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‘People laughed at my accent when I first played for Ireland’ – Kilbane

The former Everton and Sunderland player, who turned down the chance to represent England, talks about his strong sense of Irishness.

Kilbane in Dublin Castle this week.
Kilbane in Dublin Castle this week.
Image: Jason Clarke Photography

KEVIN KILBANE HAS never felt anything but Irish.

While English-born players have been representing Ireland since as far back as the 1960s when Manchester United full-back Shay Brennan, whose parents emigrated from Carlow, won the first of his 19 caps, Jack Charlton’s use of the ‘granny rule’ saw an increase in the size of our talent pool.

Kilbane may have grown up a stone’s throw away from Preston North End’s Deepdale ground but read the opening chapter of his recently-released autobiography ‘Killa’ and it will instantly become clear that his upbringing was steeped in Irish culture.

His grandparents were part of the large Irish diaspora in England and parents Patrick and Teresa (who was born in Longford) met at the Hibernian Club.

He talks of wearing his Celtic jersey for a school game as it matched the colours of St Gregory’s, playing “ferocious” Irish v English matches in the yard at lunch, his sister’s Irish dancing days and even naming a goldfish he won at fairground after Paul McGrath!

One particularly significant story during his early playing days with Preston begins with a team meeting being called by then youth team manager and boyhood idol of Kilbane’s Sam Allardyce. Big Sam reveals that one of his players has been called up to England’s U18s squad and, as Kilbane looks around the room attempting to guess which of his team-mates has been picked, it is announced that he is in fact the “lucky one”.

Kilbane describes feeling his heart sink. Unable to disappoint his manager, he eventually plucks up the courage to pay a visit to his office the next day to explain that his wish is to represent Ireland. Furious at hearing the news, Allardyce tells the teenager to “f*** off” before ordering him to leave.

The current West Ham boss later does later apologise and although he persuaded Kilbane to join up for one training session with the likes of Kevin Davies, Danny Murphy and Lee Bowyer, Allardyce does get in touch with Mick McCarthy to inform him of his player’s wish.

After being faxed an initial call-up and playing several times for the U21s, Kilbane was handed his senior international debut in 1997 and went on earn 110 caps. He is currently the country’s third most capped player behind Robbie Keane and Shay Given and incredibly appeared in 66 consecutive competitive internationals.

Now retired and working as a pundit with the BBC, Kilbane was in Dublin this week to speak at the Shared Histories — Smart Futures. So how important was his sense of Irishness?

“I can’t get away from that,” he told The Score. “It was difficult with my accent as people laughed when I played for Ireland initially.

“But it’s what I always wanted to do and I was fortunate that I got the opportunity. I will never ever underestimate the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to play for my country. And I say my country because that is the way I always felt. It is my identity.

“My close friends growing up had the same background and considered themselves Irish as well.”


Kilbane (left) lining out alongside Martin Rowlands ahead of his 100th cap against Montenegro in 2009. Credit: INPHO/James Crombie

The debate around national identity and professional footballers representing countries who they have tenuous links with has been given significant media coverage in recent weeks.

Adnan Januzaj has been in the news because of his quite unique circumstances regarding which nations he is eligible to represent while Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa looks set to receive a call-up to Spain despite lining out for his country of birth Brazil in friendly games.

“My big bugbear and the disagreement I have is when someone says ‘I’ll keep them waiting as I might get a call-up’,” says Kilbane. “Or if you have played at U21 level and decide to change. I don’t agree with that.

“I don’t like the rule which allows players to play friendlies or underage and change national sides. If Januzaj professes that he sees himself as being English or whatever it is, I wouldn’t have a problem if he chose them.”

Kevin Kilbane was speaking at Dublin City Council’s Shared HistoriesSmart Futures Summit today on the area of how people and sports can drive collaboration between the cities of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The session celebrated sport as of the linchpins of commonality on our islands and looked at how sport can help to build smarter futures and improve links through promoting cooperation and understanding.

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About the author:

Ben Blake

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