By David Hennessy
“It was a little bit scary,” Republic of Ireland’s third most capped player of all time Kevin Kilbane remembers telling Big Sam Allardyce, his assistant manager at Preston North End, that he wanted to snub a call-up to England’s Under-18s. “It was quite nerve racking going in to tell him that I didn’t particularly want to go and play for England. Throughout my life growing up, I wanted to play for Ireland.”
Growing up in Preston with a mother from Longford and a father whose roots were in Achill Island, Mayo, Kevin’s heroes growing up were all Irish and the green shirt was the only international shirt he ever wanted to wear. But the current West Ham manager was furious. As he never got the opportunity to play for his country, he took Kevin’s words as an insult.
“We’ve got a little bit of stick over the years, saying we’ve recruited anyone who’s had a pint of Guinness over the years and of course we have exploited the rules to their full potential there but there’s so many of my team mates that were from very similar backgrounds to me over the years. All of them are very, very proud, equally as much as I am to play for Ireland. It’s where I wanted to be, there’s only one country that I did want to play for if I’m being totally honest.”
After calming down, Allardyce called Mick McCarthy to make him aware of Kilbane’s allegiances. Kevin played nine times for Republic of Ireland bU-21s before being called up to the senior squad in 1997. Kilbane earned 110 caps and scored eight international goals. He travelled to the World Cup in Japan/South Korea with Mick McCarthy’s squad in 2002 and played in the successful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. An incredible record Kevin holds is playing in 66 consecutive competitive games for his country, never missing one from 1999 to 2011.
At club level, Kevin moved from Preston North End to Wigan Athletic before Peter Reid paid £2.5 million to take him to Sunderland. He had stints at Everton, Wigan Athletic and Hull City before finishing his career at Coventry. Kevin now analyses football for BBC.
His recent autobiography provided Kevin with the opportunity to revisit his career highs and lows but also to do something for charities close to his heart: The Down’s Syndrome Association and Down Syndrome Ireland. In the book, Kevin writes about finding out his daughter Elsie had down’s syndrome and the adjustment that followed. A big help at this time was club and international team mate Lee Carsley who has a son with the condition: “First and foremost, I wanted to do it for the Down’s Syndrome Association and Down’s Syndrome Ireland.”
The most rewarding thing anybody could say to Kevin about his book is that it has helped them similar times: “I think I’ve spoken about it to quite a few families over the years I’ve met in certain situations. It is quite difficult for families to adjust certainly in the early years but the big message is probably you can get through it and there’s ways to get through it. There’s always going to be downsides along the way, I think you’ve just got to take the positives and try to draw on past experiences from other people, try to learn and help if you can as well.
“There’s so much you see (about the condition) in the papers and on TV, there is a lot of people that probably do need to be educated and not just on down’s syndrome but on various other conditions that I wouldn’t be too familiar with. It’s obviously something I’ve got a vested interest in and if I can try to help and try to put the condition in a positive light, it is my duty to try to do that. Hopefully just with the book coming, it can help someone, some family somewhere along the line.”
Kevin’s account of Saipan is very interesting, taking the reader into the Republic of Ireland 2002 world cup camp for the build up to and explosive bust up between Mick McCarthy and captain Roy Keane. Looking back, should there have been some mediation from senior players to retain Keane’s services? “It was a personal thing to Roy, it happened between him and Mick. Of course we all look back, we always think that he was one of the best in the world at that time and we would have been a better team if Roy had played for us at the world cup.
“It will go down as probably the biggest sporting moment in Irish history and I think there are not too many people from our generation that can forget what happened at that time whether you were in Ireland or there, it was a huge moment.”
Keane voiced regret at not featuring in that tournament in a documentary that looked back on his career and rivalry with Patrick Vieira but this cuts little ice with those who have never forgiven him for leaving his country at a crucial time: “I did see that. Certainly for me the highlight of my career was playing in the world cup. There’s been some real highs throughout my club career but playing for Ireland was always the highlight, it will always be the world cup. It’s something I can look back on in 30, 40 years or however long I’m here so I can understand Roy thinking like that. He got the opportunity to play in one in ‘94 as well so I’m sure that was a highlight of his career but of course he said himself he would have loved to have been there at that time in Japan and South Korea.”
Hand of Frog
The veteran former international was also present for the infamous Thierry Henry handball that unjustly kept an Irish side out of the 2010 world cup. It must be hard to accept something so wrong, does it still hurt? “No, I think it’s gone now. At the time when we did the book it probably was a bit more raw. We were so close to qualifying for another world cup and the way that we did go out, it was disappointing. A lot of people blame Thierry Henry for that incident, I don’t blame him for it because that’s the sort of thing that happens on the pitch. Officials missed it, we were disappointed even at the time with the officials and how it went for us but I think looking back now we played with a lot of pride that night, we played very well against a strong French team. I think overall the disappointing thing is that we probably did throw it away to an extent in the home leg because we just didn’t play well enough.”
Kevin writes about a team meeting that took place ahead of the Paris decider where Republic of Ireland had to overturn a 0-1 disadvantage. Held without manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s presence, it was decided to reject his defensive strategy in favour of a more attacking style. Was this not undermining their manager? “A lot of people have commented on this to me since the book’s come out. I think there were rumours circulating at that time that we had had a meeting and we did. We had a chat about a few things and we felt as if we were better than that first game. I think if I’m an outsider looking in, you say: ‘Yeah, you probably have undermined the manager..’ But I don’t’ think we felt like that from the inside, we felt as though we owed it to ourselves and the supporters: ‘We can go out, give a better account of ourselves, stop them playing, pressurise them…’ We did that in Paris and we should have won. We did win the game over 90 minutes, we should have qualified, gone through but it just wasn’t to be for us.”
Republic of Ireland’s most capped players
Player Caps Goals From-to
1. Robbie Keane 131 62 1997-present
2. Shay Given 125 0 1996-2012
3. Kevin Kilbane 110 8 1995-2012
4. Steve Staunton 102 7 1987-2005
5. Damien Duff 100 8 1996-present
6. John O’Shea 94 2 1999-present
7. Niall Quinn 91 21 1985-2002
8. Tony Cascarino 88 19 1982-2000
9. Paul McGrath 83 8 1981-1998
10. Packie Bonner 80 0 1978-1998
10. Richard Dunne 80 8 1997-present
Killa on… Republic of Ireland’s future
“Martin’s the manager, Martin will make the decisions and it’s a different role for Roy to play. I said it when I first heard of the appointment: I think we could have a management team there for a very long time whether or not Martin decides to stay on after his contract. If he doesn’t, we could have a readymade replacement in Roy behind him and that would be great for us to have that continuity for such a long time within the squad.
“I think Roy’s very presence being around there, he’s going to raise standards of the team. I think he’s going to raise people’s expectations as well just by him being in and around that set up as well. I think it was a good appointment.”
“I think it’s a good draw. Germany will win the group, I think we all accept that but I think if we can’t finish in second or third place, we’ve got real problems. I really fancy our chances because I think there’s a lot of positivity about the team now, there’s a lot of good quality within the squad. If you look throughout the team, there are good players who are playing at the top of their game now so I don’t see any reason why we can’t go and qualify.
“Poland and Scotland will be big big games for us both home and away. Poland have proved they’ll bring a big following to Dublin, we’ll have a big following out in Poland so that will bring back a lot of good memories for the supporters and their fond memories of 2012.
“I think Scotland will be tough for us, we know that. It will be pretty much like a derby game for a lot of players but it’s the sort of game that you want to part of, you want to be part of these big games in a competitive match and I think the players will be right up for that.”
Group D Euro 2016 qualifying
Republic of Ireland
Killa on… David Moyes
The current Manchester United manager David Moyes features heavily in Kilbane’s book both as his Preston North End team mate and later, his manager at Everton. Now that the pressure mounts on Moyes, is it hard for Kevin to analyse his friend’s team’s performances? “You’ve just got to comment on the games that you see. I was out in Athens last week when they were playing against Olympiakos and you can’t get away from the fact that it was a bad performance, and you’ve got to analyse it from that regardless of my relationship with David, and I think he’d do the same if the shoe was on the other foot.
“But looking at it from a personal point of view, of course I feel for him. I want him to succeed because I think he’s got all the attributes to be a successful Manchester United manager but it’s a tough time for him and it was going to be a tough time for anyone, whoever took over from Sir Alex Ferguson but I believe he’s got the strength of character, the know how and the belief in himself to go on and be a success there.”
Killa on… Tom Finney
The first chapter of Kevin Kilbane’s book begins with the following quote: “Football united the kids. You didn’t have to call for your mates; simply walking down the street bouncing a ball had the Pied Piper effect. We could smell a game from a hundred yards.”
This quote may have summed up Kevin’s childhood that featured games between him and the other kids of Irish heritage against the English lads. It was said by Sir Tom Finney, the Preston North End and England legend who died last month.
Kevin pays tribute to him: “I came into contact with him quite a few times when I was at Preston. A lot of the time it was just to say hello: A really, really nice man. I’ve not heard one person say one bad thing about him in all the time I grew up in Preston. I think that’s probably testament to him.
“There’s a statue at Preston, there’s a stand named after him, there’s even a road named after him in Preston. There’s that much has been in Preston to honour his life and it’s so thoroughly deserving not only for what he’s done on the pitch, it’s what he’s done off it. He did so much charity in and around the town as well as well, he’s done great work. There’ll be so many different ideas that are going to come out about how we’re going to honour him now but every single one of them will be fully justified.”
Killa: The Autobiography by Kevin Kilbane is out now on Aurum Sport. Royalties from the book are donated to the Down’s Syndrom Association and Down’s Syndrome Ireland.