Hard work is the foundation for Cambridge United goalkeeping coach and Manchester United Class of 92 keeper Kevin Pilkington
Privileged and lucky give the impression of chance rather than talent, so when Kevin Pilkington uses the words to describe his career it is more a reflection of the person.
Modest to the hilt, it is a characteristic that can easily be identified from the 45-year-old’s upbringing, which was steeped in an ethic of hard work.
“I saw my dad working down some dumps,” says Pilkington as he reflects on his childhood.
“He worked for British Gas and was out at 5 or 6am, getting back at midnight, working outside when it was chucking it down with rain, digging up pipes, putting in pipes.
“I always thought to myself that if I couldn’t run around or dive around or do whatever I had to do for 90 minutes on a football pitch or two hours in training, then I shouldn’t be out there because I had seen my dad work that hard off the pitch, and my mum also.
“They were the beliefs I had growing up and that’s why I always say I’m lucky because I am lucky to have done what I’ve done in my career. I’m lucky and don’t take anything for granted.”
It is at this point that it is easy to take issue with the Cambridge United goalkeeping coach.
While getting the breaks may have an element of luck attached, carving out a professional football career requires ability.
To do so at Manchester United even more so. And to be part of arguably the most famous youth side of all-time raises the stakes even higher.
You see Pilkington was the goalkeeper in the famous Class of 92, the Red Devils’ FA Youth Cup-winning team of 1992 which included Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt.
The success has been well-documented, but it is often overlooked that team-mates John O’Kane, Chris Casper, Simon Davies, Robbie Savage, Colin McKee, Ben Thornley and Keith Gillespie also went on to enjoy stellar careers in the Football League.
“I was very privileged to play with those sorts of players, I loved it,” said the self-deprecating Pilkington.
“Playing with those sorts of players – Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt – was unbelievable to see them and what they have achieved, and also to work under Sir Alex Ferguson, who is the best in the game and a great man.
“Out of the XI of us who played in the final against Crystal Palace, we all got pro contracts. Out of the XI who started the 92 final, I think 10 of us made first-team debuts for Manchester United.
“I think there was only one player who never played in the first team at Manchester United, but he went on to play elsewhere in the league. I feel very privileged to be part of that group.”
Pilkington ended up spending six years in the first-team set-up at Old Trafford.
However, there was one giant obstacle standing in the way of getting near the No 1 jersey – Peter Schmeichel.
“I’m biased because I saw him every single day and, without a doubt, he’s the best goalkeeper I’ve ever seen,” says Pilkington.
“He was just an incredible athlete. For the size of him, how quick he could move around the goal, some days in training you wouldn’t score past him, he was that good.
“He had an arrogance, but he backed the arrogance up massively on the pitch. When I stepped in, in not one of those appearances did I think, ‘Well, if I play well today I’m going to play next week’. I just thought do as well as you can and keep biding your time.”
In a career that has seen him make more than 400 first-team appearances, even after leaving Manchester United there were spells when Plikington was second choice.
They were at Port Vale, Mansfield Town, Luton Town and Notts County – where he found himself back-up to Schmeichel again, just this time Kasper – but the experiences have helped guide his coaching career. And understand the frustration of being a reserve keeper.
“It’s hard, and that’s what I try to pass on to my goalkeepers now, to Dimi (Mitov) and Fin (Iron). Be patient, work hard every single day, don’t let your standards drop, give it everything you’ve got and you will have a good career,” he explains.
The advice has clearly worked for Mitov, who has not looked back since an injury to No 1 David Forde gave him a chance that he has taken with both hands.
“I can say, hand on heart, every single day in training I gave it my best shot,” said Pilkington.
“It wasn’t for lack of effort. Maybe a little bit of a lack of ability, but never a lack of effort.
“You have to be mentally strong, not get disheartened, don’t let your standards drop, do everything you possibly can to be in the team on a Saturday and, if you’re not, you can look at yourself in the mirror and say I have done everything possible.
“There were times when I got frustrated, but when that happened, I would go out on the training pitch and train even harder because I knew that was the only way – and the way I had been brought up by my dad.”
There has always been a belief that it takes a particular mindset to be a goalkeeper and, according to Pilkington, two of those traits are being tough and strong.
But the biggest thing that he passes on to his young charges is to concentrate on doing their own job and not try to do anybody else’s.
It was by chance, though, that Pilkington got into coaching.
A friend worked at Loughborough University and asked him if he would like to help the goalkeepers, which he did on his day off.
The bug fully bit when he went to assist former Chelsea striker Kevin Wilson at Ilkeston Town.
“I get a buzz from seeing goalkeepers play well,” says Pilkington.
“If they play well on a Saturday then I know I have contributed to that, especially young lads.
“Seeing Dimi and Fin playing in the first team, obviously Will (Norris) got sold to Wolves – I didn’t have a long time with him but I like to think I helped him a bit on his way.
“And Bartosz Bialkowski down at Ipswich, he got into the Poland squad for the World Cup last summer and I coached him [at Notts County] so that was another nice thing.
“I’ve coached Roy Carroll and Fordey, who have both played for the respective Ireland teams.
“To say I was one of those that stumbled into it, I’ve found it very fulfilling.”
What is most striking about Pilkington is that he clearly feels grateful for everything that the game has given him.
It is refreshing to hear someone enthuse so positively about what they do, with such a degree of gratitude.
No more does that shine through than when Pilkington talks of playing in a Manchester United legends game at Barcelona’s Nou Camp in 2016 against the likes of Edgar Davids, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo.
“At 43, to go and play there, that is why I’m lucky,” he says.
“I’ve played with some unbelievable players who are some of the best in the world.
“To have played with them and still play with them now in charity matches, I look at it and go wow.
“To have played more than 400 league games is incredible.
“I played for the biggest club in the world, went on loan to Celtic which was an incredible experience, I played for the oldest Football League club in the world in Notts County.
“I have been a really lucky boy as I’ve lived other people’s dreams.”
Working with one of the greats
When it comes to football managers, few people would argue that Sir Alex Ferguson is not up there as one of the greatest of all time.
Defining the very best is subjective, but having worked with the maestro of Manchester United, there is little doubt in Kevin Pilkington’s mind.
It is not just about the success Ferguson enjoyed though.
“He has got so much time for people, and knows people really well,” says Pilkington. “He has high demands of people but is a proper person.
“If you deserved it, you got it with both barrels, but the next day it would be like it didn’t happen. I was lucky enough to be in his company in 2017, and he just goes even higher in
my estimations every time we meet up.
“I went up to Old Trafford at the end of the season before as it was 25 years since the Class of 92. I went up to watch a match and he presented us with a keepsake before the game.
“As we were walking up to the seats before kick off, he said come and see me afterwards in my office.
“We went into his office and he was serving us red wine and meat pies. I didn’t want to leave, just being in his company and his environment – he is a fantastic person.”
One of Ferguson’s first priorities when he arrived at Old Trafford was to sort out the academy and youth programme, bringing in Eric Harrison, Brian Kidd, Nobby Stiles and Pop Robson to develop the youngsters.
It took seven years, but the 1992 FA Youth Cup success was their first win in the competition since 1964.
“For a club like Manchester United not to win the Youth Cup was a big thing, and that is what he did,” said Pilkington. “It was always his idea to get youth into the first team, and it paid dividends.
“Eric (Harrison, in charge of the Class of 92) was a fantastic coach, very similar to Sir Alex. A hard man who wanted proper people around him, but instilled confidence in you.”
*Pilkington is running the London Marathon on April 28 for the Manchester United Foundation and his sponsorship page is uk.virginmoneygiving.com/KevinPilkington.