'To save four -- something you can't dream about'
CIARAN Kelly had to get away from it all. As Paul Cook and his staff gathered the players to discuss who would take the five FAI Cup final penalty kicks, the 30-year-old goalkeeper made a bee-line for the tunnel.
He's got his own routine when it comes to shoot-outs and, given his strike rate, nobody was in a position to dispute it. Kelly doesn't have the numbers but reckons he's been involved in around a dozen and only lost one.
"I got myself off the pitch to compose myself," he says. "Think happy thoughts, as the man says. Just stay relaxed. It's something I do when it comes to shoot-outs. I knew the boys would be on to me saying: 'You can do it, you can do it', and the gaffer would be on to me as well. I took a few minutes to relax and then when I came back, it was time to go."
After that, it was Roy of the Rovers stuff. Twigg went to his right. Kelly saved. Pat Flynn to his left. Pushed away. Chris Turner went down the middle. Kelly remembered last year, when Turner was in Dundalk colours and converted a spot kick with the direct route.
As the Shamrock Rovers midfielder ran forward, something inside his brain said to stay put. Another save. When Paddy Kavanagh arrived needing to score to keep the competition alive, Paul Cook's second-choice netminder was in auto pilot mode.
Seconds later, he was leading the celebrations.
"From zero to hero," he smiles, recalling that a year ago, he was experiencing an alternative range of emotions for conceding the penalty that allowed Sporting Fingal to equalise when Sligo were minutes away from cup glory in Tallaght. The Dubliners added another to grab the trophy. This was Kelly's day. "To save four, it's something you can't dream about."
Mind you, he saved five in Mayo one day. He was playing for Ballinrobe in a Mayo & District League Division 2 final, and was similarly prolific.
The difference was that he let two past him on that occasion -- three of the stops came from the one player, with the referee ordering a couple of retakes.
That's a long time ago now. Kelly mixed his soccer with GAA in those days and was on the Mayo U-21 panel at one point. Sligo offered him a shot at the League of Ireland but it didn't work out and there were spells at Derry and Galway before he fell out of love with the game.
So, he returned to the Mayo & District League with Castlebar Celtic, working under ex-Sligo Rovers legend Gavin Dykes. Athlone brought him into the semi-pro ranks again, until he received a call from Bit O'Red assistant Gerry Carr -- the man who scored the winning goal in their 1994 cup success -- who asked if he fancied returning to the Showgrounds as understudy to Richard Brush.
Fate decreed that Brush would miss two cup finals, thrusting Kelly into the breach. On Saturday, Cook instructed his men to practise spot-kicks and, from 20 efforts, Kelly stopped just the one -- and that was from Carr.
He saved his best for when it really mattered.