The old Terrier for the hard road
Published 29/01/2011 | 05:00
TOMORROW, Kevin Kilbane will step onto the turf at the Emirates Stadium to make his 569th competitive appearance in English football and, perhaps, his last at the ground of a Premier League club.
It is the kind of stage that is familiar to Kilbane, given that he has defied the expectations of many by spending the majority of his career dining at a top-flight table, albeit primarily with clubs that are battling to stay in the division.
Yet as the finishing line in his career approaches, what seems most remarkable is that he has managed to come through that existence, a life with all the obvious temptations, and retained a normality and decency that is a rarity in his profession.
"He stands out in a dressing-room because he's just a sound man, a real down-to-earth bloke," recalls one former team-mate. "That's the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Kevin."
Few disagree with the sentiment. Finding acquaintances to utter a bad word about his personality is close to an impossible task. It's not as difficult to locate individuals who question his ability, particularly when it comes to regular Irish matchgoers.
History should judge Kilbane kindly, though. If fully utilising your talents is the definition of a successful career, then he has ticked that box.
He made his debut for Preston back in August of 1996, a team then managed by David Moyes. The 19-year-old Kilbane was replaced in the dying stages of the 2-1 loss to Notts County by the highly rated Michael Holt, an Englishman who would spend the supposed prime of his career in the League of Ireland with St Patrick's Athletic.
In fact, of his team-mates that afternoon, the only other one to have any form of top-flight career was defender Kevin Gage, and his days at Aston Villa were behind him when Kilbane made his bow.
A year later, Kilbane was on his way to West Brom, who shelled out £1.25m for his services, and was also called into Mick McCarthy's Ireland squad to win his first cap in the World Cup qualifying win over Iceland -- the game where the Irish team wore black armbands to mark the passing of Princess Diana.
Kilbane, who had always dreamed of playing for Ireland, turned down advances from England while he was growing up in Preston, and now has 108 caps to his name.
He has been involved in 35 World Cup qualifiers, 30 European Championship qualifiers and four games at the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Kilbane has also represented four different clubs at Premier League level; Sunderland, Everton, Hull and Wigan, and been transferred for a combined total close to £7m. It's a decent CV.
It could be said that Kilbane's affability, his trustworthy qualities, have made him attractive to managers, looking for a responsible head around the dressing-room. When Roy Keane pithily observed a few years back that there was one particular Irish player who seemed to get picked every time he turned up, regardless of the situation, many assumed he was referring to Kilbane, a good pal and loyal lieutenant of Mick McCarthy's.
Indeed, the story goes that Kilbane was sitting between Keane and McCarthy when the Saipan events escalated. But he wasn't speaking about Kilbane.
Indeed, the Corkman twice tried to bring his former colleague to Ipswich over the past year and greatly respects his professionalism.
Essentially, Kilbane is a player who is rated higher by people within football than he is by those on the outside looking in, the fans, the bloggers, the phone-in and message board brigade.
At Sunderland, he endured a miserable period, and particularly relentless terrace abuse which led to the only real blot on his copybook, when he delivered a two-fingered salute to his own fans on a pre-season trip to Belgium.
That came after a summer when, before the World Cup, the club had taken the unusual step of issuing a press release stating there was four clubs interested in Kilbane, drumming up speculation rather than quelling it. A subtle hint they wanted to get rid of him.
"I was getting abuse every time I kicked the ball, even before we kicked off in Belgium," he reflected after that incident.
Kilbane's career could have veered off track at that juncture. Others would have. But, Moyes remembered his qualities, and brought him to Everton. It raised eyebrows, but the Scotsman set about using the player differently, trying him in a central midfield role.
Ireland followed suit. There was once a theory, expressed in football circles, that Kilbane was always picked on the left wing because Ireland needed a target in the air from kick-outs, and lacked height elsewhere.
In 2004, however, he was moved inside to partner Keane after he emerged from international retirement under Brian Kerr, and they formed an effective partnership.
'Killer' collected the FAI Senior Player of the Year award after some notable displays, with his contribution to the scoreless draw in Paris standing out.
On the flip side, two years later, Kilbane was in central midfield for the infamous 5-2 loss to Cyprus, partnered in central midfield by a young Stephen Ireland. But, just like in his club career, he merely went on to re-invent himself, spending increasing periods of time on the left side of defence, a position he regularly occupied at Wigan.
Then he went to Hull, where Phil Brown even tried him at centre-half.
"The older you get, the slower you get, and supposedly, the further back you get -- that has happened where Kevin's career is concerned," Brown quipped.
Unfortunately, with Ireland, Kilbane's frailties were exposed in the last World Cup qualifying campaign, with no other option at Giovanni Trapattoni's disposal. He remains the No 1 choice in that department, but with Ciaran Clark and Greg Cunningham emerging, the Italian now has alternatives, even if the Manchester City starlet now finds himself on the sidelines after breaking his leg at the start of the month.
Kilbane was tempted to retire before the European Championship campaign. With pressing family commitments, it would have been easy to walk away -- his daughter, Elsie, has Down's syndrome. He has decided to stick around, though, even if he slips out of the team.
"You've got to take pride in being a part of the squad," he said.
And for supporters of the Terriers, he is now a main man, having slotted into central midfield, the area he feels is now his best where his coolness on the ball shines through in a league that it more often kick-and-rush. Often mocked as 'Zinedine Kilbane', he actually looked the part in his opening League One encounters, spraying the ball around with ease.
Sometimes, in football, it's easy to lose perspective. When a player derided at a higher level drops into the third tier, people begin to realise why they had the quality to compete at Premier League level in the first place.
So, going to Arsenal will hold no fear for Kilbane. Logic suggests it will be a testing afternoon, but, whatever happens, he'll come out the other end smiling, and prepare for the visit of Carlisle on Tuesday evening.
It's the unflinching temperament which has ensured survival in a cut-throat profession. The certainty that he will emerge with his original personality intact makes his legacy anything but normal.
Arsenal v Huddersfield, live, tomorrow, ESPN, midday