Kelly hoping lightning strikes twice in battle with Estonian 'keeper
Published 09/11/2011 | 05:00
THE Irish duo at Fulham have talked about little else but the Euro 2012 play-off in recent weeks, and they were given added reason last Thursday evening.
Stephen Kelly and Damien Duff got a close look at Estonian 'keeper Sergei Pareiko in their side's Europa League clash with Wisla Krakow at Craven Cottage.
They were impressed with the contribution of the 34-year-old, who graduated to the No 1 role for his country after the retirement of Mart Poom.
However, they'll be hoping that he suffers similar frustration in Tallinn on Friday. Pareiko had to pick the ball out of the net on four occasions in London, and it was the boot of Duff that delivered the opening goal.
Kelly hopes that it's a good omen.
"Duffer has one up on him already," said the full-back, who is set to start in the first leg because of John O'Shea's absence, "although it's all down to the day.
"From what we saw, he seems steady enough but I am sure we will be testing him. He looked decent and pulled off a few good saves.
"He is quite tall -- he's well over six feet -- and he seems to be quite agile as well. He did not come off the line for many -- he stayed on his line and, like many continental 'keepers, he didn't want to come out of his box too often."
Kelly is an experienced European performer at this stage of his career.
"I don't get the chance to play against English players too often," he joked.
During his stint with Fulham, the affable Dubliner has featured frequently in the Europa League. Frustratingly, when it comes to the Premier League sphere, he is pushed to the bench.
Things have improved slightly this season. After failing to get a look-in under Mark Hughes, the arrival of Martin Jol has increased his playing time. With first-choice right-full Zdenek Grygera picking up an injury at the weekend, Kelly knows that opportunities will follow.
"I think that in games I've played, I've done well enough to get a starting place without somebody's misfortune," he stated.
That is his role in the Irish camp, though, and the 28-year-old has stepped into the breach more than once in this campaign. He deputised for O'Shea in Moscow, and for Stephen Ward at left-back against Armenia last month.
After coming into the squad under Brian Kerr, he has waited a long time to play such an active part in a qualification campaign, and he struggles to disguise his excitement at the possible reward.
He remembers the mood of euphoria when Duff was performing on the biggest stage at Japan and Korea back in 2002.
"I watched the games in Tolka Rovers, my old team," he said. "My girlfriend Helga -- now my wife -- was playing basketball for them, and I watched the games in there with her.
"I was living every kick of the game, and you can't help getting into it. I remember going to the Phoenix Park then when they came back, and the atmosphere was great.
"I know what it would mean to people -- especially the way the country is now. There's a lot of things happening that aren't looking good so I think it would be a great boost. It would put a smile on people's faces, and give them something else to focus on away from the negatives."
A huge turnout at the Armenia game heartened Kelly, and he is relishing a similar atmosphere in next Tuesday's return. Amid all the talk about Ireland struggling as favourites, he is convinced that the fans can play a part and raise the volume levels if tensions grow.
The mission is to take the pressure off Ireland, and place it on the shoulders of Pareiko.