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Career break with a difference sees Kelly move smoothly into professional ranks

GIVEN a six-month contract last July to prove himself, 25-year-old former Crumlin United striker Dean Kelly believes he has done that -- and more -- at League One side Oldham Athletic.

"They gave me a six-month contract because I was coming from amateur football," he explains. "They were taking a risk and I was happy in that respect. But now I am getting another contract, which will have me here till the end of the season at least.

"I have had a number of meetings with the manager, Paul Dickov, and he doesn't want me to go anywhere else. Initially he wanted me as another centre-forward, and when he said he was giving me the number nine jersey I was over the moon because it showed he had confidence in me."

However, Dickov has not rushed his new protégé into the action. So far, Kelly has only made two starts -- one in the League and one in the League Cup -- but he hasn't been out of the first team squad since he arrived at Boundary Park. With win bonuses and appearance bonuses to add to his basic, no wonder he's a happy man.

This time last year he was part of an all-conquering Crumlin United team, which won the Intermediate Cup, the Charlie Cahill and the Metropolitan, as well as the Leinster League Premier Division. And, despite missing 14 weeks with a knee injury, he finished top scorer with 35 goals.

At Oldham, his tally is two goals from 15 appearances, most as a substitute, but Dickov is an endless source of encouragement.

"He brings me on behind the front two more than up front and sees me as more of a footballer than just a striker. He wants me to create as much as score goals. I'm happy that I'm not just here to score goals, but don't get me wrong, that's what I hope to do -- to score as many goals as I can."

As a schoolboy with WFTA, and then moving to Tolka Rovers before his final eventful season with Crumlin, Kelly always had an eye for goal. The scouts took note, but he wasn't interested. "All I wanted to do then was play with my friends."

In fact, he wasn't always the most dedicated as he readily admits. "At WFTA, Liam Donnelly was my manager and he would be around on Saturday mornings dragging me out of bed, while my brother Jason took over that role when I played for Tolka."

It all proved worthwhile when Gerry Smith selected him for the FAI team competing in the UEFA Regions tournament. To qualify for the finals in Croatia, Ireland had to beat Scotland by three goals and did so -- thanks to a Kelly hat-trick.

As a builder with Dublin City Council, working mainly in demolition, he had a steady job, but when scout Billy Byrne arranged a trial at Oldham he couldn't resist trying his luck.

"I had just completed a mini pre-season with Shamrock Rovers and felt good after it, and I did so well at Oldham that they didn't want me to go home. I played in a friendly against Burnley, which we lost 2-1, but I scored, and the manager said 'will you stay and do the rest of pre-season?' I went home for two days and when I returned he had the forms ready and I signed. It was done and dusted just like that."

Initially, the full-time training was a bit of a culture shock, but not much. "When you have been playing football, but not thinking of doing it every day as a job, it's like a dream, and I'm living it at the moment." What makes it easier for Kelly is the fact that his confidence is high. He never had any doubts about his ability.

"I played for Amateur Ireland against the senior team and was up against Darren O'Dea and Paul McShane and I did well. I don't think of players' reputations, I shut everything out, the crowd, the opposition, and things naturally fall to me then.

"When I came over to Oldham, I thought I could do well. I had no butterflies. I believe that if I play like I can I'll do well."

Asked to rate his progress so far out of 10, he doesn't hesitate. "I'd rate it about 8. I was never as fit in my life. I'm at my peak level, working very hard in the gym, and not feeling tired in games.

"I'm flying in training, up with the fittest, and that has brought my game on the most. In a bleep test the other day I was in the top three, which was most satisfying."

Yes, but what about your touch, surely the acid test for a professional? "Every day the manager holds a couple of us back after training and pings the ball in to us. You do need a fairly decent touch over here, so it's good to stay back and do a bit of work and shooting with him.

"He gives me tips every day in training and in one-to-one talks, telling me what I'm doing wrong. I listen because he has had a great career. The big thing he's been emphasising to me is movement, not to be sitting back admiring the pass you pinged to somebody, keep moving."

Apparently, Dickov had planned to use Kelly over the Christmas period, but games were postponed, so the Dubliner is impatient to get back to action, score a few goals, and start on a more regular basis.

"My ambition is to play at the highest level I can," he says. "At present we're in seventh position and we have games in hand, so we could get to the play-offs or even go up to the Championship. That would be a great start for me."

While Oldham have supplied him with a house to live in, he still has a mortgage to pay on his home in Finglas, so he's hoping his new contract will enable him to bring his family -- girlfriend Laura and their children Christian (5) and Kobe (1) -- over to join him.

He's on a career break from his Dublin City Council job and he's in a hurry to make the most of it.

Sunday Indo Sport