From futsal to the Premier League, Max Kilman is just getting started at Wolves
LONDON -- Have you heard the one about the 22-year-old who went from international futsal and non-league to the Premier League and marking Roberto Firmino in the space of 18 months?
Max Kilman is a trivia night question-master's dream. He is the only international futsal player to appear in the Premier League, and also the first in 12 years since Chris Smalling to go direct from non-league football to the top flight. In his own quiet way, Kilman's journey to becoming a centerback for Wolves is unconventional, but also relatable. He is the Premier League's everyman, his tale like a comic-book adaptation of a young pro: the 21st century's Roy of the Rovers. But he is also an outlier. After all, career paths like his are rarer than a VAR decision without controversy.
When you meet him, you're struck by two things. Firstly, he is tall, at six-foot-five. Secondly, as you peer upwards, you are greeted by a slightly shy smile. He is overwhelmingly polite.
"I am shy," Kilman tells ESPN. "I don't like to boast. I don't like talking about myself. It's just how I am." Talking about himself may have to change.
As reserved as he might seem, Kilman never succumbed to the comfort of self-satisfaction. He could have settled for life as an England futsal player, but the 25 caps weren't enough. Two years ago, in non-league, he could have admitted that was his lot. He was 21; Premier League clubs never pluck someone from non-league at that age. But...no; it was all part of his growth rather than the end point.
Kilman made his Premier League debut aged 23 -- "old" in football terms.
"I wasn't where I wanted to be in football at 17 or 18," Kilman says. "I was on loan from Maidenhead United at Marlow [in the eighth tier of the English football league, then called the Evo-stik League South Division One Central]. You start to have doubts. It's normal for everyone, you can't always be so positive. But as it's happened, it's been more like, 'wow, I'm actually here'. Now I need to absorb it, keep going and make it seem like it's normal."
"Normal" doesn't usually go hand-in-hand with a Premier League player, but the only change to his day-to-day life is spending less time in the lecture theatres at the University of Hertfordshire as he completes a degree in business and sport. He now does those classes online.
Keeping up with life outside football is a priority for Kilman. He was pushed into the degree by his mother. She saw him playing non-league football, training twice a week, and suggested he should plan for a career outside of being a professional sportsman. He was already fluent in Russian (his parents are both half Russian and Ukrainian) and fitted his degree around commitments for Maidenhead -- then in England's fifth tier -- and futsal for England and London Helvetica.
His futsal journey started earlier in his teens when he saw two people training in his local park. Kilman was part of the Fulham academy at one point, but when he was released as a youth, he diverted that frustration into the five-a-side game. "I kind of took for futsal just to play to get my fitness up and to become a better player for football," Kilman says, though futsal inadvertently opened the door for his move to Wolves.
Matt Hobbs, Wolves' head of academy scouting, was watching England vs. Wales in the Futsal Home Nations Championship in December 2016. He noted Kilman in that game, learned he was playing at Maidenhead and watched a couple of matches there. Then came the offer of a trial. Kilman was signed on the final day of the 2018 summer transfer window.
Kilman no longer plays futsal, of course, and while it served an unorthodox path into the Premier League for him, it is a common path to the pros in nations like Brazil and Portugal. The likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho both played in their youth, while Monaco striker Wissam Ben Yedder has represented France in both futsal and 11-a-side. A number of Kilman's Portuguese teammates at Wolves are also experienced futsal players.
"I feel like futsal helped me be more comfortable on the ball and feel less of the pressure," Kilman says. "It made me think a bit, as everyone's close to you and the space is much smaller. You need to be more precise and know exactly what you're doing next with the ball. In football, sometimes you can take a touch, you know? You can look up [for your next pass]. In futsal, you need to know straight away what you're doing, as you're constantly under pressure."
Kilman was signed by Wolves at the age of 21: too old for the Under-23s. "I was at a stage in my career where I needed to start getting somewhere, you know. I needed to try to get some more men's football," Kilman says. But he would use that year with the U-23s as a developmental spell. He knew Wolves were investing in him, and he wanted to repay that. It was his first introduction to full-time football -- he trained just twice a week at Maidenhead -- and in that year, the fitness coaches worked him hard. His body took time to adjust -- his muscles were tighter than usual, not used to the day-to-day rigmarole -- but he impressed for Wolves' reserves and then came a shot at the first team.
At Wolves, the academy is in their own building, while the Under-18s, 23s and first-team are in another. He was training with the first team on one occasion when manager Nuno Espírito Santo pulled him to one side. "The gaffer told me, 'I think you could do really well and you have a long way to go, but I think you could be ready in the future. It's time for you to come with us,''' Kilman says. "The next day I went into the U-23s changing room and was told I wasn't there anymore as I was to go to the first team.
"There were only a couple of my old U-23s mates around and I was just like, wow. I didn't want to make a big deal [about it]. I just wanted to get my stuff and quickly go."
Kilman was introduced to first-team football in the Europa League qualifiers, playing 90 minutes in a 4-0 win over Pyunik, and the Carabao Cup. On Dec. 1, he made his Premier League debut, coming on as a substitute against Sheffield United. "It's been my proudest moment," he says. "And I never expected that, if you asked me that a year back. I'd have never expected that." He had previously played in front of 7,500 people in an FA Cup match for Maidenhead against Tranmere. "That was quite a lot of people, to be fair," but nothing compared to playing in front of the Kop.
Just four weeks after his top-flight debut, he was marking Salah and Robert Firmino at Anfield in the Premier League.
"Firmino was another level," Kilman says. "You could just not get near him. He stands 10 meters away from you and you can't really go to him. When you do, he pops it around you and he's gone. You don't feel like you're actually defending him."
Training against Raul Jimenez was suitable preparation, and he picks his teammates' brains for tips and insight. "[Wolves defender] Conor Coady has been very good to me. He's helped me so much, having conversations with me, making me feel welcome."
It's all happened quickly for Kilman, and he admits it has been "surreal," but he has kept himself grounded. After we spoke in central London, he was off to St. John's Wood to visit his parents and girlfriend, then back to Wolverhampton, where he lives on his own and spends time away from the training ground immersed in football. He watches Gerard Pique closely, learns from his teammates and takes every opportunity "step by step."
"I'm happy with where I've got to now, and my main focus is to keep progressing and keep improving," Kilman says. "I don't like to say, 'Oh, I've done this and it's good.' I need to keep striving to go even further. I will keep going and try to get as far as possible in my career and be happy with where I am... yeah, that's about it, really." Understated, slightly bashful, but unwaveringly focused.
And with that, he walked off to get the Underground up to see his parents. Few would recognise him, but if he continues on this upward trajectory he will have to get used to public attention. But even then, he will stay the Premier League's most relatable everyman.