'Crowd pleaser' Kilbane enjoys new responsibility

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The Independent Online

Kevin Kilbane was talking about absent friends yesterday as he reeled off the names of those missing from the Republic of Ireland's midfield for their opening World Cup qualifier against Cyprus tomorrow.

Kevin Kilbane was talking about absent friends yesterday as he reeled off the names of those missing from the Republic of Ireland's midfield for their opening World Cup qualifier against Cyprus tomorrow.

"With Roy Keane, Mattie Holland and now Liam Miller out, we've got good, experienced players who are missing and that's a blow to us," Kilbane admitted. The international retirement of 32-year-old Jason McAteer - announced yesterday - and the "break" taken by Kilbane's Everton team-mate Lee Carsley have left the Irish even more stretched in midfield.

Mention of Everton inevitably leads to Wayne Rooney. "We'll have to cope," he said of the teenager's departure. "Wayne's gone now and we've got a lot of games ahead of us. When the transfer window opens in January there will be money available to the manager but we've got a small squad and we have to stick together, and hopefully it's not going to be crisis point come January. We've got good enough players in the team."

As do the Irish, despite the absences, and Kilbane - an ever-present under Mick McCarthy, much to the frustration of some Irish fans who questioned his ability - has taken on an even more central role under Brian Kerr. And that has meant a move into the centre, where he is now regarded by the manager as a "crowd pleaser" because of his enthusiasm and work-rate.

Kilbane has been surprised by the switch and how, at 27, he is a senior member of the squad. "I've got to take that responsibility," he said with relish. "But hopefully during this campaign there will be a lot of players who come of age." Players such as Andy Reid and John O'Shea.

Also in Group Four are France, Switzerland, the Faroe Islands and Israel. Despite an impressive record under Kerr - 11 matches unbeaten at Lansdowne Road and beating the Dutch away from home prior to Euro 2004 - Kilbane says: "This is where the work begins... We are judged on the qualifiers and have to put our friendly performances to one side and concentrate now on these big qualifiers we have coming up."

Cyprus have improved dramatically since Ireland beat them 4-0 away three years ago, and lost only by the odd goal in three against France in the Euro 2004 qualifiers. The disappointment of that campaign - with Ireland finishing behind Switzerland and Russia - is still raw, especially as both "took points from us at home and that's where we lost it. We have to be strong at home and dogged and tough away from home".

Kilbane, who had a torrid time at Sunderland before moving to Everton, appears to have found a mental toughness. "I think we're seeing the best of him now," said Kerr. "The move to Everton has been good for him."

The right-back Stephen Carr is under threat from Steve Finnan, although Kerr intends to use both next week against Switzerland. Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, despite their lack of first-team action due to injury, are expected to start both games. How they fare will no doubt hold the key to Ireland's chances.

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