The countdown to next summer’s World Cup is ticking but for former England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland his biggest battle is to regain his place at Championship strugglers Sheffield Wednesday.
The 32-year-old had not missed a game since moving from Wigan Athletic 18 months ago, but was surprisingly dropped by Dave Jones for last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Blackpool.
That loss proved to be Jones’s final match in charge, sacked 24 hours later, but caretaker manager Stuart Gray persisted with on-loan Damian Martinez for the midweek win over leaders Leicester City.
While Wednesday have struggled this season, Kirkland has hardly suffered any Joe Hart-type blunders, and rumours have been rife to the ‘real’ reason behind his absence.
These have ranged from another appearance would trigger a contract clause for a payment – he currently stands on 59 starts – to a hushed-up injury, or even protecting the former Liverpool stopper from injury so the hard-up Owls can sell him in next month’s January transfer window.
But Kirkland has now revealed the reason behind why he has been sidelined.
“I was dropped, simple as that,” said Kirkland. “I would like to clear this up, I have had a lot of calls and I am sure people have heard the rumours about contract situations and not being able to play because it triggers something. It’s nonsense.
“The gaffer dropped me. He pulled me in the office and said he is going to change it, for whatever reason, and he did.
“It was (a shock), I was very disappointed. Since I have come here I think I have done okay, I can do better, but you can always do better.
“It’s a great club, the fans have been great to me. When I first came, I know everyone else saw it as a big gamble because I had not played for two years. (That) wasn’t because I was injured, just that I wasn’t involved at Wigan.
“I knew it wasn’t a gamble, my fitness is fine, I have got no problems at all.
“I have probably only missed three or four days training since I have been here, not missed any games at all, so we can put that to bed now.
“It’s just a simple case of getting my head down, supporting the team, and hopefully my chance will come soon.
“I have been through tougher situations than this. The positive thing is I am fit, in the past I have been injured. I have had everyone sniping at me saying I am injured again, but I am not.”
The former Champions League winner – from his Anfield days – has been forced to sit and watch on-loan Martinez, on a short-term deal from Arsenal, take the gloves for the last two games.
“It’s been difficult, I have gone from playing every game since I came here to not playing the last few games,” he said.
“That’s part and parcel of football, I have been through that before. I won’t let it get to me, I will work even harder and try to get back in the team.
“I will support the lads as they did when I was playing. You have got to support the team. It’s a squad game and there are a lot of games coming up now, hopefully I will get my chance.
“It’s difficult, but as I said, I have been through it before and am experienced enough to know that it will turn around soon.”
Kirkland has been impressed by both Martinez, who kept the Owls in the game when leading 2-1 against Leicester with several quality saves, and caretaker-boss Gray.
“I think it’s tough coming into a team that is struggling, which we have, we have conceded a lot of goals,” added Kirkland.
“Teams have had a lot of chances against us, but he (Martinez) has done nothing wrong.
“Dave Jones changed it, and Stuart has stuck with him. Stuart pulled me in the other day and we had a great chat.
“Stuart is a fantastic coach, the lads really like him. He said it was a tough decision for him to leave me out, I wasn’t overly-pleased with it, but I respect his decision.
“I respect Stuart as a man and if he can get the job, we will all be pushing to try and help him do that.
“We have not had a great start the first few months of the season, only winning two games in 17.
“The chairman made the decision to change it, and nobody can argue with that. We have not done well enough for the manager that has gone. We take full responsibility.”
Gray seems to have the full support of the Hillsborough dressing room, and a win today over Nottingham Forest could be decisive in influencing Milan Mandaric’s final decision. Left-back Joe Mattock – who faces a challenge to keep his shirt today with the return from injury of Reda Johnson – has also been impressed with the training ground approach of former Southampton boss Gray.
“All managers and coaches have different ways of playing,” said Mattock.
“In training (ahead of the Leicester game), Stuart focussed more on moving the ball about, more of a gameplan, and told us what he wanted us to do in the first 15 minutes.
“He didn’t want them to play, drop it in behind and cause them a few problems.
“As soon as they dropped off, which they did, we started passing the ball about which we know we can do because we have good players.
“The mood has definitely picked up, especially after the last win. It’s been tough for the boys and we have done well to keep ourselves alive. Hopefully, we can kick on now.
“In training everyone gives 100 per cent, but just conversations and the mood was a little bit down.
“We just had to stay focussed, we knew we had it in the locker.
“In my experience it’s always the same. When there’s a little bit of a change, for some reason the team and players always seem to get a result. Whether that’s down to the staff or players I am not quite sure.
“Hopefully, it’s not just a one-game thing.
“Forest are a tough, strong side, and will be very similar to Leicester.
“They move the ball about well, have got some good players, but if we stick to the same tactics as Tuesday – get in their faces and don’t let them play – I am confident we can come out with a good result.”
And as for his battle to keep out fans’ favourite Reda Johnson, Mattock is up for the fight.
“It is difficult but I also think it’s healthy,” he said. “Competition always helps players, all good teams have it.
“There are some differences, everyone knows he’s a tall, strong lad, can score goals – which is really good for us. Maybe I like to get the ball down and play from the back.”