"The Owls shot-stopper chats to Aiden Cusick about competition, ‘winning’ the Champions League, fire fighting and more...
WITHOUT a win all season and struggling to score goals, Sheffield Wednesday’s decision to sign a second-choice goalie ahead of their bottom-three clash with Bolton left a fair few Owls fans with their knickers in a twist.
But there was method in the supposed madness of Damian Martinez’ temporary move from Arsenal, that’s according to current first choice, Chris Kirkland.
“You need that competition to drive the no1 on,” Chris told me before the start of the campaign.
“I’ve always had that the bulk of my career. Whenever I’ve not been playing I’ve always tried to push the no1 and that’ll never change.”
Kirkland’s closest competitor had been youngster Adam Davies following the departure of Stephen Bywater over the summer - something he hoped wouldn’t happen.
“It’s a shame; I didn’t want him to go to be honest.” He said of Bywater, who joined Millwall on a free transfer after being kept out by his former England Under-21 colleague in 2012/13.
The 32-year-old played in all 46 of the Owls' league games last season, where healthy competition between the sticks saw him come second to the ever-dependable Lewis Buxton in the club’s player of the year awards.
That tally was a career best for the Leicestershire-born keeper, who credits the Owls coaching staff for keeping him in check.
“I didn't miss any training sessions either.” Chris is quick to point out.
“It’s about getting the right balance and they've been brilliant with me. I've got Andy Rhodes there (at Wednesday) who completely understands my situation.”
The former Liverpool goalie believes that playing regularly – and well – helped to “shut a few people up” after being written off during his time at Wigan Athletic.
He admits there weren't an abundance of offers on the table after becoming a free agent in the summer of 2012, and is grateful to Wednesday for kick-starting his career.
“Everyone thought 'cause I wasn't playing at Wigan I must have been injured, but it wasn't the case at all.
“I was out of favour; I wasn't involved in matchday squads and obviously people put two and two together. They thought: well, he must be injured and it puts people off.”
But Wednesday did their due diligence and Kirkland was convinced to join them by ex-Owl, Neil Mellor, with whom he remains close friends from their time at Liverpool.
“Neil had a great time there and had nothing but good words to say about the club.
“I knew it was a big club but when you actually get there and you see the fanbase and the amount of fans they take to away games, it’s similar to Liverpool really - I've loved every minute so far.”
Kirkland is no stranger to the pressures of big crowds and high expectation. After starting his career at Coventry City, a move to Liverpool in 2001 made him Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper.
Injuries initially hampered his first few seasons at Anfield but the boyhood Reds fan recovered to play a major role in the club’s victorious Champions League campaign of 04/05. He started four of their six group games including the nail-biting finale against Olympiacos, where they had to win by two goals to secure their progression to the second round.
The Reds trailed to a first-half free-kick from Brazilian superstar, Rivaldo, before goals from Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Mellor set up a nervy finish for Rafa Benitez’ side.
Steven Gerrard struck the crucial third goal, Mellor assist, with just four minutes to play and Kirkland believes that moment was the turning point in their campaign.
“It was a great feeling when Stevie scored. People say the crowd suck the ball in and they certainly did that night.
“After that you sort of knew we were going to go on and win the competition. Even 3-0 down against Milan (in the final), you could just tell they were going to win. I don’t know what it was.”
Sadly for him, an injury suffered in the derby defeat to Everton, in January 2005, saw him miss the remainder of the club’s Euro campaign – costing him a medal in the process.
“Everyone who is honest will tell you: if you don’t play in the final, you don’t feel a part of things. You could play in every round but if you don’t play in the final it's not the same.
“It was tough but obviously I was delighted, as a supporter, that we won it.”
In his absence, Liverpool brought in another ex-Owl in the form of Scott Carson and Pepe Reina followed in the summer of 05, clearing the path for Chris to link-up with his former coach, Joe Corrigan at West Brom.
He’d become disillusioned with life under Benitez and his coaching staff, and struggled to get on board with the Spanish way of thinking.
“The training was different to everything I’d been brought up on over the years with the likes of Jim Blyth, Oggy (Steve Ogrizovic) and Joe.
“It was totally different and I struggled, I found my game going, I wasn’t confident and in the end it paid in performances.”
He faced similar problems at Wigan when Roberto Martinez took over. “The Spanish coaches were lovely chaps but the training just didn't suit me.” Chris reveals.
“I've been brought up on the English way: hard work, repetitions and lots of volleys and half-volleys.”
But the former Coventry keeper says he has “no desire to go in to coaching” himself.
“You've got to do something with your time; I’d like to be a fireman when I retire, but I hope that’s a few years away yet.
“It’s something I've always fancied. I've done a bit of the training for it as my dad’s friend’s the boss at a garage down in Hinckley and I really enjoyed it.”
And at 32, he's got plenty of time to practice his lift.
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