On Wednesday night, Irish goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher made his first team debut for Liverpool as they defeated MK Dons by 2-0 in the Carabao Cup.
Kelleher found himself selected between the sticks for a youthful Reds side who were tested by their League One opponents but eventually came away from the tie unscathed and with a victory.
The 20-year-old, who has been Liverpool’s second choice goalkeeper following the early season injury to Alisson, put in a fine debut performance looking calm and collected with the ball at his feet and making a number of strong saves – one in particular from Jordan Bowery in the second half, which left Dons boss Paul Tisdale lost for words.
On the basis of his confident and assured display last night, it’s difficult to imagine that only a few short years ago Kelleher had ambitions of putting the ball in the net for Liverpool, rather than keeping it out.
One nervous spectator in attendance at Stadium MK on Wednesday night was Kelleher’s former coach at Ringmahon Rangers Eddie Harrington.
He was involved with the Cork club when Kelleher, a highly touted striker and proven goalscorer at underage level, made the unusual but intelligent move between the sticks which has proven so fruitful.
“He was on the Kennedy Cup panel as a striker he was that good,” Harrington told Pundit Arena of his hitman-turned-shot-stopper.
“Our goalkeeper had decided to quit, so Ray, Caoimhin’s father, rang me one night and just said, ‘What do you think about putting Caoimhin in goal?’ and we were like, ‘What are you on about?’ at the start because we didn’t want to lose him, he was that good outfield.
“He wasn’t on the Kennedy Cup panel for no reason, he’d get loads of goals so we were saying, ‘Really Ray? Why?’ and he was saying that with Cork’s Kennedy Cup team he was playing there in training and it started out as a laugh really. He would play in goal a bit in training too for us for the laugh but you could see it was never really serious.
Harrington and his team’s reluctance to sacrifice one of their prized attacking assets was understandable – to be involved in a Kennedy Cup squad means you are one of your league’s most elite players.
The former Ringmahon coach remembers Kelleher’s first game in nets, against Springfield Ramblers and recalls that he slotted into the position so well that it only took four months before he was on the Cork Kennedy Cup panel again, but this time as a goalkeeper.
“We were completely reluctant,” laughed Harrington.
“He’d get 20 goals a year or whatever for us so it was a bit of a shock.
“His Dad just said, ‘Look give him a try see what you think,’ so we threw him in and his first game was against Springfield Ramblers at home and he got lobbed by a cross/shot but he was excellent and he never looked back, he was in goal then forever more.
“His first game in goal was at U14s level which is only five or six years ago which is mad.
“From that night playing in goal first, he ended up on the Cork Kennedy Cup panel four months later and that’s obviously a huge standard of competition. He grew fairly fast. He was over at Aston Villa in that year too on trial. It all moved very quickly.”
Kelleher’s rise was almost unprecedented and he ended up securing a move to Liverpool, with his last game coming as Ringmahon secured the U17 Premier Division title.
Having spent almost four years at Anfield, Kelleher has got the opportunity to work under one of the best managers in the world in Jurgen Klopp and more recently alongside one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Brazilian, Alisson.
“He’s been very good to me,” Kelleher told Pundit Arena earlier this month.
“Over the last year I think I’ve improved quite a good bit in that part of the game (with the ball at his feet) and a lot of that has been down to working with him, watching him and seeing what he does in certain situations and speaking to him as well.
“He’ll speak to me too on stuff that I can improve on so it’s been a huge help.”
It’s clear that Alisson’s influence has rubbed off on Kelleher’s game given how confident and assured he is in possession – a key trait required in a modern goalkeeper.
His experience playing as a frontman for the early part of his career has also aided him, but not just with the ball at his feet. Having been a striker, Harrington explains, Kelleher knows how to think like a striker.
“He could play on the right or the left at 10, 11 years of age so it was no bother to him ever. He’d tell us that when strikers came through on goal he’d know which way they would go, he’d get a feeling for it having been a striker himself. He was one step ahead in a way.”
Wednesday night represented the next logical step in a career that’s been improving year upon year for Kelleher.
This year he made his debut for the Irish U21 side and despite not playing a game for the first team, picked up a Champions League winners medal as Liverpool won their six European title in June.
Being a European Champion at 20 means Kelleher is in a very exclusive club, and playing with a team like Liverpool will always bring a certain level of pressure and scrutiny.
Harrington however highlighted a quality that Kelleher possess which always led his former coach to believe he was destined for massive things in the game.
“He’s so cool. It may come across as cocky but he’s just so cool. He’s very confident in his own ability, he always has been.
“Even with his personality, he’d kill with a one liner, he wouldn’t be loud or anything but you wouldn’t take him on in a slagging match. He’s reassured in himself, he wants to be the best, he’s not over there for the craic.”
Harrington watched with pride in Milton Keynes as Kelleher showed all the qualities his former coach already knew he had, but so desperately wanted him to show.
He wasn’t the only one of Kelleher’s coaches to have enjoyed his performance however.
“For a goalie, it’s quite difficult in a game like this,” said Klopp after the victory.
“But then being there having not a lot to do over the whole game and then having these kind of saves, that’s absolutely brilliant.”
For Harrington and Ringmahon Rangers, Kelleher’s rise through the Liverpool ranks has been a source of immense pride especially given how high the keeper holds in schoolboy club in such high regard.
Seeing the 20-year-old between the sticks for one of European football’s biggest clubs however, is still surreal for his former schoolboy coach.
“You just feel so proud when you hear good things about someone,” finished Harrington.
“But when you see someone representing Liverpool in goal, it’s off the charts.”
“There’s no one getting used to it around here.”