Wednesday 19 June 2019

Champions League winner Caoimhin Kelleher set for leading role in Toulon after magic of Madrid

Goalkeepers' union: Ireland U-21 goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher with his Liverpool team-mates Simon Mignolet and Allison (C) celebrating with the Champions League trophy in Madrid on Saturday night. Photo: REUTERS/Carl Recine
Goalkeepers' union: Ireland U-21 goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher with his Liverpool team-mates Simon Mignolet and Allison (C) celebrating with the Champions League trophy in Madrid on Saturday night. Photo: REUTERS/Carl Recine
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Stephen Kenny feels that Toulon Tournament participation will help to give his Ireland U-21 squad a 'really significant year in their lives.'

One member of his squad is already guaranteed to remember 2019 in those terms.

His goalkeeper, Caoimhin Kelleher, has already lived through an event he will never forget.

The Corkman was on the pitch in Madrid on Saturday night, celebrating with the rest of the Liverpool squad after collecting a Champions League medal - before flying back with the group for their celebratory parade yesterday.

Jurgen Klopp's third choice keeper is Kenny's No 1, and he asserted last week that Kelleher would be selected for today's opener with China, although UCD's Conor Kearns did star in the training match win over Mick McCarthy's seniors and has spent the entirety of the build-up with the team.

Kelleher will have plenty to talk about with his pals after benefiting from a change in UEFA rules that allows all members of the 23-man squad to collect a medal.

That means he has a coveted piece of silverware in his pocket without having ever played a senior game at club level.

"I can't describe it," Kelleher told RTE on Saturday. "It was nerve wrecking on the bench. My heart was beating all the time. It's probably the best feeling I've ever had."

It was a proud moment for Ringmahon Rangers, the club where he was converted from a striker to a goalkeeper before attracting the attentions of Liverpool.

Kelleher's father Ray actually recommended the switch after watching his son impress while stepping between the sticks for the Cork Kennedy Cup team.

Ray died suddenly in 2014, which adds poignancy to Kelleher's story - he referenced his family and girlfriend in his post-match interview.

He is the youngest of six and his brother Fiacre is a defender with Oxford who started his career with Celtic.

Competed

In 2015, Kelleher was part of the Ireland team that competed at the European U-17 Championships in Bulgaria before his move to Liverpool.

"I want to be the best and to get into the first-team," said the softly spoken teen ahead of that trip. "There is no point in going over and thinking otherwise."

Klopp has singled out Kelleher for praise, identifying his 'skills' on the ball as an attribute that has impressed senior pros.

He will be expected to take on a role of responsibility within Kenny's dressing room.

Ireland last participated in this invitational competition back in 2002. Kenny made the request upon his appointment, in addition to looking for the regular Euro U-21 qualifying games to be frontloaded to make this a challenging 2019.

"Between June and November, we've got 10 competitive international games," said Kenny, who hopes that number will swell by progression to the semi-finals here.

After today's encounter with China, Ireland face Mexico on Thursday and Bahrain on Sunday.

That was a kind draw, although China and Mexico have brought their sides for next year's Olympics which means they are effectively an U-23 selection whereas Kenny has a number of players that would be eligible at U-19 level.

There are high hopes that a number of the Irish panel will go on to rub shoulders with the same kind of company that Kelleher is keeping.

Midfielder Jason Knight was on the Derby County bench in last Monday's play-off final defeat to Aston Villa at Wembley. He turned 18 in February.

Brighton's Jayson Molumby was an unused sub on the final day of the season as Manchester City came to town to be crowned Premier League champions.

Molumby has overcome long-term injury to get back on track. Full-back Lee O'Connor (Manchester United) and midfielder Conor Coventry (West Ham) are both understood to be in contention for pre-season involvement with their clubs.

Kenny has included three centre-halves in a squad weighted towards attacking players.

UCD winger Neil Farrugia is a major loss, yet a first call for Brighton's Aaron Connolly is of significant interest - the Galwegian starred at Premier League 2 level this term.

English-born Connor Ronan should assume creative responsibility. He was recently given a new two-year contract by Wolves after starring on a loan spell in Slovakia with Dunajská Streda.

"It's nice to know that I have that security so I can just go out and enjoy my football now," says Ronan.

However, there are players looking for a new club - with Conor Masterson the obvious example - that will view this week through a different lens with scouts from around the continent certain to be in attendance.

Masterson's release from Liverpool means he has gone through a different range of emotions to his good friend and old house-mate Kelleher.

They will be back together on the same pitch in France, hoping to create some new memories.

China v Ireland, Live On FreeSports (Channel 429 on Sky; 2.30)

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