A year ago Paddy Kenny was a banned footballer, practising in the park after being suspended for giving a positive drugs test. Already in his thirties, his career was in doubt. Today he is leaner, fitter, happier, and preparing for what appears an inevitable return to the Premier League with Championship leaders Queen's Park Rangers.
"If you'd have said then, that you'd seen this in a crystal ball, I'd have said you were having a laugh," says Kenny as he sits in the sunshine at QPR's west London training ground.
It has been quite a turnaround, which will be underlined this evening when Kenny's former club, Sheffield United, come to Loftus Road. Kenny spent the best part of a decade with the Blades, playing more than 400 games, but to judge from the frosty reception he was given at Bramall Lane in October it will not be a happy reunion. Sheffield United fans are unhappy that Kenny left the club last summer after they had stood by him during his ban, even handing him a new contract. That United are heading for relegation, and Kenny for promotion, will add to the tension.
The crowd is very close to the pitch at QPR and, said Kenny, "it can get interesting when you back up against the fence to take a goal-kick. I'll need to keep my concentration."
All Kenny will say on the reaction to him in Sheffield is "I was quite disappointed," it is understood, though, that the issue was not quite as clear-cut as his former club suggested at the time. The deal Kenny signed while banned involved a significant pay cut, agreed on the understanding he would get a new deal if he proved his fitness when the ban expired. When he did so, he was told he would have to wait until Christmas. Only when QPR came in, and met the £750,000 release clause, was a new contract offered.
An earlier offer had been anticipated because Kenny forced his way back into the starting XI within two days of his ban expiring despite not even being allowed to train with the club until the last month of his suspension. The discovery that he had to cut all contact with the first-team squad compounded the blow of a ban Kenny had not anticipated.
"The barrister was adamant I would get three months backdated and I would be able to come back at the start of the season," he says. "So when at the hearing they said 'we agree you've not taken it to enhance performance, but we are hitting you with a nine-month ban for negligence', it was a massive shock."
Kenny was on holiday, in Egypt, when he was told he had failed a drugs test following Sheffield United's Championship promotion play-off against Preston on 11 May 2009 (United won 1-0, but lost in the final to Burnley). "I looked back and realised I'd taken these tablets for a chest infection." They were ChestEze, an over-the-counter drug containing ephedrine hydrochloride.
"I seriously didn't think about it," says Kenny. "In hindsight it was so stupid and clumsy of me. It is a lesson for everyone that you have got to be careful.
"There is stuff that 99.9 per cent of people on the street can take and you can't, it's that simple. I don't know the ins and outs of Kolo Touré's situation but I do know it's easily done.
"The scientist who did my tests said I would have had to take 50 to 60 tablets 10 minutes before kick-off to get a 10-minute buzz." Nevertheless, the Regulatory Commission handed down the ban because he had not bothered checking whether the tablets contained a banned substance.
In the circumstances, it would have been easy to feel embittered and let himself go. Instead, Kenny decided to turn his life around. "I hired a personal trainer, trained with him five times a week, and went to the gym on Saturday on my own. Twice a week a friend would hit a few shots at me in the park.
"It was odd being at home everyday. I missed the banter. I played a lot of golf just to keep busy.
"Saturdays were the hardest, watching the goals come in on Soccer Saturday. Normally, I'd spend the day preparing for a game, then playing. All of a sudden it was taken away from you. I wasn't even allowed in the club.
"When I was allowed back I was fitter than when I left. I think the club were surprised but I'd worked really hard. To get a couple of games in before the season finished [he played in Sheffield United's final two matches, keeping clean sheets in both] was a massive bonus."
It was not just his body Kenny had worked on, it was his attitude to his profession. "I'd been full-time for 10 years prior to that and, apart from a four-month injury, I'd been more or less playing solidly all that time. Having that time out made me look at things. It made me realise what a good job I've got and how lucky I am to have it.
"I'm a different person now. I train differently – a lot harder – and look after myself a lot better. It was a reality check. Off the pitch now it's about my missus, my kids, golf and the dog." Kenny pauses and smiles ruefully. "I've got quite boring. I suppose that is a good thing for me."
His manager would agree. Neil Warnock knows Kenny better than most, the pair go way back, more than a dozen years to the days when Kenny was supplementing his income as an engineer keeping goal for Bradford Park Avenue, and Warnock was managing Bury.
"Trevor Storton [the Bradford PA manager] told me, 'I've a goalie here who looks a bit good to me'," recalled Warnock. "I watched him on a filthy night and he was out of condition, a porky young lad, but I just liked the look of him. And when we met I liked the way he was, he was a likeable rogue.
"I signed him, but we had Dean Kiely in goal so I sent him on loan to Whitby Town to get games. He rang me one night to say, 'gaffer, it's that cold if we are attacking I can't feel me fingers'. I said to him, 'it will make Bury seem like Saint-Tropez when you come back.'"
When Kiely moved on, Kenny got his chance and, after being knocked out in his first match, did enough to persuade Warnock to sign him again, for Sheffield United in 2002. There the pair won promotion, then suffered relegation together. Their paths then diverged, Warnock leaving Sheffield, then taking over at Crystal Palace. But when the manager wanted players with character as he rebuilt QPR last summer, he thought of Kenny. The keeper did not take much persuading.
"When I spoke to the gaffer I knew this was where I wanted to be," says Kenny. "I knew what he was like, and he knows what he gets from me. We've had our run-ins, but the good thing about him is whatever is said behind closed doors in the changing rooms is forgotten the next day."
The biggest "run-ins" came when Kenny's off-field behaviour caused Warnock headaches, and created unwanted headlines. Kenny did not always choose his company wisely and a difficult marriage did not help. "He had some personal problems which interfered with his career," said Warnock, "but once I knew he had sorted them out I knew he would be a different player. He's an entirely different professional, he's so dedicated.
"People say it was a gamble, but it wasn't really. I had this feeling that this would be his best spell as a goalkeeper and I don't think there is anybody in the country who can touch him when he is like that. I just feel he is 'content', like I am. It's made for a great signing."
A new partner, and a change of location after living in Yorkshire all his life, has helped, adding to a sense of a fresh start for Kenny. "I've new people to impress, new fans, and I think that has brought the best out of me," he says.
The new training regime is another factor. At just over 6ft tall, Kenny is shorter than every Premier League goalkeeper bar Wayne Hennessey (Wolves) and Richard Kingson (Blackpool). He is, though, more agile than many. "I am 10 pounds lighter than a few years ago which is a massive help. I move around the goal quicker," Kenny says. Warnock added: "He's not the tallest, but he comes for everything. I've never worried about his size, it's perfect for the agility keepers need."
A recent save from Ayegbeni Yakubu demonstrated that perfectly, Kenny stretching and arching to turn over a lob from Leicester's loanee striker. QPR went on to win 1-0, one of 21 clean sheets in their 38-match campaign to date. Kenny has played in them all, conceding just 23 goals as Rangers have gone 10 points clear of the play-off places – a gap that can be extended to 13 if they win tonight against a United side now seven points adrift of safety.
The only missing element for Kenny is a return to international football. His form – the best of his life according to player and manager – makes it all the more surprising the Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni did not call when Shay Given was injured this season. Not that Warnock is unhappy that his goalkeeper spent last week relaxing, instead of playing for the Republic. "I'm delighted," said the QPR manager, adding of the players who were called up instead, "I think David Forde and Keiren Westwood are the best keepers on the planet, they should always be in the Republic of Ireland squad and they should never take Paddy Kenny."
Kenny does not agree, he'd like a recall but it appears he is still being punished for briefly withdrawing from selection to deal with problems in his personal life more than three years ago. "It would be nice to get back in at some point," he says, "but at the moment we have a promotion charge on and I think it is important to keep my mind focused on what we are doing here. Hopefully, if I get a call in the future I'll be ready."
Kenny, like Warnock, has unfinished business with the Premier League. The goalkeeper says he can still picture Danny Webber running through on goal late in what proved Sheffield United's last game in the top flight. They were 2-1 down at the time and a draw would have kept them up. Webber hit the post, Wigan held on and United went down with a goal difference just one worse than the Latics.
"It was heartbreaking," he says. Daring to look ahead he adds: "I think anyone who goes up will find it difficult, but maybe we're financially better positioned than Sheffield were and will have the money available to keep us up there."
Returning to Old Trafford, the Emirates and Anfield will be a long way from playing at Bradford Park Avenue and Whitby Town, and even further from all those lonely afternoons in the gym watching Soccer Saturday.
Paddy power: Kenny's remarkable career
* Born Halifax, W Yorks, 17 May 1978.
* Signed by Neil Warnock at Bury (1998), Sheffield United (2002) and QPR (2011).
* Made 600 league and cup appearances, Bury (150), Sheffield United (410), QPR (40 to date).
* Sheffield United supporters' Player of the Season in 2002-03. Played every minute of 2005-06 Championship promotion season. Ever-present during club's single season in Premier League.
* Made debut for Republic of Ireland in 2004, has gone on to win seven caps.
* Tested positive for the prohibited substance ephedrine in May 2009.
* Banned in July 2009 for nine months for "negligence" after commission rules drug not taken deliberately and not performance-enhancing.
* Returned to Sheffield United first team in April 2010.Reuse content