'Why I left Arsenal': Kilkenny on Invincibles and his path from Premier League to Perth

Perth Glory's pre-season clash with Premier League heavyweights Chelsea must have given Neil Kilkenny a distinct sense of déjà vu. 

Remove the 55,000 fans that filled Optus Stadium and it was an experience parallel to so many he accrued in England: scrapping it out in driving rain, during the middle of winter, against an array of top talent.

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Oh, and former team-mate Cesc Fabregas was there too.

The pair had shared the pitch during their time together at Arsenal, the club Kilkenny joined as a 12-year-old.

He could hardly have picked a more competitive environment for a young player.

In his final season with the Gunners, the team that became known as The Invincibles went unbeaten in all 38 league matches.

Fabregas, future captain and FIFA World Cup™ winner, was the only academy prospect to attain any meaningful minutes over the ensuing seasons, justifying Kilkenny's difficult decision to depart the club he has supported since childhood.

"It comes to a point where you have to look out for yourself in football," the midfielder explained to a-league.com.au.

"It becomes a job and you have to look out for opportunities.

"In my position they had Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva – who had just signed for the club after winning the World Cup with Brazil the year before – and Edu as well.

"You have to look at yourself and wonder whether you are realistically going to get a chance.

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"It was getting tough and I was getting to the age of 17, 18 where it was a struggle to get into the reserve team let alone the first team.

"Not many players were getting through from the youth team at the time. That's why I had to decide to leave the club."

Taking the Premier League plunge

There were no shortage of suitors for a player who had represented both England and Republic of Ireland at youth level.

He trialled with Manchester City, Aston Villa and Leicester City before being won over by Steve Bruce and Birmingham City, at the time a steady mid-table side with seemingly enough security to guide a young prospect into senior football.

Kilkenny


"I chose Birmingham because I thought it was the best chance to move through the levels and to get into the first team," Kilkenny says.

"Birmingham were in the Premier League at the time, they had a strong squad and Steve Bruce was brilliant to me. He sold the club to me and that's why I signed there."

Neat on the ball, tenacious in the tackle and a "good footballer" in Bruce's words, a maturing Kilkenny made 18 appearances in the Premier League during his second season at St Andrews.

It was to frustratingly end in relegation, cruelly proving his only top-flight campaign.

Opportunities dried up and so ensued almost a decade spent surviving gruelling Championship and League One campaigns at Oldham Athletic, Leeds United, Bristol City and Preston North End.

Adding gloss to the grind were "massive highlights" in the manner of an unforgettable FA Cup trip to Old Trafford in January 2010.

The hard-working former Queensland schoolboy played 90 minutes alongside compatriot Patrick Kisnorbo as Leeds stunned Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.

Neil Kilkenny Berbatov

Destined for Down Under

Then-Caltex Socceroos boss Holger Osieck took note and a year later included Kilkenny in his AFC Asian Cup squad, rekindling a relationship with Australia that was cemented with a move, initially, to Melbourne City in 2016.

"I had been playing [in England] for so long and I just felt it was time," says Kilkenny, who spent part of his childhood in Ipswich, southwest of Brisbane.

"I want to play on as long as I can and it was relentless playing every three days in freezing cold weather from December to March.

"Now I've had the opportunity to come to Perth and it's been fantastic so far.

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"The manager [Tony Popovic] is working us hard and he is improving us. Obviously he had a huge reputation before coming here and he's been fantastic."

Now, reputations are counting in Kilkenny's favour.

He hopes to turn lessons gleaned from Popovic, Bruce and his former manager at Leeds, Simon Grayson, into a future coaching career.

But the 32-year-old is in no hurry to make the next move.

"Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a professional footballer and I've had the opportunity to do that," he adds. "I don't want to give it away.

"I want to play as much as possible and as long as possible."

Neil Kilkenny and Cesc Fabregas