Caoimhin Kelleher could be a truly transformative player for the Ireland senior team.
Alongside 1-1 draws and players walking forlornly towards the centre-circle after conceding a goal, the standout image of the Republic of Ireland team over the last 20 or so years is the side camped on their 18-yard line, repelling wave after wave of opposition attack as they try to keep the score down. For at least three generations, Irish sides have been more comfortable playing with their backs against the wall.
It has worked in the team’s favour several times in big games and is a legitimate way to play. However, it could soon change.
Caoimhín Kelleher may have only started one senior game in his career, but it is not an exaggeration to say he could potentially transform how the Ireland team play if all goes to plan with his career.
Of course, there is no guarantee that he’ll make the difficult transition into a first-team player. Yet, the signs suggest that the Liverpool goalkeeper has a promising career ahead of him.
Don’t be surprised to see him become a key player for Stephen Kenny during the 2022 World Cup campaign.
During Ireland Under-21s’ goalless draw with Italy at Tallaght Stadium, Kelleher helped set-up two chances with his excellent distribution. The Cork-native found Adam Idah with a stunning pass. He dropped the ball from his hands and hit a wonderful half-volley 60 yards up the pitch, reaching Idah, who almost fashioned a goalscoring chance.
Kelleher’s passing accuracy was also evident in September’s Under-21 fixture against Armenia. The Cork-native started the move that led to Troy Parrott scoring the only goal of the game, playing a deft pass to Darragh Leahy at left-back.
The 20-year-old was a striker until a few years ago and a talented one. He represented Ringmahon Rangers in the Kennedy Cup and ended up in goal by chance. Yet, this random act could have long-term benefits for the Irish senior team. Kelleher’s grounding as a forward makes him ideal for his new role – the modern goalkeeper is essentially an outfield player with gloves on.
They must be proactive, capable of reading the play and anticipating danger. They must be aggressive with their positioning and ready to intercept a ball over the top. This enables the team to play higher up the pitch and in the opposition half. They must also be able to pass like a midfielder, spray balls over the top of opposition defenders to full-backs, into midfielder’s feet and the path of forwards on the run.
Kelleher ticks all of these boxes and this was evident from his debut appearance for Liverpool last month, in the team’s 2-0 EFL Cup victory over MK Dons. He received praise for a save he made in the second half.
It was a very good save, especially for a player on his debut. But you can be certain that it was Kelleher’s work with the ball at his feet, his positioning and his composure, that caught Jurgen Klopp’s eye, rather than his save.
From the first minute of the match, it was clear that the Liverpool players trusted Kelleher in possession.
He was an option for a pass and available if a switch of play was required.
Kelleher also helped Liverpool soak up pressure and drag opposition players out of position.
He passed the ball like a central midfielder.
In the instance below, he takes three MK Dons players out of contention by passing through the lines.
Kelleher’s clever use of the ball enabled Liverpool to bring MK Dons onto them and then play through them.
He was like a sweeper, but in goal rather than in the defensive line.
This passage of play was particularly impressive.
Kelleher was available for a pass, calm in possession and made the right decision each time.
In addition to his skills on the ball, Kelleher is also confident and composed.
Without wanting to be disrespectful, no Ireland player has pulled off a drag-back like the one below since Wes Hoolahan retired from international duty.
Kelleher has everything required to become a key player for Kenny when he becomes Ireland senior boss. Rather than Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrott or Jayson Molumby, it could the Cork goalkeeper who fundamentally alters how the team plays.
He will allow the side to play 20 yards further up the pitch.
On a trip to the Nou Camp in spring 2018, I got to the stadium early. With an hour and a half to go before kick-off, there wasn’t much to do but watch the warmups, and I was struck by the goalkeeper drills. Jasper Cillessen and Marc-Andre ter Stegen spent about 25 or so minutes doing their warmups but rarely touched the ball with their hands. The coaches overwhelmingly focused on sharpening their footwork ahead of the game. This approach has filtered down and throughout the sport. A goalkeeper must now be proactive, an 11th outfield player capable of contributing to general play.
Kelleher can do all of this, and will hopefully continue his development by playing more for his club and progressing to the Ireland senior team. If he does, he could be a transformative player, the one who enables Kenny to fully implement a more progressive style of play.
It must be said that none of this is meant as a criticism of Darren Randolph. The current Ireland number one is an excellent goalkeeper. He has been a calm presence in the side since establishing himself at the end of 2015. He has not made any mistakes, has saved the team on several occasions and helped keep the score respectable in Ireland’s 2-0 defeat to Switzerland. He hasn’t put a foot wrong.
However, despite his reliability, Randolph is a traditional goalkeeper – an excellent shot-stopper but not someone who is as proficient with his kicking and distribution. Kelleher made 49 passes against MK Dons. Randolph has averaged 24 passes per game for Middlesbrough this season. The Bray-native excelled at the Championship side under Tony Pulis last season, but may not be as suited to a more expansive game. For Ireland, his goal-kicks are often towards the left-wing and not always accurate. However, it must be said that he is merely following the manager’s orders by going long.
Traditional goal-line goalkeepers have had a tough time in recent years. Joe Hart went from Manchester City and England number one to Burnley bench-warmer in the space of three years. On the surface, it looked like an incredible downturn in fortune. But, really, Hart failed to adapt and paid the price. It is no longer enough to just be a good shot-stopper – although, Hart couldn’t even manage that. The game has changed, but he did not. The goalkeeper now must also be a good footballer. It’s possible that Randolph could adapt and be the sweeper-keeper Kenny will want. It will certainly take a lot to dislodge him. But it looks like he’ll have plenty of competition over the next few years.
Whenever Randolph’s reign ends, Kelleher and Gavin Bazunu, formerly of Shamrock Rovers and now with Manchester City, could be set to battle it out for the Ireland number one jersey for a decade if all goes to plan. The Irish youngsters are training with the two best goalkeepers in the world, Alisson Becker and Ederson respectively. Kelleher, at 20, has a head start on Bazunu, who doesn’t turn 18 until February.
The upcoming Irish football revolution will have some victims. Unfortunately, Randolph, the team’s most consistent player could be one. But if Ireland are to ever get their backs from the wall in matches, if there is to be a complete change in playing style, then they will need a sweeper keeper, someone as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is making saves to help the side push 20 yards up the pitch. Kelleher could be that goalkeeper.
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