Sport Soccer

Sunday 23 July 2017

Some distance left to run for great survivor

Kevin Kilbane has seen it all in football but it hasn't affected his outlook on life, writes Dion Fanning

There was a lot going on at Huddersfield Town last week. The club play Arsenal in the FA Cup at lunchtime today and ESPN were at the Galpharm Stadium to interview the manager and players.

Elsewhere in the building, the funeral of a loyal Huddersfield supporter was taking place. Walking through the hospitality suites and encountering a coffin being carried up the stairs was an unsettling moment.

Footballers treat it all with a cool detachment. The players do their piece in front of the camera as if they have to do it every day. At Huddersfield, they don't, and some of them never will get a chance to play at Arsenal again. Kevin Kilbane jokes as he is nabbed by ESPN that he can't talk about the other players as he doesn't know them yet. He has only been here a few weeks, another stop, perhaps the final stop, in a career that has brought him many things.

Kilbane's career has demonstrated how a man can navigate through the territory of riches and fame and not only be unchanged but become even more certain of the fundamentals. Life has altered Kevin Kilbane's approach to football more than football has affected his outlook on life.

He knows he is getting towards the end of his career now. He is 34 on Tuesday and he will travel to Dublin for Ireland's friendly against Wales next weekend, then he will travel again and again until somebody tells him to stop. There was a time a couple of years ago when he was asked constantly about international retirement and then that petered out as it became clear that Kilbane wasn't going to do anything as insane as stop playing for the country he loves, being among the team-mates he loves, doing the thing that he loves.

"I don't feel the need to retire," he said on Wednesday, sitting in an executive box at the Galpharm, with ESPN outside one door and a funeral taking place behind the other. We are in rich metaphorical territory.

"I think sometimes as well you're making a big statement and you're getting a bit caught up with yourself by retiring from international football and all that. If you're needed, you're needed and if you're not, you've got to basically just get on with it. If I'm needed for the rest of the campaign, hopefully I can play."

There will come a time, maybe soon enough, when Giovanni Trapattoni tells Kilbane that for this competitive game, he is going with somebody else. It will be a strange sensation for a player whose run in competitive matches goes back to 1999.

"Obviously I've started the campaign and we've got a bit to go yet and if he needs me through the campaign, brilliant. I know that Ciaran Clark is playing brilliantly at Villa now and if he played him that would be the way he'd go about things."

He is resigned to the inevitable but desperate to keep playing. He wanted to move to Huddersfield because he liked the idea of being involved in a fight for promotion, but he let Trapattoni know that he was dropping down to League One. Trapattoni just wanted him to play.

Huddersfield brings him closer to home as well. He was spending days away from them when he was at Hull. He had the compensation of Stephen Hunt as a travelling partner when they would drive to training. "I miss Hunty, I miss his petrol money," he says with a smile, referencing a Hunt interview last year when he claimed Kilbane charged him for the lifts.

His old Everton team-mate Gary Naysmith shares the driving now as they make their way across to Yorkshire. Kilbane isn't worried by what could happen at Arsenal today -- "I've played against them all, I know them all." He thinks Huddersfield have a chance but say their game against Carlisle on Tuesday is more important as the club look for promotion and Kilbane looks for another achievement.

His career seems strange to him, looking back. He was a Preston boy, making his way through the ranks, when a couple of quick moves, first to West Brom and then, two years later, to Sunderland, turned him into a Premier League footballer.

"It doesn't feel normal, certainly when you're growing up. I started at Preston in Division 3, as it was, and you say, look, you want to play at the top and I think every player has ambitions to play at the top."

But these ambitions aren't always realised and Kilbane says they may not even be believed by those who hold them. "You don't really feel like, 'I will get there one day'. You hope to and you try and work to get there but I've played alongside so many good players at different clubs I've been at who've never played in the top flight. I do feel lucky in that respect."

He thinks it has changed now. He was pleased when he arrived in Huddersfield to see that the Academy players were cleaning dressing-rooms and picking kit up the floor. It's not that he thinks young players should know their place but that these small duties in some way prepare them for when football comes along, as it almost certainly will, and kicks them in the face. He likes to offer advice now. Nobody can say he hasn't been there when he talks of tough times.

"I'm not saying I've been a saint because I haven't. I've had my fair share of nights out and I've had my fair share of fun. I've tried to do it right when I've been on the training ground and I've tried to pass on advice when possible to younger players. You see them down and you see them having a bad time because we've all been through it. Sometimes you can't do anything right. Nothing seems to happen, you're working hard and sometimes when you work hard it seems to get even worse."

He had those moments, particularly at Sunderland, where his education continued alongside a chorus of abuse. Kilbane kept going.

Ireland always saved him. He arrived in awe and now, with 108 caps, he is the most senior of them all.

He looks at the young players now and wonders where they get their confidence. He thinks maybe the sports psychologists tell them to be brash and bold and part of him thinks it's a good thing and another part wonders if they shouldn't spend more time listening and learning.

The Irish squad is made up of many parts now and he thinks there is real strength and personality there.

He is baffled that his friends Shay Given and Robbie Keane are not playing regularly or at all in the Premier League. "It's easy for me to harp on about it because they're my friends, but I feel as if they both should be playing. I think it was incredibly harsh on Shay. There was so much hype about Joe Hart being England No 1 and all this sort of thing. Because he's England's No 1 does that mean he's better than Shay? Not for me he's not."

Robbie's influence has grown, he says. In the last campaign Kilbane considered him as influential as Roy Keane when Ireland qualified in 2002. "Robbie's class, Robbie's brilliant, he's been our best striker for 10 or 15 years now. He's an outstanding player."

He thinks Shane Long will be playing in the Premier League next season whatever happens with Reading. Long is one of the reasons he thinks Ireland should be optimistic. He looks back to the Russia game and the dissatisfaction that followed and tries to explain Trapattoni's approach.

"In that game, we probably went a bit more direct. He doesn't encourage us to go direct, he just wants us to be solid, he wants us to be hard to beat. Sometimes when you're solid you're not probably near your strikers so sometimes you go long and you're not getting up in support. I think we've done that throughout his time and then through goal-kicks or whatever we can press areas and then we play some football."

He hasn't encountered a manager who spends as much time working on team shape as Trapattoni. All week they will train with that in mind, with the idea of being hard to beat always being drilled into them.

There are other managers he would have liked to work with. Roy Keane was interested in taking him to Ipswich. He wasn't sure, only because his daughter Elsie is settled in school and Ipswich would have involved either a long time away or a move for the family. "But I would have loved to have played under him."

He thinks Keane's work at Sunderland has been forgotten. "I'm not being his best pal or anything but he took Sunderland off the bottom of the Championship and within four or five months he's won the Championship and then he kept Sunderland in the Premier League. I think by his own standards he saw Sunderland as a top half of the table team -- he had spent a lot of money and I think he realised that. The club is seeing the benefits of that now under Steve Bruce."

He is not sure about management as he's certain that nearly all managers bring their problems home with them. He has enjoyed doing TV work but again thinks of the dressing-room. "You're in a position where you can have a go at teams and players without ever experiencing management. I think sometimes it might be an easy way out."

He thinks he might like coaching but he is not concerned by what will happen. "The future doesn't frighten me," he says.

When his daughter Elsie was born six years ago with Down's syndrome, the idea of living in the day became a foundation rather than merely a saying.

"If I start thinking of my daughter in 10 years, I could end up going nuts. If I think about her in 10 years' time when she's 16 -- where will she be? What will happen to her? You'd go nuts. It's probably the same case with every parent but more so with Elsie for me."

So he'll enjoy the day today even if it ends with him chasing Theo Walcott up and down the field. Kevin Kilbane will always come back for more.

Arsenal v Huddersfield Town,

ESPN, 12.0

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