at eight o'clock in the morning, the lads would be out working if they were off school. They have that work ethic and decency and respect. You won't get any flash white cars or any of that nonsense. He will be over there to play football. There will be no histrionics on the field, no rolling around on the ground, no crying or moaning, there's none of that. He'll just get on with it.”

Kenny, himself, acknowledged in a broadcast interview this week that “now is the chance to test myself at another level”. O'Grady says he fully expects him to embrace that challenge and points to the manner with which Liam Scales – the summer signing from Shamrock Rovers – has settled into life at Parkhead as evidence that Kenny can succeed.

“I'd have to say that the top end of our league, the best players would be comfortable in the SPFL. I think sometimes they look over here and they think 'it's not that good of a league'. There's [still] loads for [Johnny] to work on. He's only 18 and he's by no means the finished article. I'm sure physically he needs to develop for the Scottish game. He can get better at everything [but] the one thing about Johnny is that if you tell him something [once], he will improve at it. He'll obviously have to get used to the quickness of the game, too, but it's not something that I would be worried about. I think he will thrive in that kind of environment.”

Hibernian had shown plenty of interest in Kenny but Celtic had long been keeping their own watching brief on the striker.

Rumour has it that they feared a similar scenario to the one that developed when they failed to capitalise on their interest in another promising Sligo Rovers player a little more than a decade ago. Seamus Coleman had a trial at Lennoxtown in 2009 but left without a contract, signed for Everton soon after and went on to play more than 400 games for the club.

O'Grady played alongside the Everton captain during his time at Sligo and says that where Celtic missed out on Coleman's numerous attributes they will be getting an identikit character in Kenny. He also places a lot of the credit for the signing with Celtic scout Willie McStay, who was the manager of Rovers when they won the League of Ireland treble in 1994 with Johnny Kenny Sr in the ranks.

“The one thing I could say is that Willie had his homework done, he was at The Showgrounds a lot last year. I think he had probably seen enough to say this guy is worth a shot and Johnny had done his talking on the field. What you're getting is someone similar to Seamus. They're both good, honest, decent lads and no-nonsense. What you see is what you get with Johnny.”

“He is completely different from his dad. His dad was a winger. They have the same natural pace. I suppose there is a lack of centre forwards in the world, the role has nearly died out. He's very quick in behind, off both sides, good in the air, good with his back to goal, would shoot from anywhere. Has that natural instinct of knowing where the goal is no matter where he is on the field, great work rate, great energy. Who could I compare him to? I can't say Henrik Larsson because that would sound ridiculous but they would be similar kinds, a lot of attributes would be similar. I don't want to burden him. There's only one King, right? He would maybe be a bit like Ian Rush, that's the one that comes to mind from days gone by.”

Having kickstarted January by concluding a well-signposted deal for a trio of players from an emerging new market, Celtic's fourth signing came from a much more traditional heartland.

Brother Walfrid, Celtic's cherished founder, hailed from Ballymote in the south of County Sligo. The 'Iron Man' Sean Fallon, Jock Stein's legendary assistant, was born in the city itself and played both football for Sligo Rovers and GAA for the county.

If their latest arrival from the north west of Ireland has an ounce of the impact those illustrious figures did then Celtic supporters will have plenty to smile about.