'Irish Messi' Liam Kelly feared his one big flaw would shatter his dreams
As his stalling career reach a tipping point last season, Ireland new-boy Liam Kelly wondered if his chance would ever come.
The youngster who has been called up to the Ireland senior squad for the first time ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Wales later this month was overlooked by a succession of Reading managers and cast aside by Ireland’s junior sides despite some sparking performances in his fledging international career, the one factor holding Kelly back was a problem he simply couldn’t solve.
A little like a certain Lionel Messi a decade before him, 5’7” Kelly was considered to be too short to make it as a professional footballer in an era when brawn was valued more than brains and sublime raw talent.
It mattered not that he had more natural ability in both feet than most of the senior professionals around him at Reading, as Kelly was ‘that short kid’ who did not have the physical attributes to make it in the rough and tough world of England’s Championship division.
Just when it seemed like his cause was lost, former Manchester United talisman was appointed as Reading manager last summer and in an instant, Kelly’s world was transformed.
It didn’t take long for Stam and his coaching staff to appreciate that the kid discarded by others would be a perfect fit for the passing football that were determined to bring to Reading and they slowly set about integrating him into their first team plans.
With Kelly operating on the same youth team contract that was due to run out this summer, he made his Championship debut against Rotherham in October and has not looked back since.
A bumper new contract was presented to Kelly in January and while he still lives at home with his parents in their humble Basingstoke home for now, his star is finally shooting at last.
Described by Stam as world-class in December, this little maestro has turned games for Reading with moments of magic as either a starter or super-sub and the Ireland coaching team have acknowledged his sparkling form by naming the 21-year-old in the Ireland squad for the vital World Cup qualifier against Wales in Dublin later this month.
Kelly may well be trimmed from the list when boss Martin O’Neill reduces his pool of players in the coming days, but this call-up will be welcomed by a shy young man who granted me his first interview a few days after he became an YouTube sensation after he scored a wonder goal from the half-way line for Ireland’s under-19s against Sweden in October 2013.
“I always knew there was a possibility that I could play for Ireland and it is something I was desperate to do,” stated English-born Kelly, who qualifies for Ireland via his Mayo-born grandfather Tony and his Leitrim-born grandmother Mary.
“The pride I felt pulling on the green shirt was fantastic and when you hear the anthem being played, you get that special feeling, one you will never get playing at club level. I feel so privileged to play for Ireland and to see the pride in my parents and grandparents with the way it has gone has been brilliant.”
Liam’s prowess from set-pieces may be the most exciting aspect of his talents, with his diminutive stature meaning he would provide a very different type of midfield option for a future Ireland team than we have been used to in recent years, with the fame his goal in Sweden has given him hardly turning his head as he keeps his youthful feet firmly planted in his stable family set-up.
“The Youtube hits on that goal have been amazing and I have another couple of free-kicks on there that have been downloaded loads of time as well,” Kelly told me with a smile. “It is pretty cool, but it is not something I worry too much about.
“I’m pleased that goal in Sweden was caught on TV because it will probably never happen again. You can’t really practice that can you, scoring goals from the half-way line.
“I work on my free-kicks every day after training and you have to do that if you want to get good at them. That part of the game is all about practice and it is great when it pays off in a game, but the Sweden goal was a once in a lifetime kind of moment.”
While it is premature to suggest this impish little starlet could one day be hailed as the ‘Irish Messi’, Kelly is fortunate to be making his way in the game at a time when smaller players are getting their chances to breakthrough alongside more powerful youthful stars.
“I never let my height worry me,” he stresses. “I just wanted to play football and it has been good enough to get me into a team at whatever level I was playing at.
“Frank Lampard was an idol for me growing up as my Dad was a Chelsea fan, but I also looked at guys like Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Xavi and they are all small in stature and haven’t done too bad in their careers. They are the best in the world at playing football and that shows what is possible.”
It is when we get to the subject of ambitions that Kelly offers his most enchanting opinions, as while some in his position may dream of the day when they purchase their first Ferrari, this youngster who is about to sign his first professional contract with Reading.
“My big ambition is to try and look after my family one day and say they don’t have to work any more,” adds the boy wonder whose proud mother Christine plies her trade in a bank and Chelsea-loving father Joe works for the local council.
“Mum and Dad drove me everywhere across the country since day one and it would be great to pay them back one day.”
This is the story of a young man with sublime talent who has beaten the system in many ways to reach the top in the game.
Ireland have not produced too many superstars in recent years, but Liam Kelly has the potential to become a glistening gem amid the next generation of international hopefuls.