Sunday 19 November 2017

Kieren Westwood dismisses accusations about commitment and rift with Martin O'Neill

Keiren Westwood walks through the sprinkler system at Fota Island. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Keiren Westwood walks through the sprinkler system at Fota Island. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
All smiles at yesterday’s press conference. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Nobody said it would be easy."

These are the words that form only a portion of Keiren Westwood's almost completely tattooed, bulging right arm. And, for good measure, the phrase is repeated twice amidst the icons and graphic flourishes that are indelibly inked upon him.

He cannot shake the past that has brought him to this moment; perhaps he wouldn't want to. Now he just wants to shape his future.

A year ago, it seemed highly unlikely that Keiren Westwood would ever feature for Ireland again under Martin O'Neill, let alone go to a European Championships with him. A month ago, that view remained unchanged.

A day before we speak, even, with David Forde having appeared in the Belarus friendly ahead of the unused Sheffield Wednesday man, Westwood would have been forgiven for contemplating the worst.


"I was obviously happy for David because we're friends," he says. "When Martin said, 'Fordey, go warm up,' I shook his hand and said 'Good luck'."

Westwood returned to the dressing-room afterwards and kept his head down. Subliminally, it was as if he wanted to avoid the dreaded gaze, the beckoning curly finger. "I'd have taken it on the chin," he says.

Darron Gibson and Eunan O'Kane were sitting either side of him; both were called to the door. Then they were shown it. So too Forde. Now 31, Westwood had missed out on promotion to the Premier League just days earlier; this could have been quite the double whammy.

But here he is. He remained in the room. O'Neill's decision had been made just minutes earlier.

Handed the number one jersey in the 23-man squad too - "Am I really? Stop! I could be 99, man!" - Roy Keane later reminds us that Darren Randolph remains Ireland's number one in the team.

"I think that's everybody's aim, is it not? I would say everyone in the 23 wants to be in the 11, not just me or the keepers or the two right backs or the centre-mids or the strikers or the centre-halves.

"Everyone is going to be in the same boat, not just me. But that adds really good competition to the squad. There's a bit of, not needle, but everyone is pushing each other on. If Darren makes a save, I'll say, 'Great save Daz'."

This sense of commitment to the cause has not always seemed evident; indeed, O'Neill openly questioned it during a period when the player routinely played for his club but withdrew from the international fray; the manager's patience wilted after he omitted him entirely last March.

Westwood is eager to dismiss the perception amongst many in this country that his relationship with Ireland was in any way dilettantish.

"It's easy to throw that at me, I suppose, but I don't see any reason for it," he says. "The only reason I wouldn't be in the squad is it because I was injured. That's frustrating to read, lads, yeah. I'm not going to lie to you because there's no real substance to it, apart from I'm injured.

"It's not like I'm fully fit and I've gone, 'Nah, that's not for me'. I haven't done that so it is a bit frustrating."

A pre-season ankle injury in a friendly against Braga meant he spent from September to March playing, but rarely training.

"If you are injured you can't really do too much, you're getting injections in your ankle and stuff, there's not much you can do about it.


"That was why in the November play-off matches for Ireland, I was injured because I was! But the club was churning me out every Saturday to make sure I was there, not really training much. And you can't come away with a national team and not train, you know? It's a bit different.

"It's difficult to accept, the 'reliability' thing. If you are injured, you're injured."

O'Neill openly questioned the "reliability" issue in March - "Keiren has pulled out of a number of squads, not just in my time but I think he did it before. Therefore, naturally, it's a concern. You need a bit of reliability."

Westwood sighs wanly when reminded of the quotes.

"There is not much you can do about it and Sheffield Wednesday pay the wages, don't they? So I am their player. So they are saying, 'You're carrying injuries here, what's going on? You can't go' and this, that and the other. So I am caught between a rock and a hard place."

When Giovanni Trapattoni managed him en route to Euro 2012, he was second-choice with O'Neill at Sunderland and wanted a loan move; O'Neill refused and suggestions of discord swept like a virus when the pair were re-united at international level, too.

"I'm guessing if I'm not in the squad there is always going to be speculation or some sort of undercurrent," he smiles, caning another canard.

"There are no problems. I was at Sunderland with Martin and it was more me being desperate to go and play.

"I remember telling him that Trapattoni's told me if I didn't play I'm not going to play for Ireland and before I knew it I was out of the team, like. Both teams!

"It was real hard to take because I was playing, I was number one for the national team and it was great. I'd played more games for Ireland than I had done for Sunderland."

It's easy to forget this is his second Euros. "Some of the stories I could tell you lads, Jesus! No chance, no f**king chance!"

Shay Given, clearly unfit, was a pre-ordained first choice then, signifying the unswerving rigidity of the manager.

"We were training for a good four weeks before the actual tournament and by the time it came around we were f**king wrecked because it was a long season.

"We were up in Montecatini, we were in Dublin... We were wrecked, that's the truth. But listen, we had good times. Every manager is different."

This will, indeed, be different. Under O'Neill, the goalkeeping position has constantly been in a state of flux.

Everton and Hull target Westwood, who once contemplated quitting the sport to become a policeman during darker days, is ready for the challenge.

"Someone might get injured and you can go from third-choice to first-choice in two or three days," he notes.

It won't be easy though. Nobody said it would.

Irish Independent

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