Credit: Perth Glory Football Club with prior approval
I was extraordinarily lucky to have the opportunity to have a conversation with one of the A-League’s biggest stars this week, Neil Kilkenny.
In this exclusive interview, the Perth Glory midfielder discusses his views on the game in Australia, his Socceroos career and his ambitions for life after football.
Many of our UK readers will be most familiar with you from your spells at Birmingham, Leeds and Preston. How did the move out to the A-League come about?
“I always said that I’d like to go and play in the A-League when I was thirty, and I had the opportunity to go to Melbourne City. The style of play in the UK, for years and years, I’m talking probably 10 years, most of my professional career, I was banging my head against a brick wall behind closed doors…
I’m always think to myself that the game should be played a certain way, through the thirds, and there’s this stigma that you couldn’t play that way in the UK, you had to go more direct, which I completely disagreed with. I had the opportunity to go to Melbourne City, to play a certain style of football, the City brand of football… and I thought, “why not?”
If I’m honest, I got advised when I was a kid to leave the UK from a few coaches, in the sense that I would be appreciated more in other parts of Europe for the way that I played the game, and at the time, I sort of, not dismissed it, but I thought I was doing well, but you get more experience and you realise what they mean. I definitely 100% see what they meant.”
Is that a regret, not heeding that advice and seeking opportunities away from the UK earlier than you did?
“Yeah, maybe. Probably, in a way. Maybe not regrets, but a bit more of a ‘what if?’ You see players come through the youth in the UK who are seen as too lightweight or are not physically right, and they go away to other parts of Europe or the world and get appreciated more because the ball goes through them a bit more.
When I used to play in the UK, I think I on average touched the ball probably 40 times, and five or ten of those would be with my head, heading the ball and picking up second balls, but now in the A-League you probably look at it and I probably touch the ball 80 – 100 times a game, because it’s played a bit more through the thirds rather than over the middle and up to the frontman, which a player like myself wants, to receive and pass the ball as much as possible.”
You made the move to Melbourne City. What was it like being a part of the City group, and how did their set up compare to other clubs you’ve played at?
“The facilities were excellent in Australia, but, like you’ve said, I played at big clubs and the training ground at Leeds was fantastic, and even when I was at Arsenal as a kid, and at Birmingham, they were a Premier League side when I was there, but it was definitely up there with the standards. Sometimes as players you can be spoiled sometimes as well.”
You joined Perth after a season and a half in Melbourne. What convinced you to make the move across to Western Australia?
“Well to be honest, it was a bit disappointing with what happened at Melbourne City after my first season there, I got player of the year, and obviously a new manager came in at the start of the next season, and we were talking about a brand of football that was the “English way”, maybe not favourable to myself and it sort of went that way. A British manager came in and wanted to play that way and it didn’t suit me and I disagreed with… I left the UK for that particular reason, to get away from it.
I had the option to go to Perth, and I knew then Director of Football Jacob Burns, and I got on very well with him and he was a similar character to me in the sense of the way his thoughts on the game and the way to win… Obviously, Kenny Lowe was here too and is a fantastic guy and fantastic coach, so I signed over here in Perth for four, five months until the end of the season and really enjoyed it.”
How does the A-League compare with other leagues you’ve played in? It’s obviously hugely exciting for us to watch, with end-to-end football and goals galore, but as a player, how have you found the game in Australia?
“I was brought up in Brisbane and I look back now and I still remember the physical change the way the game was played in Australia to going to England. The ball was a lot more in the air, you had to compete more in the air, even at that young age… so when I came here and the ball wasn’t in the air as much, I’ve really enjoyed it.
A lot of teams play through the thirds and it is a proper football game, rather than a massive battle, which in the UK it is a lot of the time. “
You’ve added more goals and assists to your game since making the move, especially compared to your record in the UK. Do you find you have more space and time on the ball in the A-League?
“I think maybe that’s because I receive the ball more, double the amount to when I was in the UK. Like I said, the centre halves would get the ball in the UK, and I’d move up to receive it and the ball would get played up to the frontman’s head… and it was about picking up your second balls and maybe I wasn’t close enough to those second balls because I’d gone looking to receive a ball from the centre half… I just think that’s the case, receiving and passing the ball a lot more than in the UK.”
You’ve spoken before about your thoughts on the lack of games and it’s impact on Aussie players moving abroad… There’s some really exciting young talent emerging in the A-League this season… Alou Kuol at the Mariners, Aaron Anderson and Zayden Bello at Victory and of course Josh Rawlins at Perth. What do you think needs to change to improve the opportunities of Australian players reaching the very highest level of the game?
“They definitely have to play more games, 100%. 25/26 games isn’t enough.
And promotion and relegation as well. If you put a consequence on performances, in the terms of a lack of performances will see you relegated over the long term, you’ll see mentalities change very quickly. In the A –League and in the leagues below too.
People turn to me and say ‘Oh you can’t do that here’, but I completely disagree. That would be one of the best things for Australian football, because it would bring competitiveness and opportunity.”
We have seen new teams enter the A-League in recent years, and you look at Macarthur who’ve come in to the league and had a huge impact in their first season.
“Yeah, they’ve done really well. The way football is ran here in Australia, there are teams that can come in, but I really think you just need to bring in a relegation and promotion, and that’s how you get in to the league. You’ll have people who have an opportunity from the NPL who can get in to the A-League through a promotion.
I obviously go back to the UK because that’s what I know, playing there for so long and but you look at Jamie Vardy… we very rarely get a Jamie Vardy in Australia because the players that fall out of the A-League find it very hard to get back in to the A-League. If you bring promotion in to it, these players that have something to prove can get back on the ladder and rise up the ladder very quickly if they get their heads down and perform.”
I’d love to touch on your international career. You had a really interesting international career, representing England, Ireland and Australia at youth level before declaring for the Socceroos. Did you always see yourself as an Aussie international?
“I played for U20s for England and was playing in the Premier League at the time, that season I played 25 games in the Premier League… and I think I would have been very close to getting called up to the England ‘21s but Australia came calling just before the World Cup and said why don’t you come and have a look at us and train… Australian football was always in the back of my mind and I was always keeping an eye on what was going on back in Australia, so when the opportunity came up I took it and I’ve really enjoyed it.
I’ve only got fourteen caps, which I feel I should have had a lot more… but that’s perhaps a different subject…”
The Socceroos haven’t played now since late 2019, but have a group of World Cup Qualifying games coming up. With your fine form for Perth this season, do you feel like you’re maybe deserving of call up?
“I don’t think just this season if I’m honest. I think since I’ve been in the A-League, probably even before, but definitely since I’ve been in the A-League… If you look at the last four/five years since I’ve been back in Australia, I’ve been consistently been performing at a decent level and I should be in that squad.”
Finally, I know you’ve been doing some media work with FOX Sports, so what would you say to a UK audience to encourage them to tune in and give the A-League a chance?
“Yeah, I think people should definitely give other leagues a go all around the world. Obviously, the A-League is one I would definitely be promoting. The game may be slower in some aspects, in the sense of it’s possession based rather than getting the ball forward… people say the Premier League is the best league in the world, and I agree, and it’s the most entertaining league in the world, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most technically gifted. Over the last couple of years it has definitely come on, with Guardiola and Klopp coming in, more so Guardiola, who has changed the footballing mind in the UK.
I’ve been banging that drum for fifteen years, but you need a top, top manager to come in, stick to his ways of playing, and the press have tried to bombard him in to changing… he stuck with it and is getting constant success. The A-League is definitely something worth a watch. On the media side of things, definitely something I’m enjoying and keeping an eye on, but I want to keep playing for as long as I can do.”
Do you see yourself doing that in the future, when you’ve hung up the boots?
“I think it’s hard to go in to the media as soon as you finish playing if you want to go in to coaching and management, and even as a player, it’s hard to have a real, brutally-honest opinion because obviously you still have to play against these teams… it’s something I’d definitely consider but I want to coach and manage as well, because I have a real passion for improving young people and young players.
You see me on the pitch and people will say ‘he’s always shouting’, and I am, but it is pure passion and trying to get people to do more, and improve, and trying to win. I’m really enjoying playing with the young players at Perth Glory because I think there’s a lot of talent there, and hopefully I can help them succeed in the game, not just at Perth Glory and in the A-League, but throughout the world as well.
There’s a lot of talent at the club, and in Australia in general, and you have to coach the kids and coach the young players and push them, and maybe change the mentality as well to a certain extent, because life is so good here. It’s definitely something I’m looking at.”
Is that something you do now, leading on the pitch in an almost a player-coach role?
“I think it’s always been in me, from a young, young age. But obviously, people will listen to you more the older you get, because they see you as an experienced player. But I feel I’ve always had a really good footballing brain, in the sense of tactically, using little movements to create space for yourself as a striker and the importance of playing out from the back…
I’ve known I wanted to be a coach and a manager from about the age of 24 when I was playing. I’ve always said when I got in to the first team at Birmingham when I was 18 or 19 that my progression slowed massively, because the coaches and managers were very much results driven. It’s not that they don’t have time to coach, but it goes on the backburner, because they need results yesterday, not today or tomorrow.
That mentality has changed over the years, and a lot of coaches are now seen as head coaches as opposed to managers. A manager fifteen years ago when I was coming through was having to run the whole club, or near enough, so they had other things on their mind other than just coaching.
I’ve got my UEFA A license, and have my Pro to go. I knew I wanted to get my A and my B, then I’ll look at the Pro when I finish and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to go in to coaching as soon as I finish.
I don’t want a break. I don’t want to lay on a beach or stay at home for a year or go travelling, I’m football obsessed. I’m so passionate that I probably get on people’s nerves because I talk about football 24/7, but that’s just because I’m so passionate about the game.”
Perth have been flying this season, breaking records along the way. Is becoming Premiers and making the Grand Final the aim for the club this year?
“Definitely. My mindset, and I’m sure the clubs is, is that we wanna win. You don’t want to go in to the season thinking you’re happy with sixth, and scraping in to the finals, you want to win it.
I’ve been here for two full seasons now and we’ve come fifth, which in my opinion was a bit of a disappointment… but the season before that we did win the league and it was disappointing to win the Grand Final, so this season, definitely the aim is to win the league. I’m sure there’s eleven other teams that are thinking the same, but I’m willing to do what is needed to win the league and hopefully we can do that.”