Vincent Hogan: In safe hands
Westwood looking after No 1 as he steps out of Given shadow
Published 26/03/2011 | 05:00
Kelham O'Hanlon yesterday recalled his one and only time keeping goal for Ireland. Israel were the visitors in a November tempest at Lansdowne Road. O'Hanlon played for Rotherham at the time and, as the teams lined up for the national anthems, his stomach was doing cartwheels.
He stood next to Ray Houghton and they both found themselves peering down the line at unfamiliar opponents. The rain was bucketing down and, with temperatures plunging, the wind bore a serrated edge. Yet, the Israelis were wearing short sleeves.
Houghton nudged O'Hanlon in the midriff. "Think you'll be alright tonight Kel!" he chuckled.
And he was. Ireland won 5-0 and O'Hanlon duly slipped back into relative anonymity with, maybe, the best career statistics of any goalkeeper in the history of the international game.
The year was 1987, Ireland about to embark upon an incredible odyssey under Jack Charlton. With Packie Bonner and Gerry Peyton at Big Jack's disposal, O'Hanlon was never again required. Yet, he covets that single Irish cap and the brief exposure it gave him to a game of an infinitely more complex rhythm to anything he was accustomed to.
Now manager of Fylde in England's Evostik North League, O'Hanlon likens international football to a game of chess.
He says: "Club football is all cut and thrust, teams swinging in crosses, everything helter-skelter. But international football is completely different. A goalkeeper can be called on to do their job in the first minute and then, maybe, nothing for the next half hour.
"So, your concentration levels have got to be incredible. That's why Shay Given has been so good."
The popular view is that, given the road he has already travelled, international football should be a day at the beach for Keiren Westwood. Yet, the last Irish goalkeeper, other than Given, to play in a competitive international might be inclined to warn against presumption.
Wayne Henderson was drafted in by Steve Staunton after Paddy Kenny's virtual meltdown against Cyprus in that infamous Nicosia Euro Qualifier of October '06. And, while he did well in a subsequent 1-1 Dublin draw with the Czech Republic, Henderson had a nightmare 87th-minute aberration (ably assisted by Richard Dunne and Paul McShane it should be said) in Serravalle the following February.
Virtually inactive up to that moment, his error put the Republic on the brink of a humiliating draw with San Marino -- a country with the grand total of one professional footballer at their disposal -- until Stephen Ireland's injury-time winner saved the nation's blushes.
Injury has since ransacked his career and, last week, Henderson -- still just 27 -- was released by Preston North End.
Westwood's career, it is assumed, is on an entirely different trajectory. He is expected to be playing Premier League football in either England or Scotland next season, the breadth of interest in his services already extending to clubs on the scale of Manchester City, Tottenham, Newcastle, Everton and Celtic.
Having ridden the heat of being branded a "contract rebel" at Coventry City last year, he becomes a free agent in the summer.
The club, essentially, played hard-ball with him and lost. When he rejected their contract offer last September, the then team-manager -- Aidy Boothroyd -- dropped Westwood, insisting that he was not prepared to select him again until he signed.
Westwood responded defiantly, declaring "bullying me is not going to work!"
And it didn't. Without him, Coventry looked like a team lost in a blizzard and Westwood was reinstated.
If anything, the club's stance suggested that they had not fully researched their goalkeeper. For Westwood's story is pretty much a parable of resilience.
He began his career at Manchester City, long before the club happened upon that quaint Arab idea of recruiting players out of a Harrods brochure.
Back then, David James and Nicky Weaver were the City goalkeepers. Westwood? He was, by his own admission, a slightly presumptuous and distracted teenager who had -- yet -- to feel the sting of rejection. It wasn't long coming.
He recalls: "I was starstruck. I was in there looking at Nicolas Anelka and Richard Dunne and I was like ... wow. I was wondering almost should I be getting people's autographs.
"And I never really pushed myself. Never had a right go. Then I was released and, looking back, it was probably the kick up the arse I needed."
He was out on loan at Oldham when his world began to curl up at the edges. Westwood remembers. "It was the end of the season and I'd broken a bone in my hand. There was a new manager and lots of change at the club. Brian Talbot had come in. And he said 'Go back to City, we're not going to offer you anything ... '
"I went back to City and they said exactly the same. So, I was basically out of a job and I was panicking really. I had a really bad summer. I'd been at Bradford for a month. Did really well, actually, for a young kid going into a first team environment at that stage. But Colin Todd said 'No!'
"And that was like a big kick in the teeth. And I'm like (blows his cheeks out in exasperation).
"So, I left there and managed to have a chat with Wrexham. It looked like they were interested. I was told 'Ya he (the manager) is on holiday, he'll come back and we'll sort the contract out ... '
"And oh I'm buzzin', I've managed to get myself a contract. But for one reason or another, nothing ever happened. The phone didn't ring. And that was it really. I felt I was getting kicked from pillar to post. I was thinking: 'I'm going to have to get a job ... ' So I actually signed forms for the police force.
"I wasn't scared of doing that. You've got to put food on the table so to speak and pay your bills. I would have done anything. Luckily for me, I got a call from Paul Simpson."
The then Carlisle manager brought Westwood in on an unorthodox arrangement. Because of a club embargo, they weren't in a position to pay him anything other than match bonuses.
No matter, Westwood did not hesitate. "I'll sign," he said.
To this day, he considers it the best decision of his life. In four years at Carlisle, he would go from callow understudy to goalkeeping mainstay of a club that would be promoted all the way from Conference to League One.
At the end of the '07/'08 season, Westwood was named on the PFA League One Team of the Year. That June, he signed for Coventry and -- within a year -- was named on the PFA Championship Team of the Year. In the meantime, he'd also been drafted into Giovanni Trapattoni's first training squad in the Algarve.
Westwood qualifies for Ireland by dint of paternal grandparents from Wexford and Laois and has -- it should be said -- made a resolutely positive impact in all five of his international outings to date, albeit they have been confined to friendlies.
On Thursday, he spoke of the debt he owes Given for his education.
"It is a great honour every time I'm called in," he said.
"Being here and working with Shay and Kells (goalkeeping coach, Alan Kelly) and the rest of the 'keepers to improve yourself.
"When you are at your club, you don't train with Premier League players, so it is always a great experience and I have always worked hard and kept my head down.
"Shay has been great. He helps me all the time. I can't thank him enough really. I spoke to him when he got his injury and I obviously feel for him. He's just had some rotten luck this last 12 months now and I wish him the best."
Kelly accentuated the positive too, suggesting that the greatest psychological hurdle for any player at this level is their actual debut. He explained: "People are saying: 'Well, what about it being competitive, there's points riding on it? The prestige and everything?'
"Well I sort of hark back to when you make your debut. You are never as nervous as you are on your debut. You step into a new arena, it's different for you. Are you going to step up to the mark? So far, in the five caps he's had, he's stepped up to the mark. And, in training this week, he's looked as sharp as I've seen him."
Westwood is, naturally, loath to explore the issue of his club future. Coventry, no doubt, realising the folly of their September stance, would have let him move in the January window if a bid in the region of £4m had been forthcoming.
It wasn't. Celtic, reputedly, offered somewhere between £500,000 and £1m last August, their efforts disdainfully categorised by Boothroyd as "£3.50 and a bag of haggis, nowhere near enough for a player of this quality!"
For Westwood, that had to constitute a disappointment.
Coventry are in a state of flux and Boothroyd's recent sacking, like that of Chris Coleman before him, spoke of a club with a pretty volatile heartbeat just now. Furthermore, the depiction of Westwood in local media outlets last autumn carried an unwelcome edge. The popular line was that he had turned down "a bumper deal".
No matter, he held his nerve and will -- almost certainly -- leave in the coming months. And his continued excellence in a struggling team has spoken of an uncommon mental strength.
When dropped last September, Westwood declared: "I am being slaughtered in the papers and made to look the bad guy, which is unfair. I have not asked to leave, I just said I don't want to sign the contract.
"The manager asked for an answer, he wanted me to be straight up and honest, which I have been. Next thing I know, I am out of the team and find myself being attacked in the press. Enough is enough.
"The manager has said I am the best 'keeper outside the Premier League and yet he doesn't want to play me. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I am not a bad lad. I am not arrogant. Since I was released by City, I have worked hard every day.
"I have played in the Conference and I know what it's like to be on £150 a week. So I am not a Big Time Charlie. I'll always work hard, no matter what happens. Because I know how close I came to not even being a footballer."
His performances back up the claim and, tonight against Macedonia, Westwood may well put himself in the shop window for that glamorous summer move. But he will do so knowing that -- for now at least -- he has the jersey strictly on loan.
In Trapattoni's plans, the goalkeeping position remains a one-liner. If Given is fit, he plays.
Yet, Westwood is nine years the Donegal man's junior and, seemingly, destined for a gilded future.
And, if Given continues to stall indefinitely as Joe Hart's back-up at Eastlands, who is to say the Italian might not go with the younger, more active man?
Yet, here, O'Hanlon sounds an interesting note of caution.
"Keiren's now one of the top two 'keepers in the Championship, no question," he says. "The problem is, does he now go to a Premier League club as a number two?
"That's his dilemma. There'll be a massive financial incentive, but do you want to play football?"
Tonight, the FAI's "official betting partner" lists their goalkeeper as 4/6 to keep a clean sheet and, a little bizarrely, 8/1 to save a penalty. Whatever happens, hypothermia is unlikely.
As is an outbreak of five goals.