Down a phone line from Toronto, Kevin Kilbane is taking it all in, all of it. The week has become a moment and Kilbane is reflecting on his Preston upbringing in the 1980s, the surrounding Irish family and culture, his identity, the stereotypes, Ireland, England, acceptance given and not given, caps and the power of football. Then there's Alan McLoughlin.
“Honestly, I’m getting emotional thinking about it, about him, about what it meant to me,” Kilbane says. “To get into that Irish set-up and to have someone who would take a little bit time to chat to you? He was 10 years older, and you know what you’re like in your early 20s, you think anyone over 30 is ancient, don’t you?
"But Alan, he just took time. I had a nightmare on my debut. I was so nervous, I shit myself. Alan saw me, knew I was slightly vulnerable, maybe recognised that bit of identity crisis that me, Gary Breen or whoever had when we were growing up. And we did have it – we can't get away from that. Alan was there to help me integrate. He helped me find myself in so many ways. He did."
McLoughlin’s sad, shocking passing on Tuesday will have made many in Irish football pause for thought. As all said, 54 is no age.
There was a torrent of understandable reminiscence of November 1993 in Belfast and all that flowed before and after the most charged match in Irish history. McLoughlin was the key individual, the man who shaped history. Certainly in Ireland, his goal that night overshadowed, or outshone, his years at Manchester United as an apprentice and the 17-season career at Swindon Town and Portsmouth, among others, that accompanied his 42 Irish caps.
Kilbane knew McLoughlin after Belfast and to Kilbane, McLoughlin was more than Belfast. When the young one made his Irish debut, in Iceland in 1997, the older one was there starting with him. Each saw something in the other beyond the green shirt. There was a shared experience, a common background that included uncertainty. McLoughlin reassured Kilbane it would be all right. Kilbane has the 110 caps to show that was correct.
Fish out of water
“When I look back to my childhood,” Kilbane says, “I felt almost like a fish out of water. I think my brother would say the same, my sister too. A lot of my fiends would have felt it. If we had ever been asked what country we were from, never once would we have said England. We would have said Ireland. Even though we were all born and raised in Preston, that was our identity. Anyone who set foot in the door was Irish. Every family function was surrounded by Irish people. We were Irish.”
He had the big decision to prove it. At 17 and making his way at Preston North End, Kilbane was called up by England's under-18s. His youth coach, Sam Allardyce no less, was delighted. The trembling boy then had to confront 'Big Sam' to say no, he would not like to play for England. His country is Ireland. To which Big Sam replied: "F**k off, Kevin," and other things.
Allardyce soon calmed down and accepted the choice. Others weren’t so sure – some of them in green.
Perhaps this is what McLoughlin saw in Kilbane. McLoughlin, recruited at 15 by the famed coach Eric Harrison at Old Trafford, was released by United one month after his 19th birthday. He had cleaned Bryan Robson's boots, and felt privileged, but he had not made the first team in the days of one sub.
Coming from his home at 162 Maine Road, beside Man City's old ground, it had not been easy for McLoughlin to hide his United preferences – due in part to his father Pat's love of George Best. One of McLoughlin's mates was Noel Gallagher, later of Oasis, and a City fan.
Like Gallagher has said, like Kilbane, McLoughlin grew up on English streets in an Irish environment. The two footballers have recalled the hours spent watching their sisters at Irish dancing competitions. They went to Catholic schools, their parents socialised in Irish clubs, their culture was Irish.
An exile’s tendency can be to sentimentalise the homeland. Maybe Pat and Norah, from Galway and Limerick, did so after they met in Manchester. But their son was realistic about why they were there. Alan wrote in his autobiography of the “poverty and insularity” of the 1960s Ireland they left behind, of a “stifling” national atmosphere.
Nevertheless, on the fateful day in early 1990 when two letters landed on his doormat in the same delivery – one from England's FA, one from the FAI – McLoughlin chose the latter. He would play for Ireland 'B' in Cork, where the opposition just happened to be England 'B'. McLoughlin scored, and in front of Jack Charlton; more importantly, in front of his mother, whose first child, Patricia, died six weeks before Alan was born.
Still, there would be purist Gaels, possibly of the sort who caused his parents to emigrate, who would question McLoughlin’s nationality. Meanwhile, in Manchester some could not believe he had not chosen England. Acceptance became an issue. As he said: “Occasionally there’s a feeling of not being accepted by anyone.”
Kilbane makes similar observations: “I remember Alan telling me the full story, how he got called up by both nations on the same day, because he had heard about mine. We were in the same boat.
"I never really had it in the senior set-up, more in the under-21s. One of my first 21s games was in Macedonia. Ian Evans, the manager, let us go out after the match for a few drinks and one or two of the younger Irish players absolutely didn't want English accents near them. One player had a Tricolour wrapped around him and actually said: 'Lads, you don't know what this means'. One lad actually said that to us."
Simultaneously, there was the attitude in England. “No matter what anyone says, we were ‘thick Paddys’,” Kilbane says. “Obviously we found a way to make a joke of it. But we were stereotyped – the men weren’t the brightest, dig roads and so on. We also knew we were in the minority.
“But then I’ve spoken to so many people who grew up in London or Birmingham and who moved back to Ireland and didn’t necessarily feel they belonged, because of their accent. There was prejudice towards them. We felt totally Irish but were we fully accepted by our own? We didn’t feel English, we didn’t want to be English. So where did we belong?”
Increasingly, Kilbane's answer is: the game. He thinks of Jimmy Quinn. Quinn scored the other goal that night in November at Windsor Park.
Quinn was a Belfast Catholic desperate to please his Belfast Protestant manager, Billy Bingham, in his last match. Quinn didn't like the Republic's Englishmen – "all our lads were born in Northern Ireland." [10 of 11 were]. But Quinn had three brothers in the British Army. The family had to leave Northern Ireland. They ended up in Wiltshire. He joined Swindon Town. He met a young lad there who had just been released by Man United called McLoughlin. Jimmy sensed Alan's isolation, so invited him into his home. "I'll never forget what Jimmy did," McLoughlin said, when we spoke about this and other overlaps a few years ago.
And now the end has come and Kilbane is welling up. He remembers Belfast ’93 and quotes Best saying Ireland needs just one team. Kilbane wants an identity for the next generations to be bigger than the “total bollocks” of religious politics – “and it is total bollocks.”
He returns to McLoughlin and says: “Alan was such a big part of my career and what it became. I’m so grateful to him, for the man that he is, the player he is, the man that he was. Footballers are considered less intelligent, but football has got so much right. It has integrated people, broken down barriers. Someone like Alan nurtured young people.
“He was a very, very good player. He was unfortunate we’d so many good players, but he would walk into our midfield now. He’d be the best player. As footballers we are so connected to each other. Once you’re in a dressingroom, you’re either good or bad at football. Football is who we are. I know it sounds corny but, in terms of identity, Alan belonged to football.”