Liverpool fan Kirkland aims to prove his point

One Liverpool dedicated Liverpool supporter will be aiming to frustrate Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and company today. Wigan Athletic's outstanding goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, a life-long Liverpool follower, today faces the team for the first time since being sold by Rafa Benitez, and it will be a poignant occasion.

The likeable Kirkland, a naturally upbeat character made even cheerier by the arrival of his first child, began his love affair with Anfield at a young age – and from 100 miles away.

"My dad was a big Leicester fan but Liverpool were always my team," recalled Kirkland, 25. "The red strip appealed to me. My dad has pictures of me in a Liverpool strip as a kid. It was the late 1980s and Liverpool were great to watch – Barnes, Rush, Aldridge, Whelan.

"We used to get the bus up to Anfield from a cafe outside Hinckley. Not every week, because money was tight back then. Me and dad had tickets to Hillsborough, in the Leppings Lane End [for that fateful FA Cup semi-final of 1989]. The only reason we didn't go was because my mum's sister was singing in a musical in Leicester.

"It was her opening day. Mum said, 'You are not going to football this time, you're coming to see your auntie.' My dad took his radio into the show, listened on his headphones, and told me what happened. Me and dad talk about it, especially on the anniversary of Hillsborough."

Kirkland's respect for today's opponents runs deep. "When I left Coventry, a real family club, I was scared. I was 18. But I knew I had to go. It was amazing stepping out at Anfield. The two main songs people know in football are You'll Never Walk Alone and I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. When you hear those, you know you're at a special football stadium.

"My first three big games were Galatasaray, Everton, then Galatasaray away – a cracking start! I don't think I'll play in a more hostile atmosphere than the Ali Sami Yen. The noise! The fans were in the ground four hours before kick-off, chanting. That brings the best out of me.

"Gerard Houllier was great. He took me to Liverpool, gave me my chance. He got sacked. When Mr Benitez came in, he had his own ideas and I wasn't part of that. He brought Jose Reina in. He said it would be better if I found my football elsewhere.

I was very disappointed because I wanted to play for Liverpool. When you know the manager doesn't want you, you have to go. I haven't spoken to him since. It has made me more determined. I may end up back at Anfield one day, you never know.

"I went to West Brom, but got injured. Then Tomasz Kuszczak came in."

As well as foreign keepers, a litany of medical mishaps slowed Kirkland's rise. Broken fingers, a chronic back problem, and even bruised kidneys stymied his development. "There were times when I came back from injury and thought, 'I can't get injured again. What will people think?' I'm a lot more confident in my body now."

Tall, mobile, and a good shot-stopper, Kirkland is also noted for commanding his area. "It's good for the defenders to know the keeper is going to come for crosses. I'm also quite quick. We do a lot of short, sharp running in training. In pre-season, I'm up with the outfield players. They don't like it!"

Fit and determined, Wigan impress in the Premiership. "I don't think we ever will get the credit we deserve," Kirkland added. "We aren't fashionable. That's what drives us on even more. If you look at the stats, in the past six weeks Wigan have been the hardest-working team in the league. We cover most ground. We have a hard-working team who enjoy playing together.

"I'm more than happy to stay here. It's not about money. The main thing is to be where I'm happy. The players mix together, go go-karting, go out for meals. We're trying to get the Gaffer [Paul Jewell] to agree to a trip to Dublin for the Christmas party. No one has dared ask him yet."

Kirkland has come a long way. "I started off in goal as a kid but got told I wasn't good enough. So I played central midfield, but was never any good. One game, our keeper got injured, and I went back in. That was at Barwell, my local Sunday team. I go back there a lot. My sister's husband plays cricket for Barwell."

Kirkland has also pulled on the pads for Barwell. "I was wicketkeeper, and then bowler and batter. I could have gone for trials with Leicestershire but Coventry told me to give the cricket up. I still play cricket, charity games, batting and bowling."

When he chose football over cricket, Kirkland's father decided to back a hunch that his son would represent England. "Mum and dad were allowed to put £100 maximum on at 100-1. Back then, mum and dad had hardly any money. They didn't have £100. They put £20 on."

Friends wanted a piece of the action. "I used to go to this club every Thursday and Saturday night to play snooker with dad, or darts, and people there said, 'We'll have a tenner on that.' Every time I pulled out of a squad, I wondered what they were calling me!"

Kirkland's international debut against Greece this autumn triggered delight among family and friends. "One of the guys has four daughters, he had £20 and got £2,000. So he'll have a great Christmas!"

Along with Paul Robinson, Kirkland is in the vanguard of a new wave of good English keepers who include Scott Carson, Robert Green, and Ben Foster. "It did worry me with the foreign [invasion] but if you look at the Premiership now, there are six or seven English keepers playing regularly. You do get crops, like that Man United crop of David Beckham."

England's keepers all support each other. Each understands, as Kirkland sighed, that "even if you make 10 world-class saves in a game, you'll be remembered for one mistake".

Robinson received ludicrous criticism following his air-kick in Croatia. "If a ball hits a divot and pops up in the air, what can you do? It's very unfair to blame him. I said to him, 'Robbo, you were man of the match in the first half'. Robbo has come back and played well."

A dislike of the frisky modern ball unites all keepers. "If you kick it hard, the balls do the work. Look at Nicolas Anelka's shot against Arsenal.

"When the ball moves that bad, the keeper can't do anything. It deviates a hell of a lot – side to side, up and down."

Liverpool fan Kirkland aims to prove his point

"If we've lost I'm down, but life goes on. As soon as I go home, I switch off. Obviously now I have my daughter and I love taking my golden labrador out for a walk." And perhaps let his mind wander towards Liverpool?

"We go to Anfield in April – not that I've looked!'

Copyright - The Telegraph

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