Reversal of fortune restores Kilbane to the premier crew

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The Independent Football

Comebacks seem to be all the rage in Ireland at the moment. Witness Kevin Kilbane, who, inspired by his country's recovery from back-to-back defeats in their opening Euro 2004 qualifiers, has recently managed to put his own career back on track.

Just under a year ago, both the Republic and Kilbane were at a low ebb. Mick McCarthy's team had lost to Russia and Switzerland, while Kilbane was public enemy No 1 in the eyes of the Sunderland faithful. Fortunes have changed dramatically in the last 12 months, with Brian Kerr's new-look national team back in contention for a place in Portugal next summer and Kilbane back in the Premiership with Everton.

"It's been a strange year for me," says the 26-year-old, who has rejoined his former Preston North End mentor David Moyes at Goodison Park, "both at club and international level. It's been tough, but I've learned a lot and I think I'm stronger now." Just as the Republic had to dig deep to haul themselves back in contention for the European Championship finals, so Kilbane had to work hard to persuade the notoriously demanding Sunderland fans that he was worthy of a place in the team. "It's when you have been written off and aren't given a cat's chance in hell of achieving your ambitions," he says, "that you have to show character and turn things around."

It tells you everything about Kilbane's successful transformation that the very supporters who were using him as the scapegoat for everything that was wrong at the Stadium of Light last season were the first to congratulate him on his move to Everton last week.

"A lot of fans have got to take credit for the way they took me back," says Kilbane, who signed for Everton in a £1m deal on transfer day. "After last summer, when they weren't going to have me at all, I thought I would never play for the club again, but they turned round and there have even been supporters who have come up to me over the last few months and admitted that they gave me stick but admired the way I have come back. It means a lot to me when people say that."

Kilbane admits that he went through difficult times, but insists he never gave up hope that he would recover his best form. "At the time it did get me down a bit," he says, "but you have got to accept the criticism and take the rough with the smooth. I honestly wouldn't change anything that happened at Sunderland because I have learned a hell of a lot from everything that went on during my time there."

Perhaps Kilbane's level-headed attitude explains why, even after Sunderland were relegated last summer, the former Preston and West Bromwich Albion winger knew he would play in the Premiership again. "If you don't have confidence in yourself and your ability," he says, "then you don't have a chance. As much as I knew that Ireland could bounce back, I also knew that I could regain my best form."

Kilbane's good performances over the last few months persuaded Moyes to give the player another chance in the top flight. "I am delighted to be back in the Premier League because that is where you want to play," he says. "I'm really grateful to have been given the opportunity by David Moyes and I am looking forward to it. There is no guarantee of a place in the side, but I knew the score when I signed there and I am just looking forward to the challenge."

So far as Kerr is concerned, this is the ideal move for one of his key players. "It suits him and it suits us," the Ireland manager says. "From Everton's point of view, they have got themselves a great player and an honest, hard worker. From our point of view, it's great because it means Kevin will be playing at the top level week-in week-out. That can only improve the lad."

In signing for Everton, Kilbane has joined a stable club who appear to be on the rise. More pertinently still, he has renewed his association with Moyes. When Kilbane was at the beginning of his career with Preston, Moyes was coming to the end of his playing career and starting to develop his interest in coaching. "He was always there to give advice when I was a young boy," Kilbane says, "and always there to give me extra coaching in the afternoons. He has been a massive boost and influence on my career."

The two stayed in touch after Kilbane left Deepdale but the player was too embarrassed to ring Moyes once he became manager of Everton. "I was afraid he'd think I was looking for a move," Kilbane jokes. "I didn't want him to worry I was touting around. I've always wanted to get there on my own merit. It's much more satisfying that way."