Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kilbane targets Irish Hundred

There are only three outfield players in the history of world football to play 50 or more consecutive competitive games for their country. The first was Wolverhampton Wanderers and England legend Billy Wright, the first player ever to reach 100 international caps. The second was Theodoris Zagorakis, the captain of the Greece side that won UEFA EURO 2004.

The third is Kevin Kilbane, Ireland's left-back, who represented his country at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ and is hoping to play an instrumental part in taking the boys in green all the way to South Africa 2010.

Kilbane's amazing run began back in 1999 when Ireland faced Macedonia in a qualifier for UEFA EURO 2000. His half-century was achieved in Montenegro last September and, since then, the 32-year-old has played against Cyprus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Italy to take his tally of successive appearances to 54.

"I'm very proud of it," said Kilbane, with a modest smile. "I've tried to give my all in every game I've played in. I've probably been slightly lucky along the way where injuries are concerned. I've managed to stay injury-free whereas fellow internationals have got injured at the wrong time and missed international games and squads. "

The Hull City man now finds himself on 95 caps for Ireland, seven short of his former international team-mate and manager, Steve Staunton, who has 102. While Kilbane is not distracted by the record, he admits that he is going to give himself every opportunity to achieve it.

"You never know what can happen in international football," he smiled. "The games are spread out over a long period of time, but I'm hoping that I can continue being in the squad and try and help the team progress to another major tournament. If I can stay in the side and stay fit and healthy, then who knows?

"I can understand players who retire from international football because you do make a lot of sacrifices. You spend a lot of time away from your family and sometimes you play a lot of games in a very short space of time. But at the moment I feel fit, strong and I love been part of the Irish set-up and I feel very comfortable. It's where I want to be for a lot longer yet."

Ireland's results and, consequently the atmosphere in the squad, have been boosted by the arrival of Giovanni Trapattoni as manager. The Italian has won league titles with five different clubs in four different countries and the former Everton star believes that his pedigree and experience will be a key factor in their hopes of making it to the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

"He's brought a lot of steel to the team. We've stopped conceding silly goals at inappropriate times. We've won a lot of games 1-0, which is how we've achieved success in the past. More than anything else though, he's brought togetherness to us all and he's developing a squad which we think is capable of going on to qualify for South Africa.

"We've got a long way to go, but we have played some good football so far and got some decent results. We slipped up slightly against Bulgaria in our last home game by not winning, but bounced back with a good result against Italy in Bari. We need to continue the form we showed at the start of the campaign and maintain it. Hopefully, that will be enough to see us through."

Many people are tipping Ireland to finish second in Group 8 behind current world champions Italy, which should be enough to give Trapattoni's side a play-off match against a fellow European runner-up for a place in South Africa. Kilbane has experience of two such matches, a failure against Portugal in the run-up to EURO 2000 and a success against Iran over two legs that secured the Republic a place at Korea/Japan 2002.

"There's a lot riding on these games and consequently there's a lot of pressure," he recalled. "Usually, you find that a mistake or a set piece can win the match. The games are tight, cautious, opposition are always hard to break down and you just have to defend well. Hopefully, your team has enough quality to get you through in the end. If you do get through, there's a fantastic experience waiting for you at the end of it."

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