Moyes was wonderful to me at low point – Kilbane
Former Everton midfielder recalls manager's support when his child was born with Down Syndrome
Published 21/03/2014 | 02:30
When Elsie Kilbane was born with Down Syndrome in 2004, her father, Kevin, could not face going back to training at Everton.
Kilbane and his then wife, Laura, had so many decisions to make over Elsie, so many hospital appointments to attend, so many fears to confront and so much learning to do.
Kilbane remembers clearly those difficult early days. Speaking on the eve of World Down Syndrome Day today, one of the most respected footballers over the past two decades and now a popular BBC pundit, Kilbane is keen for other parents to absorb knowledge and ultimately encouragement from his experience.
"Elsie was born on a Monday night, so I didn't go back into training, I just couldn't," recalled the 37-year-old. "Emotionally, I wasn't in a great place. I spoke to David Moyes on the Tuesday and he said 'Look, take as much time as you want.' It's one of the reasons I respect David so much because of how wonderful he was with me, knowing I was going through a difficult stage in my life.
"I went back into training on the Friday, the day before we played at Leicester, and I wasn't considered for the team. From the following week, I was back in normal training. David Moyes said some quiet words to me if he thought he needed to, but he didn't put me under any pressure.
"He'd known me since I was a lad of 16 (at Preston North End) and knew there was no need to make a fuss around me. He trusted me to look after myself.
"I couldn't have wished to have been at a better, more caring club than Everton. Incredible. Lee Carsley is my best mate; he has a little lad with Down. Lee and I were always close. So when Elsie was born, to have that conversation with him was difficult for me.
"Lee was brilliant and he helped the other players out. Some were reluctant to talk to me. It is a difficult subject to broach. They knew I was very sad. They were going to Lee for advice on how they approached me. Lee said: 'Just congratulate him. He's had a little girl.'
"Some of the lads, like Kevin Campbell, Alan Stubbs, David Weir and Duncan Ferguson, big personalities and good people, would ask me questions. Sometimes, if I said, 'Elsie's been in for a heart scan today', it was a conversation killer. But Kevin, Alan, David and Duncan would ask: 'What happened? Tell us.' That shows the class of the people I had around me.
"Everton looked after me. I can't speak highly enough of people like Darren Griffiths in the press department, Tony Sage and Jimmy Martin, the kit men, Jimmy Comer, the masseurs and physios, the chairman Bill Kenwright."
On match-day, Kilbane poured his emotion into his football.
"Over that 18-month period after Elsie was born, I probably had the best period in my career."
Football was a release.
"When I got home, there were so many different things being thrown at me. When Elsie was born, we were told by doctors she might not walk, she might not talk. For the first year, it was hospital appointment after hospital appointment as she was checked for thyroid problems, iron deficiencies, hearing deficiency, heart scans. It was in our face all the time.
"I read leaflets, went on the Internet and I re-educated myself. Elsie is not a Down child. She's a girl first and foremost who just happens to have Down Syndrome. She's a wonderful little girl who enjoys her schooling. She was 10 last week. The 10 years have flown by. It's been an amazing 10 years with her.
"I did think of walking away from football. Not that I'd had enough of football, but I just needed time out. Looking back it might have been better for me psychologically to have had time out, take stock, review my own life.
"But I was a professional footballer, in a robotic mode, very mechanical. I train, I eat, I go to bed, I get up and then on to the football pitch on a Saturday.
"I was always very dismissive of psychology. You play, you get on with it, you go through life like that. Probably, from then on, I started to realise the fragile mentality of a player. You can put on a mask on the pitch but what you see on a pitch is only 5pc of someone's life."
Kilbane acknowledged the situation might have placed extra strain on his marriage. "Probably. It was three years ago that Laura and I split up. We never had the chance to take stock. Our priority was Elsie. The message we were given was, 'just love her, she's your child'.
"You have so many different thoughts. It's like a grieving process for the child you always envisaged you'd have. Where is your child going to be in five, 10, 15 years? It's very different. Elsie's going to have all these things but perhaps they may happen at a later stage."
Kilbane has been helped immeasurably by the Down Syndrome Association which does "an incredible job, providing support".
All the royalties from his autobiography last year went to the DSA and Down Syndrome Ireland. Earlier in 2013, Kilbane ran the London Marathon to raise money for the DSA. "Three hours, 14 minutes! I was quite pleased with that!
"If there was one bit of advice that I wished I'd known in hospital and I would give to parents who have a child with Down Syndrome, it is that 'everything will be all right'. You get too bogged down with the negatives. Elsie is far from perfect. You will have problems along the way but it's worthwhile. Elsie's a wonderful child." (© Daily Telegraph, London)