‘That was an absolute bullshit story,” says Paddy Kenny as he recalls reports from 2006 that claimed he had his eyebrow bitten off by a friend in a fight outside a Halifax curry house.
Readers were given the impression that blood had been spilled because the friend had just confessed to starting an affair with Kenny’s then-wife while the keeper was on international duty with the Republic of Ireland. “It was nothing to do with that,” he says. “It was just a fight over who was to pay for the curry.”
It so happened the ruckus took place around the time Kenny found out that a different friend was having a relationship with his wife, the mother of his first two children. “It was embarrassing, it was upsetting, it was hard to deal with and it was all being publicised while I was still trying to get my head around losing my family,” says Kenny of the fight.
“So you feel like you’re being bombarded left, right and centre and yet you still have to try continuing to have a career at the top level in the Premier League. It was a difficult time.”
Kenny recounts that period in his autobiography, The Gloves Are Off, where he details many other contortions during a career when he played nearly 600 matches for clubs as big as Sheffield United, Leeds and QPR despite personal trauma, a drugs-related ban and sometimes bizarre working relationships with assorted players, chairmen and managers, including Massimo Cellino (“he was determined to get me out”), Mark Hughes (“strange”), Neil Warnock (“a very clever man-manager”) and Lee Johnson (“a cock”).
The book is remarkable for its frankness. Reading it, like talking to Kenny, makes you laugh and wince, and also marvel at his ability to overcome all kinds of misfortune, misunderstandings and misadventures. He says putting the book together felt good.
“It was emotional but I’m looking forward to it coming out. I’ve been brutally honest,” says the 42-year‑old, who enjoyed his playing days but does not pine for them. “I’m in a good place, I don’t miss football. I love having weekends off.
“I’ve got my own car transporting company and I also do some one-to-one coaching a few nights a week. I run my business Monday to Friday, which I enjoy, it’s a good job, and then I have the weekend to do what I want. Sometimes – although not at the moment obviously – I’ll take the train to watch away matches because my mates are all mad Sheff United fans and it’s a great day out.”
Kenny played for Sheffield United the most in his career, winning promotion to the Premier League in 2006 and nearly doing so again in 2009, when they were beaten 1-0 by Burnley in the play‑off final. That turned out to be Kenny’s last match before a nine-month ban for testing positive for ephedrine, a substance contained in ChestEze tablets he had taken to help him sleep before the semi-final against Preston.
“To this day I get asked if I was off my tits, so this is one of those stories where I want to get my side across. The headlines said I was a drug cheat but I wasn’t done for that. I was done for negligence and got nine months, which was way over the top. I wasn’t allowed to even go near the ground or training ground until six weeks before the end of the ban. United stuck by me, which was amazing, and I came through it. A lot of people would have gone under.”
Kenny returned to play two more matches for Sheffield United before being lured to QPR by Warnock, who signed him five times in his career. The pair won promotion from the Championship before Warnock was sacked in January 2012. Kenny says the next manager, Hughes, was “difficult to work with”, but QPR avoided relegation on the final day of the season despite losing 3-2 to Manchester City in one of the most famous matches in Premier League history.
Kenny made several saves to frustrate City but could not stop Sergio Agüero’s title-winning goal in stoppage time. “People tried to blame me for that,” he says. “Yes, if we’re nitpicking, could I have taken another half-step to my left? Maybe, but come on, he’s thrashed it from seven or eight yards, it was past me before I could move. I hold my hand up to mistakes but that wasn’t a mistake.”
That was Kenny’s last match for QPR before a spectacular row with the club’s technical director, Mike Rigg. Warnock, by now manager of Leeds, offered to bring the Halifax-born keeper back to Yorkshire. “I was so excited to go to Leeds,” Kenny says. “I thought that if we could get something going there it would be massive. But that turned into one of the most disappointing parts of my career, especially the way it ended. I was there for two years and we had three owners and the way it was run was horrendous.”
The third of those owners was Cellino, who completed his takeover in April 2014. The keeper met the Italian once. “He called me back from a family holiday in Cyprus to tell me he didn’t want me, he was bringing in an Italian keeper,” recalls Kenny, who says he never received an explanation.
Some people suspected it was because he had been born on 17 May. Cellino had a mysterious distrust of the number 17, so much so that at his former club, Cagliari, he had seats removed and replaced with 16B and did the same with programme pages at Leeds.
“That thing about my birthday was the rumour but I don’t know how true it was,” Kenny says. “All I know is that when I came back for pre-season he didn’t give me any squad number at all.”
A photograph of Kenny at pre-season training emerged. He looked bloated, nothing like a professional athlete. “That photo was 100% edited. I don’t know who did it or why. I have a real picture of me walking to training that day and it shows I’d come back fit as hell because I’d been told I would leave the club. Cellino had said I came back overweight but I came back lighter than when I’d left. But that was what Leeds was like at the time. It was a car crash where anything could happen.”
Leeds, who face Sheffield United on Sunday, are more settled now. Kenny, too, seems happy. He is even on decent terms with the man whose liaison with his wife brought an end to his first marriage.
“It got a point where I just thought, deep down, that he did me a favour. I was in a horrible relationship and he gave me an excuse to get out of it. He stayed with her for a while so he was going to be around my kids. They liked him. I would see him at my son’s football sometimes and it was fine.
“People might think I’m a mug but that’s how I dealt with it. That’s the sort of character I am. He’s not with her any more but I still talk to him to this day.”
And the friend who bit off his eyebrow? “I’ve only seen him once since then,” Kenny says. “My brother died three years ago and he came to the funeral. I ended up having a beer with him. We’ve grown up and moved on.”
The Gloves Are Off by Paddy Kenny and Danny Hall is published this week by Vertical Editions