independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Killer Kilbane: Calm, underrated, simply outstanding

A popular, intelligent footballer who proved his critics wrong

Kevin Kilbane

We had found ourselves in a basement at Clairefontaine, France's training base just outside Paris. Brian Kerr's Ireland were playing France on the following Saturday and in a little room full of video and editing equipment we met a man called Thierry.

Thierry was putting together the video analysis of Ireland for Raymond Domenech and he kept coming back to one player. "Kevin Kilbane," he said. " Kevin Kilbane is a great player."

Thierry's view was a minority one at that stage but, by the following Saturday night, few disagreed. Under Kerr, Kilbane was playing in the centre of midfield and on that Saturday night in Paris, he was exceptional.

Kilbane announced his retirement yesterday and the tributes to his career were deserved. It is not just because he won 110 caps for Ireland that he received praise. It was the manner in which he went about it.

For years, he was criticised. For years, before the perception changed, he had been under-appreciated and harshly treated, often unfairly by some including myself.

The more perceptive recognised that if Kilbane had his limitations as a player, they were overcome by a sound intelligence, a passion for football and for his country. He also had a character that was underestimated as he endured the criticism at Sunderland in particular.

At the Black Cats, he suffered for simply being himself. More precisely, he was not Allan Johnston, the skillful, archetypal Scottish winger he replaced.

Kilbane was always burdened by these expectations from supporters. At Sunderland, they wanted Johnston. Once Damien Duff made his debut for Ireland in 1998, Kilbane was expected to do what Duff did.

He was valued more by team-mates and managers who recognised what he was doing, not what he wasn't. When Duff did become a regular for the 2002 World Cup, it was upfront initially while Kilbane provided the solidity on the left wing.

Under Trapattoni, Kilbane moved to left back and while he was sometimes exposed for a lack of pace, once his astonishing run of 66 consecutive games came to an end, he was missed for his application and calm.

Talk to those who shared a dressing room and they would only start with his footballing skills. "Simply an outstanding man," was how one man put it and there aren't many who would disagree.

Kilbane moved easily into the media during last summer's European Championships but the delight in Robbie Keane's eyes when he saw him in a press conference before the Croatia game was another example of his popularity in the dressing room.

The French had recognised Kilbane's importance in 2004 as some of us were slow to catch up. But he wasn't the only player they were impressed by. "You have one extraordinary player," Thierry said to us as he looked for some video and we nodded sagely. Yes, Robbie, Roy, Duffer, we said, we've got loads.

"No," he said, "not them." We wondered as Thierry seemed to search for the clip which would make it clear. Instead he explained.

"One minute he is up front. The next he is at the back. He runs like this." With that, Thierry stretched out his arms as if mimicking a bird in flight. Ah, we said, The Doc. Gary Doherty.

"Yes," Thierry said. "The Doc. He is extraordinary."

Thierry saw things we didn't but in his appreciation of the Killer, few would dispute his analysis.

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