Sir Bobby Robson recently lost patience with a questioner who was attempting to lead the Newcastle United manager down the maybes of history. "'If' is the biggest word in football, son."
It is, and you can try it with any club. If Sunderland had not won the FA Cup during a Government-imposed wage freeze in 1973, they would have been able to keep hold of Dennis Tueart and Dave Watson and maybe not have spent six of the next seven seasons in the Second Division. If Glenn Roeder had not been sitting next to Alan Durban, then the club's chief scout, at a sportsman's dinner in 1997, Peter Reid would have signed David Connolly from Watford rather than Kevin Phillips. If Kevin Kyle's father had not suffered a heart attack, then perhaps his son would not be spearheading Sunderland's attack against Millwall for a place in an FA Cup final.
Kyle is from Stranraer, a town which now chiefly exists for the ferry port to Belfast, where he worked as a baggage handler before being offered trials for Sunderland. "When I first came to the club I was stuck in a hostel. The English lads went home at weekends and we had to stay. I'm not saying they bullied me but it was hard and I got really homesick and said to myself, 'This is not the life for me'. I phoned home and I got no answer so I phoned our neighbour but got no answer, and eventually my mum called and said: 'Kevin, your dad's had a heart attack.'
"I packed my bags, jumped on a train at five o'clock in the morning and got home at one o'clock the next day thanks to the rubbish train service we have to Stranraer and saw my dad all wired up and that was it for me. My neighbour, John, who used to work with me as a baggage handler, said: 'You get home and you make it for your dad.' Dad had done so much to get me where I was. Every Saturday and Sunday when I was a kid he would drive me to Ayr, which is an hour away from Stranraer, just so I could play competitive football. This is my chance to repay him."
Kyle's mother had researched their family tree and discovered that his great uncle was Alan Morton, who played for Rangers and Scotland and was known affectionately as "The Wee Blue Devil". Kyle is not wee; he is 6ft 4in and was considered a direct replacement for Niall Quinn, who was one of the most sophisticated pure target men in the international game. Ironically at Old Trafford, Kyle will come up against Danny Dichio, who was also once brought to Wearside to replace Quinn and, like Kyle, found it an enormous task.
"The fans were so used to seeing Niall Quinn and the things he did over the years that some people expected me to do it straightaway," Kyle said. "And then when I didn't, they said: 'He's not the next Niall Quinn, we don't want him, blah, blah, blah.' But Sunderland couldn't buy the next Niall Quinn: for £10m, you simply wouldn't get one. If you ask Niall Quinn what he was like at 22, he'd tell you he wasn't the player he became. I want to fill his boots because the things he has done at this club have been brilliant."
When Kyle lined up to face Crystal Palace in September it was the 32nd League match he had played for Sunderland and he had failed to find the net in any of them. That Saturday, he scored and it marked something of a personal turning point. For the club as a whole, it was probably the 1-0 win over Sheffield United in October, their first defeat at Bramall Lane in eight months.
Since Kyle's header struck the net, Sunderland's progress has been one of slowly gathering speed and resolve. Millwall remain the only side to have won a League match at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland may yet just win automatic promotion, which would be one of Mick McCarthy's more remarkable managerial achievements, given the pessimism which surrounded the club when the season opened. Some 23 professionals have left since relegation was embraced at Birmingham almost exactly a year ago, although McCarthy can boast the biggest wage bill in the First Division, the largest stadium and easily the best training facilities. The entrance hall of the Academy of Light resembles the reception of a minimalist design hotel but the rub is that Sunderland cannot afford to employ anyone to man the reception desk.
Sunderland, who were the last team from outside the top division to reach the FA Cup final, in 1992, last played Millwall for a place in the final in 1937, and Kyle's style would not have been out of place that day at Huddersfield. He is an old-fashioned kind of footballer, a big centre-forward who at Stranraer's ferry port has seen the other side of life and used it to his advantage. Gary Pallister worked in Middlesbrough docks, Stuart Pearce was an electrician for Brent Council, while Phillips stacked shelves with Sunblest bread. It made them more rounded individuals, given a perspective they would not have had in the sleek, rather soulless environment of a football academy.
Kyle is engagingly, refreshingly modest. Even when it comes to his one competitive start for his country, the miserable 2-2 draw in the Faroe Islands which is generally regarded as the low point of Scottish international football, he is upbeat.
"I've never quite established myself for Scotland. I had a lot of stick from the press after I played against the Faroe Islands but I didn't let it bother me because I got the chance to play for Scotland and they never did.
"I was a Celtic supporter as a lad and Frank McAvennie [the former Celtic and Scotland striker], who's now an agent, phoned because he wanted to sign me, and I nearly died of shock. What would Frank McAvennie want with the likes of me? From being a baggage handler to being here is frightening."Reuse content