Neil Kilkenny: 'Everyone said we'd lose at United. I knew we had a chance'

Fresh from the ultimate upset, Leeds face Spurs today. Midfielder Neil Kilkenny tells Phil Shaw how he almost walked in on Ferguson's hairdryer blast, and why he may end up playing at the World Cup
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The Independent Online

Amid all the hugging and high-fiving after Leeds United's FA Cup victory over Manchester United, Neil Kilkenny slipped into the corridor between the dressing rooms at Old Trafford. His mission was to relieve Ryan Giggs of his shirt. An arm on the shoulder stopped him. "If I were you," one of the home club's kit men cautioned, "I wouldn't go in there."

The image of the champions' multimillion pound stars sitting sullenly as Sir Alex Ferguson vented his wrath will merely compound the satisfaction of Leeds' supporters. For the player nicknamed "Killa", whose career is already more chequered than a Croatian flag, this evening's televised fourth-round tie at Tottenham Hotspur is an even more enticing prospect.

The spiky, 24-year-old midfielder plays his international football for Australia, his parents having emigrated when he was four, and has not given up hope of making the Socceroos' squad for the World Cup. Yet he was born in Tottenham territory, in Edmonton. His two brothers, and most of his extended family, follow Spurs. And his "all-time hero" is Paul Gascoigne.

Kilkenny, though, is not one to go along with the crowd. Even before arriving in Yorkshire, he had proved adept at the plain-speaking for which the county's natives are renowned, bringing him into conflict with various managers and coaches. More pertinently to Leeds' attempt to claim another Premier League top-four scalp at White Hart Lane, he is an Arsenal fan.

He was also a budding Gunner for seven years, his route to Highbury being circuitous even by the club's modern-day, globe-scouring standards. "The family emigrated to Brisbane in search of a better life," Kilkenny recalls. "From the age of five I played in a team called St Catherine's Under-sevens, then for Coalstars. I was showing promise and people said I could go on to be a professional. My parents were advised that the earlier you get attached to a pro club, the better. They thought I'd have a better chance of getting noticed in England. We went back when I was 11."

Playing for Percival in the Enfield League, "a hot spot for scouts", he swiftly attracted the attention of both north London giants. "It was my dream to play for Arsenal so I chose them. Later I signed as a YTS boy and became part of their academy."

Kilkenny's all-action style and passing range saw him progress through the ranks to the verge of Arsène Wenger's reserve squad. He also earned call-ups from both England and the Republic of Ireland (for whom he qualified via his grandparents) at Under-19 level, wearing the three lions alongside one of today's possible adversaries, Tom Huddlestone.

But then he decided to leave Arsenal because, as he puts it, "it wasn't going the way I'd have liked with the coaches – unlike now, there weren't many young players coming through".

Birmingham City recruited him following a trial match against a Wolves side containing a familiar 36-year-old also looking for a contract. "It was a pleasure to play against Gazza. I shook his hand and got his shirt. I used to watch him on video – the 1990 World Cup and his Spurs days especially – then go into the streets in Queensland and pretend to be him. I loved his passing ability, his flair, the way he drove from midfield, how he could also put his foot in and just boss a game." Kilkenny was sent out for the first of two loan spells at Oldham, before Birmingham gave him his Premier League debut, against Liverpool, in which the 19-year-old generated late drama. "Steve Bruce threw me in against Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamann a few months after I watched them win the Champions League final. We were 2-1 up with five minutes left when Jamie Carragher hit the bar. As the ball came down I instinctively stuck my hand out. I knew right away I'd be sent off, and it ended 2-2."

When Bruce gave way to Alex McLeish, Kilkenny was allowed to rejoin Oldham. A commanding display at Elland Road at the start of 2008 prompted Leeds' soon-to-be ex-manager Dennis Wise to pay £150,000 for him, although throughout the reign of Gary McAllister and the early part of Simon Grayson's tenure, Kilkenny was in and out of the starting line-up.

"[Grayson] didn't pick me in his first nine matches. Then he put me in and I stayed in until last year's play-off semi-final against Millwall when I got injured. This season I didn't start a game until October, but the period since then has been the best I've played for Leeds."

Kilkenny's partnership with Michael Doyle, the on-loan enforcer from Coventry, proved more than a match for Anderson and Darron Gibson at Manchester United. "I think I'm worthy of playing in the Premier League, so when the third-round game came up, I had to prove to people that I can play at the level.

"The names trip off the tongue – Giggs, Rooney, Berbatov and so on – and they're all world-class. Everyone seemed to think we'd lose, and probably rightly so. But we've been professional, disciplined and hard to beat all season, which we took into that game. And we knew we'd make a chance or two. I feel our whole squad could play in the Championship. So it wasn't just any League One club United were up against. You could see that from the support we had there."

Television took Kilkenny's combination of feistiness and finesse around the world, provoking particular interest Down Under. He has played twice for Australia and was invited by Guus Hiddink to join the squad's German training camp before the 2006 World Cup. But after the Olympics two years later, when his only appearance came against a stellar Argentina side including Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Juan Roman Riquelme in front of 70,000 in Shanghai, he publicly lambasted coach Graham Arnold, who is currently No 2 to Pim Verbeek with the Socceroos.

"I say what I feel, which isn't always the best idea. Maybe sometimes I haven't got on as well as I should with managers. I can be a hard character to get on with and I'm a bit of a moaner. But that's mainly because I'm desperate to play and I get frustrated if I don't."

Arnold flew in to watch Kilkenny against Wycombe, the first of three matches since the Cup triumph in which Leeds' indomitable aura has deserted them. "Unfortunately we didn't play well but we had a good chat. One problem for me is that midfield is the national team's strongest unit, with players like Harry Kewell, Mark Bresciano, Tim Cahill and Vince Grella. But I'll keep working hard and, hopefully, get a call-up to show what I can offer. I haven't booked any holidays for June or July yet!"

The tie at Tottenham will be another platform for Kilkenny – and a glimpse, he hopes, of Leeds' future, assuming they regain the momentum they took into the Old Trafford tie. "I feel I could play at the highest level. I've done it before and did myself justice. Clubs may be looking at me but this club are going there as well. I'd love to be on that journey."

My other life

"Outside of football, I like to play pool and sometimes table tennis. And I used to watch rugby league a lot in Australia when I lived there – it was the biggest sport around.

"The one sport I don't like, though, is golf. You go to a golf course, hit the ball a few times and walk miles to do it. It's just so boring. And anyway, I have a bad concentration span – it's just not for me."

FA Cup heroes: Four who shone

Kilkenny is one of a number of Leeds players seeking a further opportunity to put themselves in the shop window at White Hart Lane today.

Robert Snodgrass

The 22-year-old midfielder, who has been linked with Burnley, can operate on both wings or as a striker and has scored seven goals this season.

Jermaine Beckford

Talented striker scored a memorable winner at Old Trafford in the last round, his 20th of the season. Has attracted interest from Everton and Newcastle.

Neil Kilkenny

Impressive midfield displays have seen the English-born Australian attract the interest of Roy Hodgson's Fulham among others.

Casper Ankergren

With 11 clean sheets this season, the Danish goalkeeper has attracted interest from Dutch club PSV.