Wolves defender Max Kilman isn’t the first to go from non-league to Premier League but his tale comes with a twist – he’s an England futsal international. Adam Bate speaks to his former coaches to find out how it happened and what it could mean for futsal…
Max Kilman only made two senior appearances last season but the contrast between them could hardly have been more stark. The first was for Maidenhead on the opening day of the National League season in a 3-1 home defeat to Gateshead. The second was for Wolves in their 1-0 win over Fulham in May, a result that secured seventh spot in the Premier League.
Having since featured for Wolves in their Premier League Asia Trophy win over Manchester City this summer, the 22-year-old defender is hopeful of more involvement this season with the club competing in Europe. Making the adjustment from non-league to the highest levels of the game would be a technical test for anyone, but Kilman has a significant advantage.
He also happens to be an England futsal international.
Futsal is a variant of football with five players on each side, but it is not five-a-side as we know it. There are no walls, kick ins are used instead, and back passes are restricted. The game is particularly huge in Brazil and Spain, the two top-ranked teams in the world, where futsal is traditionally used as a development tool for young footballers.
Kilman’s own path was a little bit different, as Michael Skubala, the England futsal head coach explains. “Max didn’t do futsal within a football environment, he did futsal within a futsal environment,” he tells Sky Sports. “That is to say, he had come out of the professional football system and was in the futsal system being coached by futsal coaches.
“His journey is quite unique in England.”
After being released by Fulham’s academy as a boy, Kilman came through one of futsal’s regional talent centres and played in the national futsal league. He went on to win 20 England caps but he did not completely give up hope of pursuing a career in football. He continued to train part-time with Maidenhead too. It made for an unusual combination.
“Max was clever because he knew what he was doing and he found a way of doing both,” says Skubala. “His schedule meant he was effectively training full-time either for his futsal club or for Maidenhead. If you think about it, by twin-tracking, he was getting all of these elements and he was doing it for years. He used futsal to make him a better footballer.”
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In the summer of 2016, at the age of 19, Kilman exposed himself to a very different world when Maidenhead decided to loan him out to Marlow to gain first-team experience. The rough and tumble of the seventh tier was a far cry from the technical and tactical world of futsal but he found a way to succeed there too. In a way, it was the making of him.
“I think we were probably the right place at the right time for him,” says Mark Bartley, Marlow’s long-serving manager. “He clearly had technical ability given his futsal background but we really wanted to help him develop. There were one or two positioning things but he always had a great attitude and he is a quick learner. He settled in quickly.”
Kilman is now seen as a left-sided centre-back in Wolves’ 3-5-2 system but Bartley used him to great success on the left of a back four. Marlow finished fourth that season, reaching the play-offs with the best defensive record in the division, but it was Kilman’s ability going forward with the ball at his feet that helped to make the difference for Bartley’s side.
He has great ball manipulation skills. He can draw opponents into certain areas and then just manoeuvre his way out of them.
Mark Bartley on Max Kilman
“I remember getting him in during a pre-season friendly and I knew straight away that I could work with him,” Bartley tells Sky Sports. “I was told he could play centre-back but his distribution was so good, he gave me great options if we could get him higher up the pitch. He enjoyed it because we allowed him to incorporate his natural game. He was really good.
“He has great ball manipulation skills. He can draw opponents into certain areas and then just manoeuvre his way out of them. He would throw people off too because he is so tall but has this great agility. It catches you off guard because people are just thinking it’s that old cliché, good feet for a big man, but he does have tremendous feet.”
The physical side was the challenge. There are not too many aerial balls to contest in futsal and there are no foot races over 60 yards to worry about when one-on-one against speedy strikers. Skubala calls it “getting over the grass” and acknowledges that the best futsal players in the world tend to be playing the game precisely because they cannot do this.
“That was the area where Maidenhead thought he could improve,” recalls Bartley. He remembers a game against “very physical players who wanted to batter and bruise you” in which the oldest member of Marlow’s back four was 21, but Kilman came through the test.
Of course, there is not too much of that in the Premier League these days. In fact, in some respects, there might even be more similarities between top-level football and top-level futsal than the non-league game. “It is probably no surprise that Nuno has seen something in him because the speed of international futsal is as quick as football,” says Skubala.
“He has been able to cope with the speed of decision making because it will have been a lot quicker in his futsal league than in non-league. Dealing with the ball under pressure was his strength in futsal. He is really good at rolling out of pressure. He never gave the ball away in tight areas. You could always rely on him security-wise to keep possession of the ball.”
Bartley agrees. “You don’t need to be crashing into tackles to impose your physicality on a game and the ball retention comes naturally to him,” he adds. “A lot of players who step up have to adapt their game but moving the ball quickly is part of his makeup. He has a great chance because he is so level-headed and he’s got a great work ethic too.”
How far it takes Kilman remains to be seen but given that Wolves have a small squad and are competing in four competitions this season, he can expect to see more action. Nuno has described him as “100 per cent integrated into the squad” and praised his quality. He was been on the bench for every one of Wolves’ Europa League games so far this season.
Kilman himself admits that his experiences in the non-league game were a vital part of his development. But it is the other aspect of his story that makes his progress so intriguing. He is the first futsal international to make it to the Premier League. But as futsal becomes more professional and football continues to evolve, perhaps he will not be the last.
“You tend to see it as this linear pathway but Max has actually created his own pathway using futsal,” says Skubala. “The non-league environment is very different from the professional football environment. I think that if Max had just gone into the non-league system and not had futsal alongside it then I don’t think he would be where he is today.”