Published Date: 23 March 2007
It was the early spring of 1996, a year avid Deepdale-watchers would rush to declare a vintage, as Preston North End were crowned Division Three champions.
With Preston charging relentlessly towards their first outright title for a quarter of a century, Gary Peters summoned Farrell Kilbane to his cramped Deepdale office
“It is a day I’ll never forget, and the hardest moment I’ve ever had to deal with in my football life, ” said Kilbane.
“Gary sat me down and said – Farrell, I might regret this one day, but I’m making a decision not to renew your contract. I’m letting you leave Preston.
“I was a proud Prestonian. Born and bred in the town and deeply proud of my roots here.
“I loved the club and he was telling me, at 21, I was finished at Deepdale.
“I didn’t blame Gary.
“It is a decision a manager has to make sometimes, but I was
“I lived in Manor House Lane. You could see Deepdale from my house, but it took me an hour to walk home that day.
“My head was in bits and I was in tears. I kept looking back at the stadium, thinking I’ll never play there again.
“At that age, when football completely dominates your life, you think it is the end of the world.
“Football is a fantastic, wonderful game, but it can be a ruthless, horrible, business.
“There can be intense disappointments, and nobody can prepare a young lad when it happens.
“It really can feel like you are on the scrap-heap.
“I think football should look at having some form of counselling for youngsters when they have to deal with that, because it is
It says something for Kilbane’s resilience and self-belief that when he was released by Preston he was determined to carry on.
He could have dropped out, disillusioned, but when he stepped down a few rungs of the football ladder into the non-league world, with Stafford Rangers, Lancaster City and Southport, it lit the flame again.
Today, a decade after leaving Deepdale, Kilbane is Burscough’s number five, an all-action centre-half and still in love with the game.
The West Lancashire village club, managed by ex-North Ender Liam Watson, are chasing promotion to the Conference North, a couple of steps below the Football League pyramid.
“You are completely mollycoddled as a professional, and you really believe that football is the be all and end all.
“But, of course, when you come out of the pro game you quickly realise that life is not the real world at all.
“There are so many more important things in life, but my passion for football has always endured.
“Non-league football was a culture shock, believe me.
“When I got the offer to go to Stafford, I thought, ‘flippin heck, I don’t want to go there’.
“I’d played for the famous Preston North End, and it was all a bit surreal, thinking about life after that. But you have to adapt in life.
“After a decade in the non-league world, I have total respect for the lads who are playing at this level.
“You quickly realise how professional and dedicated they are. There’s no flash cars in the car park or daft egos.
“There is certainly no glamour in finishing work at four o’clock, getting on a bus and going up to Blyth Spartans on a wet Tuesday night in January. But, do you know, I love it.”
Kilbane was raised in Holme Slack, with younger brother Kevin, the Republic of Ireland international, and when he began to show ability on the football pitch it was natural for him to think of Deepdale.
From his school, St Gregory’s, he could see the corrugated roof of the sprawling Spion Kop terrace and the familiar landmark of the four floodlight towers, watching over Deepdale.
“Dad played Gaelic football in Ireland, but I always remember mum saying that I walked at nine months, and was kicking a ball at 10 months.
“I’ve still vivid memories of playing football in the street with Kevin outside our house, and people would leave their cars there to go to the match.
“I never imagined that one day I’d wear a Preston shirt, and play in front of them.
“I remember featuring in three cup finals at Deepdale, in junior two, three and four, and later for the town team.
“We met Blackburn in the junior final, and I walked from school to play in the game.
“I was a Deepdale ball-boy in the 1986-87 season, which was a special one under big John McGrath.”
Preston were promoted from the old Fourth Division, a year after they had to apply for re-election to the Football League.
“It was a smashing Preston team – Bob Atkins, Gary Brazil, Ronnie Hildersley and John Thomas.
“I loved John Thomas. He was a wonderful, instinctive, striker and he was my hero as a kid.
“Later, as a professional, I would put my North End suit on and walk to Deepdale to play. It was a fantastic part of my life.”
Signed by John Beck, Kilbane recalls those formative years at Deepdale.
“David Beckham had just arrived on loan from Manchester United and I’d get a lift to the training ground from him.
“I remember Beckham had just bought a jade-coloured Volkswagen Polo, and I’d sit in the back with Jamie Squires, talking about football, with David Beckham at the wheel, bombing down Blackpool Road.
“He was a brilliant lad, modest and quiet, and most approachable.
“It is incredible to see what he has achieved since, but he had unbelievable talent.
“He was a very dedicated person, a very special player.
“Beckham even scored a goal direct from a corner for North End against Doncaster.
“When I see him on television now, driving a Porsche or whatever, I often wonder whether he remembers that VW at Preston.”
Kilbane’s Deepdale debut, a 3-1 victory over Torquay United, came in March, 1994.
“I recall John Beck pointing at Micky Norbury, the striker, and he said, ‘If you are not fit, Kilbane will replace you’.
“I was gob-smacked and incredibly nervous. Anyway, I got on as a substitute. It was an amazing experience to wear the Proud Preston shirt.
“Chris Sulley fired in a free-kick and Tony Ellis netted twice. I was disappointed, though, as I didn’t do myself justice.
“I went into town that night and so many people wanted to ask me what it was like. It was a very special occasion.”
Kilbane is 33 this year and works as a physical education instructor at Garth Prison, near Leyland.
His enthusiasm for the game has never dimmed, though.
Kilbane is nothing if not a realist. A modest, affable man, with a dry sense of humour, and football and Preston remain a constant in his life.
Kilbane, who lives in Ashton with his wife Mariann and daughter Molly, enjoys the environment of his home town.
“I’ve always been comfortable in Preston, and all my friends are here.
“My career is approaching the end, but I’m still running around like a 19-year-ol,d and that intense enthusiasm gets me through.
“I love the game as much as I did when I wore the green and white hoops for St Gregory’s School in the 1980s.
“I love the anticipation of football, before the game, after the game or just talking about it.
“I’m a very superstitious person and go through the same routine before every match.
“I always have spaghetti bolognese for my tea on Friday night, watch the same television programmes, and always drive the same route to the ground.
“It is madness, to be fair, and it drives the missus bonkers.
“But it is what I feel comfortable with. And I have to get into that mentality before every game.
“Occasionally, I see older players and their love for the game has gone. They just go through the motions, and I have never found that acceptable.
“I’m very passionate about my football, and it gets under my skin when I see that.
“I’ve always loved the physical aspect of the game, and while I’m aggressive on the pitch, I’m very calm off it. I’ve had 12 red cards in my career, but I’m a lot wiser now.
“Perhaps referees looked for me in the past – and maybe I did get a reputation – but I’d rather have a laugh with them now.
“It’s almost a role reversal. I walk away now and tell the young lads not to get involved.”
Kilbane is intensely proud of his brother’s achievements.
“Kevin is a proud Prestonian too, and to see what he has done with Ireland, and in the Premier League, is special. We’ve lost contact lately, though. We’ve not spoken for 18 months, and I really don’t know why.
“There is no fall-out, but Kevin has his own life and I have mine. I’m sure our paths will cross again, though.”
He talks about the many influences and experiences which have coloured his football life.
“You are only as good as your last game in this business.
Football can be a very unforgiving sport. You are soon forgotten, and it can quickly become out of sight, out of mind.
“I’ve always had a deep respect for Liam Watson, and John Beck was always great with me.
“But I enjoyed the happiest day in football under Liam Watson’s management at Southport.
“Southport went to Harrogate on the last day of the season in 2005, having to win to lift the Conference North title.
“Port were 5-0 ahead after an hour, and it was party time. With two minutes to go, the game stopped for a player to be treated for an injury.
“A Southport fan thrust a can of lager into my hand and I just took a swig.
“When we returned to Southport I thought there would be a handful of people there.
“But a huge crowd had turned up at Haig Avenue, and they cheered us off the bus.
“We all felt like super-stars for a few minutes, and that’s what football can bring you sometimes.”