Kevin Kilbane: After more than 700 games, I'm calling it a day… but I wouldn't change anything
15:14 GMT, 8 December 2012
This is the day I have been dreading. I’m retiring and hanging up the boots after nearly 20 years. I am no longer a professional footballer.
It seems strange to say it after all these years but the body and the mind have had enough. I know it’s time.
The last year, battling a back injury and getting fit for a new season with Coventry City, has been a real slog. It’s just not much fun anymore.
I’d lost that competitive edge to go to training every day. From being a kid, and certainly throughout my professional career, I have treated every training session like it was my last. But that feeling has gone. I don’t have that hunger anymore.
I know it’s the right decision for me, and my family, and, if there is one consolation, I’m pleased it has been in my hands. Over the years, so many team-mates and good friends, some as young as 18, some on their early 20s, lads so full of hope, have had their careers ended in an instant. They go into one more routine game, and bang. It’s all over.
A new beginning: Kevin Kilbane has retired from football
I’ve played more than 700 games, represented my country more than 100 times, including a run, of which I am very proud, of 66 consecutive competitive appearances. I couldn’t believe it when it was happening to me. I still can’t believe I have been so lucky.
I honestly couldn’t thank Coventry City enough for all their understanding over the last few weeks. I joined the club with really high hopes in the summer and was honoured to be made captain but things haven’t worked out like I hoped or planned. I know as well as most that’s just the way football goes.
Most importantly, after too many nights, weeks and months away from them, I want to be near my family. I can’t do that fighting against the tide in the Midlands when my heart just isn’t in it.
When I think back to the sacrifices I have made over the years, particularly representing my country, I don’t regret them. I was the only senior player who went to the States with Steve Staunton six years ago, but it was the right thing to do because I was playing for Ireland. I was captain on that tour. It’s what I dreamed of when I was wearing my Opel shirt at home in Preston in 1988.
It’s time to put me and the family first now.
My career started at Preston North End, my home-town club. I joined at 10, became an apprentice at 16 and made my debut two years later.
Calling it a day: Kilbane won 110 Republic of Ireland caps
I still remember my debut. It was Plainmoor, Torquay United, September 1995, a boiling hot day on the coast. Gary Peters was manager, he named me in the squad the day before we set off, I warmed up for the entire game I was so nervous.
He put me on the for the last 20 minutes, and we won 4-0. Although I am pretty sure I came away thinking `this is a breeze’, I never felt I had made it. I was delighted to be a professional footballer and I just wanted to work hard every day to make sure it was never taken away from me. And I knew it was what I had to do.
I had a good grounding because my older brother Farrell, who also called it a day at the end of last season after a good career as a semi-pro, had been released by Preston while I was at the club.
Preston won the third division that season and of course it was just an amazing start for me. I only played about a dozen games, usually from the bench, but I just loved every minute of being a part of the dressing room.
Leaving wasn’t easy. But when West Brom came in with a then club record fee of 1million, there was really no choice.
It was very hard to start with, living away from home for the first time and living in a strange city. I was all over the place, but Ray Harford was one of the best coaches I’ve worked with and he just believed in me. Ray and his successor Denis Smith let me play with the most freedom I’ve enjoyed in my career.
A step up: Kilbane is honest about his spell on Wearside
Sunderland was a big move and I know I was not good enough. It’s not a problem to admit it because it’s a fact.
I loved my time in the north east, made some friends for life, and I totally understand their love of football. I really do get it which is why I love the fans up there so much.
But I didn’t really settle quickly enough on the pitch and my best season was probably when we went down, which is no benefit whatsoever.
I was sorry to leave, especially as the club and I really had no choice after relegation, but Everton was probably my best spell. And then Wigan, and my favourite club game, the dramatic last day when we beat Sheffield United to stay up in the Premier League. I had a hand in both goals, I remember that.
And where do I start with the Ireland memories
Playing in the 2002 World Cup Finals was the greatest, strangest and most painful experience in my career, all rolled into one incredible month.
We got there thanks to that win over Holland, and that’s my favourite game. I was right behind Jason when he scored and just ran after him, caught him quite easily by the touchline because he wasn’t the fastest. The celebrations back at the airport hotel, after Lillies, were the best ever – and there have been a few.
I watched the Germany game on ESPN Classic the other night. We were a good side you know, even without Roy Keane. My memory of that night is the party back at the team hotel, with the wives, families and supporters staying there, Noel O’Reilly on the banjo, everyone getting up to sing a song. Late finish.
We should have beaten Spain to get to the quarter-finals. I know I should have scored. I can’t erase the mis-hit from Ian Harte’s saved penalty, and my own penalty miss in the shoot-out. I can still close my eyes and see them, feel the touches off my left foot. Miss every time.
Painful memory: Kilbane watches as Ian Harte sees his penalty saved by Iker Casillas
I’ve had my fair share of stick over the years, including from my own supporters.
No sports psychologist in the world can prepare a player for that abuse. It doesn’t matter whether it is one bloke shouting at you as you take a throw-in, or thousands booing you and cheering your substitution. It is hard to take because it’s you. They just do not like you.
No one likes criticism in any walk of life, but I learned to deal with it and ignore it, laugh it off. It’s the only way because you have to be stronger.
The funny thing is, I really wouldn’t change anything in my career, and I include all the stick.
Perhaps it goes back to my upbringing. When you’ve had Sam Allardyce, Gary Peters and John Beck bellowing at you as a young kid, stick from Sunderland fans is water off a duck’s back. With Big Sam one withering look was enough to make your blood run cold.
I’ll miss so much about playing but now I am looking forward to new challenges, long lie-ins and daytime television.
I’m not writing off coaching. I loved working with the reserves and academy players at Hull City last season with Nick Barmby as manager and sadly the role, which I had big plans for, was taken away when Nick was sacked and Steve Bruce gave it to someone else. And then I was sent to Coventry…
I’ve got my UEFA A and B licences, I know I love coaching, but it’s tough to get the work. I have certainly not ruled it out for the future.
My immediate future is to get more involved in work as patron of Downs Syndrome Association and work on my autobiography, which will be published next autumn in aid of the UK-based charity.
I will also be concentrating on the media work, which I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years, and hopefully I can be successful. It is a new responsibility and I have to view games differently but I like that idea very much.
It starts with the column next week in the Irish Daily Mail and a game for BBC Radio 5 live back at Everton tomorrow. I can’t wait.