Raith Rovers’ capture of Kai Kennedy on loan from Rangers, on paper at least, represents a huge coup for the Championship club.
The youngster, who turns 19 in March and has spent the last three months at Inverness Caley Thistle, has been earmarked as a future star for some time.
Over two and a half years have passed since he caught the eye as a 16-year-old for a Gers Colts side beaten by Falkirk in the Irn-Bru Cup.
That night’s squad featured some bigger names than his – including Umar Sadiq, Glenn Middleton and Robby McCrorie – yet it was the Glaswegian kid whose cameo prompted praise from coach Graeme Murty.
— Rangers Youth Academy (@RFC_Youth) February 15, 2019
The extent of Kennedy’s potential was reaffirmed in February 2019 when he was named Player of the Tournament at the Alkass International Cup in Qatar.
Real Madrid, PSG and Bayern Munich were among the teams competing.
It was Roma on the losing side in the final as Rangers triumphed on penalties, with Kennedy’s spot-kick the decisive one.
In the aftermath, former Ibrox midfielder turned youth coach Kevin Thomson took to social media to hail the teenager’s performances.
High hopes for Kai Kennedy
And just over a year ago, Malky Mackay – then SFA performance director – tipped him for the top after watching the diminutive playmaker run the show against Germany’s U-19s.
“We have high hopes for him and I’m sure Rangers have high hopes for him,” said the former Cardiff, Watford and Wigan boss.
Around the same time, Light Blues manager Steven Gerrard heaped praise on the player publicly.
Kennedy was a shining light in training and had impressed the Liverpool legend in a bounce game against Leicester, which led to him being named as the ‘19th man’ for a game against Hamilton.
He was, finally, knocking on the first-team door.
Gerrard said: “He earned the right to be the 19th man. His training performances and his cameo against Leicester – I was thinking about putting him in the 18.
“All of our lads at the academy should take note of what he’s done this week. I think he’s been outstanding.
‘He’s a fabulous little player’
“People look at Kai like he’s this wee player who doesn’t belong with men but he’s trained like a man all week.
“He’s been the most consistent and he’s a fabulous little player. It wasn’t just a token gesture because he’s a kid.
🎥 GOAL: A superb finish from Kai Kennedy. pic.twitter.com/9SzWEHZluK
— Rangers Youth Academy (@RFC_Youth) February 13, 2019
“It’s also to send a message to some of the players who are outside of the 18 that Kai was next from what I saw the majority of this week in training. He deserved to be out there.”
His debut came off the bench in the Scottish Cup against Stranraer last January, a month after tabloid reports claimed he was attracting interest from Bayern, Roma and Manchester City.
Kennedy said: “The manager just told me to go and enjoy it. I thought I might get a chance of a goal too, but hopefully I will get a goal one day.
“The manager says it all the time — if you are good enough, you’re playing.
“So all you have to do is keep working hard.”
Amid unquantifiable levels of pressure to stop Celtic winning 10 in a row, Rangers youngsters have found senior opportunities in short supply during the Gerrard era.
Yet the signs, for Kennedy, were promising.
And then for months (a spectacular strike for Scotland U-19s against the Czech Republic aside) it all went quiet.
— Scotland National Team (@ScotlandNT) February 20, 2020
That was until further reports emerged last summer suggesting he was heading for the Ibrox exit following a breakdown in contract talks.
Gers’ stance was that the youngster – represented by David Moss (a former Celtic talent spotter credited with playing a part in bringing Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele to Parkhead) – wanted too much money.
The Kennedy camp had concerns about the pathway to the first-team at Ibrox.
A week after the stories surfaced, Gerrard handed academy trio Nathan Patterson, Lewis Mayo and Jamie Barjonas the chance to shine in pre-season.
And he told Rangers TV: “I want to bring academy players in but first and foremost they have to commit to the club.
“If you don’t, then you won’t be seen anywhere near me.
“They have to be good enough, train everyday like it means the world to them to play for Rangers.
“I have been hearing a few things about the academy that there has been a bit of ego about, so they won’t be around me.
“I will only play players who show me on a daily basis that they are good enough to be around us.
“Nathan Patterson, Jamie Barjonas and Lewis Mayo have shown that so they deserve the opportunity they have had and I am pleased for them.”
A fresh start for Rangers kid
Six months on, relations have thawed and Kennedy’s new Rangers deal runs until 2023.
His commitment during his short period at Inverness under John Robertson also appears to have repaired much of the damage caused by the contract stand-off.
The player’s spell in the Highlands was curtailed due to homesickness brought on by the tightening of Covid-19 restrictions.
Kai Kennedy is an absolute joy to watch.
Incredible touch to kill the ball as it drops out of the air and wonderful close control as he turns and dribbles past Raith defenders.
— Andrew Sutherland (@ASutherland1983) November 22, 2020
Caley Thistle chief Scot Gardiner said: “It’s very difficult for him, he’s 18 and living in a house in Inverness on his own.
“He can’t go anywhere, nobody can visit him and he couldn’t go to other players’ houses.
“It’s very difficult for a young lad when he had to drive to training on his own, then have to go back to his house at lunchtime every day.
“No family could come up, because for almost all the time he was here we were in a different tier from his family in Glasgow.
“Kai lives with his mum and dad, and this was his first time living away from home. He was 200 miles away and couldn’t go anywhere, so it was just very difficult.
“He loved everything about the football, the training and the manager.
“Rangers and Steven Gerrard were very happy with what he was doing here, and the style of play we have.
Comparisons with Scottish football legends
“John and I spoke to him and his family, and it still came down to an 18-year-old lad outside of training basically being locked in the house. That’s what did for it eventually.
“If we weren’t in a pandemic I think the lad would still be here, he could have enjoyed the life you can have in Inverness.
“We wish him well as he’s a great lad, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
He scored once in 10 appearances for Caley (perhaps unsurprisingly, a fantastic solo strike against Queen of the South) and Hearts legend Robertson was blown away by his talents.
He told the Press and Journal: “I’ll show my age – I think he goes back to the tanner ball player we know in Scotland, such as Jimmy Johnstone, Willie Johnston and Davie Cooper.
“He beats people for fun and gets out of tight situations – he’s a crowd pleaser.
“Even in training when we see him getting the ball, he excites us.
“He goes past players and we think he’s going to lose it, then the next minute he wriggles away and he has created something.
“Kai at times looks like a wee ragamuffin as he just bounces about, but he goes past people and excites people.”
It is remarks like Robertson’s – as well as those of Malky Mackay and Steven Gerrard – that will excite Rovers fans as they wait to watch Kennedy in action for his second Championship club of the campaign.