Leeds United: Kilkenny determined to grasp Socceroos chance INTERVIEW

Leeds midfielder Neil Kilkenny is determined to make the most of second chance with Australia.

The roots of Neil Kilkenny's professional career can be traced to the youth development scheme at Arsenal.

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In theory, his absence from an FA Cup tie against his first club should provoke a feeling of sombre regret.

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Kilkenny will soak up the heat of Qatar while Leeds United brave the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, a state of detachment that might sadden a player who has graced venues like Arsenal on relatively few occasions.

A third-round draw in North London was not a tie to miss.

The same could be said of January, a month when United's season will continue without their Australian midfielder. Were his sabbatical in Qatar to be an unqualified success, Kilkenny would not to fly home to England until the beginning of February. He cannot say with any certainty what he will find on his return.

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In the interim, Leeds plan to sign at least one midfielder to compensate for the loss of Kilkenny and help defend their high position in the Championship.

The club will also suspend contract talks with an influential squad member whose existing deal expires in June. This is not, at first glance, an ideal moment for Kilkenny to find himself 3,000 miles away from Elland Road.

He travelled to the middle east last Sunday in philosophical mood about the situation he left behind.

The compensation for him was the resumption of his international career, an opportunity he placed extreme value on. "It's an absolute honour to be called up by my country," he said, in response to the obvious question of how hard it was to divorce himself from the English season.

Not since the middle of 2008 have Australia seen fit to select Kilkenny, an international exile that was partly political. His inclusion in the squad for the Asian Cup in Qatar caused surprise and relief, leaving Kilkenny "seriously pleased." However divided his loyalties were, the idea of him rejecting the call-up and remaining in England was never open to debate.

"I hope this is the start of my international career," he said. "The proper start. It's a shame to be missing games in England but playing for Australia's a major thing for me. I'm seriously pleased. You've seen over the last couple of seasons how hard it's been for me to get a chance. It does bother you and it's something you think about. I'm 25 now and I've probably missed three or four years of international football, years when I felt I was playing well enough to get into the squad.

"That was only my opinion and other people obviously didn't agree. It's the same at all levels, with clubs and countries – the players who get chosen are the players who get chosen. There's only so much you can do to influence that."

Kilkenny's recall last month was a result of both his domestic form and a change of management within the Australian squad.

He held no favour under former coach Pim Verbeek, whose assistant Kilkenny publicly criticised after the Olympic Games in 2008, but found present incumbent Holger Osieck more willing to consider him.

Osieck watched the midfielder during Leeds' goalless draw at Reading in November and again in the club's 2-0 win over QPR a week before Christmas. Having included Kilkenny in a provisional squad of 50 players for the Asian Cup, he saw enough in his performances to name him in Australia's final pool of 23.

"It was a bit of a surprise," Kilkenny said. "At first I was told that they were going to go with a familiar squad and players they already knew a lot about. It sounded to me like the coaching staff would think about bringing new and younger players through after the Asian Cup.

"I got my head down and got on with my job at Leeds, not expecting to be picked. But the manager (Osieck) watched me at Reading and against QPR. When he phoned me to say he was coming to the QPR game, I knew I had a chance.

"Being selected is a really big deal but it's only a start. For me, going to the Asian Cup is about playing games, playing well and getting myself properly involved. There's a difference between being someone who might get selected and someone who plays regularly.

"For an Australian, the Asian Cup is a big tournament and the only one bigger is the World Cup. That's coming round in 2014 when I should be at my peak in terms of my age. I can't think about the World Cup too much but it's an ambition of mine to play in one. It has to be."

The Asian Cup, which begins tomorrow, is not Kilkenny's first experience of a major international tournament. He was a member of the squad selected for the Olympic Games in Beijing two-and-a-half years ago, a squad which predominantly consisted of emerging players.

His involvement forced him to miss the start of 2008-09 season and he came back to England complaining of a lack of appearances in China and an unhelpfully light training schedule. Kilkenny remarked that he had trained harder in one week with Leeds than he had in six with Australia, an open attack on coach Graham Arnold. Arnold later became Verbeek's number two, a situation that Kilkenny believes made his selection improbable.

"The old management team didn't seem to see me as someone who could make a difference," he said. "I guess that playing in quite a low division didn't help either. To a certain extent you're off the radar in League One, even though Leeds were doing well and winning games.

"A few things were said after the Olympics and the way I saw it, the manager made promises he didn't keep. I wasn't happy about that. He said he'd play me regularly and he didn't. I spoke to him about it and I spoke publicly as well. That probably went against me.

"At the time, I didn't think of the Olympics as a success or a good thing to have been involved in. But looking back on it now, it was a better experience than I thought. I'm a bit older and I've come to realise that it's quite a big thing to have played in the Olympics. That's something I can say when I finish my career."

Australia made no impression in China but it is conceivable that Kilkenny will return from the Asian Cup with a winners' medal. Of the nations involved, none hold a higher position in FIFA's world rankings than Australia. Their campaign begins on Monday with a group game against India and is expected end in the final on January 29.

In the meantime, Kilkenny knows that his place in Leeds' line-up will be temporarily lost. Integral though he has been this season, he was not used against Portsmouth on December 28 – the day of his international call-up – and appeared as a substitute against Middlesbrough on New Year's Day. Manager Simon Grayson indicated last week that he would sign another midfielder in the transfer window to maintain the strength of his squad.

"If that happens then it happens," Kilkenny said. "All I know is that I've played here for three years and I've played pretty well. Six or seven starting XIs have come and gone in that time, lots of players in and out, but I'm still here and playing a part. I'd say I've proven myself."

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