FORGET the man in the iron mask — meet the iron man in the mask. Tonight in the Podgorica Stadium in Montenegro, Kevin Kilbane will rack up a staggering 50th successive competitive game for his country.
But what makes the achievement even more remarkable is that, barely 10 days ago, his manager at Wigan, Steve Bruce, was ruling the Irish international out of action for up to six weeks after the player sustained a fractured cheekbone in the Premier League game against Hull.
Kilbane himself was sure he wouldn’t be making the trips to Germany and Montenegro.
“Chris Kirkland just kicked a high ball and I was backing off and couldn’t really get leverage on the jump,” he recalls. “The full back of Hull just came over the top of me. It was nothing malicious, he just raised his arm to leap for the ball and I just got caught. I felt it and I knew straight away it had gone. I had a dent in my face, a big V-shape, so I had to come straight off and that was it. My initial thought was I would miss the Ireland games and that was a big disappointment.”
Immediately, it was clear that surgery would be required but as early as the following morning ‘Killer’ began to nurture the first vague hope he might be in for an unlikely reprieve.
“I wasn’t really in any pain after the game and, when I woke up on Sunday, I wasn’t in pain again,” he says. “So I spoke to Alan Byrne, the Ireland doctor, and I said to him: ‘When you speak to the surgeon, just see how it is’. Then I spoke to the surgeon in Manchester and he reassured me that he could do the surgery on Sunday night. He told me what he was going to do and just said: ‘Yeah, you can play, there’s not a problem’. That eased my mind and I felt confident then. The surgery took about 15 to 20 minutes. He just inserted into the hairline and he went in with something and flicked the bone out. That’s basically what it was.”
The next stage for Kilbane was to get his game face on at St James’ Hospital in Dublin the day before the squad flew out to Germany.
“The mask worked out fine during the match against Georgia,” he says. “They just try to make it as streamlined as possible so it doesn’t feel too much of a hindrance. It’s well fitted so it’s no bother at all.”
Surprisingly for a Premier League manager, Kilbane’s club gaffer had no problem with his player heading off to play so soon after a serious injury, but then it’s fair to say battle-scarred Steve Bruce has been here himself more than a few times over the years.
“The club doctor was just a little bit wary about me playing, with a broken bone so soon,” Kilbane admits. “But Steve Bruce — I think he played with 20 broken bones! —he just said to me: ‘Look. Be careful’. But he said he wouldn’t have a problem with me playing in the game as long as everything was done right.”
KILBANE denies that the 50 in-a-row target was a big factor in his determination to link up with Ireland.
“No, not really, it’s just that I wanted to play in the games. I know how I felt on Saturday evening, and how I feel now, that not being fit and available to play would have been a massive disappointment. I probably wouldn’t have even watched it, I’d have been so fed up.”
It’s that full-blooded commitment which has underpinned Kilbane’s longevity and which, at the age of 31, sees him enjoying a new lease of life as a full-back under Giovanni Trapattoni. But, modest as ever, Kilbane plays down the circumstances of tonight’s career milestone, which will also see him earn his 89th cap.
“I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been able to play in a couple of positions over the campaigns,” he says. “At times, I’ve just been able to fill in, and that’s been pretty much it, to be honest. I suppose I’ve just been there and been able to take my chance. Playing at left full now is fine. I played there last season and felt very comfortable. I suppose it’s relatively new to me but I feel good there and it’s no problem.”
Thoughts of retirement are still far from his mind.
“I still feel fit and able to play. I think 31 is quite young to be thinking about it. I just feel fit and able to play and, hopefully, if I’m picked, I can continue.”
HE ADMITS that the arrival of Trapattoni only served to sharpen his appetite for another campaign.
“That was one thing in my mind, to work with him, to work under a guy who’s got so much experience, won so many things and worked with so many wonderful players,” Kilbane reflects. “To work with him, I’m sure, is only going to help me in the coming years. I’ve worked with some very good managers but I’ve never worked with a manager who has the pedigree like him.
“When the appointment was made, I think everybody was really looking forward to working with him. When you have the time with him, day to day, he’s fantastic. I’ve seen it when he speaks to you lads (the media) as well. He speaks to everyone in the same manner. He’s got such a good way about him. It’s infectious and it gets everybody going, training-wise, every single day. So many different things happen all the time with him because he’s such an energetic guy.
“We certainly seem to have benefited straight away. Now, we’ve just got to maintain what we’ve done under him.”
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