Saturday 18 November 2017

'It's the way I have always played' - Liam Kelly's refreshing style of play a real positive for Ireland

Liam Kelly in action for Reading. Photo: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
Liam Kelly in action for Reading. Photo: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Liam Kelly. Remember the name. If you're not familiar with him by now, then you will be soon. The Reading midfielder was recently named in a long-list Irish provisional squad for the first time, but injury prevented the 21-year-old from attending.

But if he continues his current rate of progression, then expect the diminutive midfielder to become a talking point in the near future.

That's because he is different; a Wes Hoolahan-sized player who is comfortable in a deep role, eager to take the ball from his defenders and dictate play in a division where the prototype tends to be a bruiser.

Kelly has thrived in a Reading squad that is well on course for the play-offs after a successful Easter, with Saturday's win at Aston Villa followed by a second-half comeback to beat Rotherham yesterday.

Manager Jaap Stam was fuming that his team were asked to play twice in 48 hours and rested some key men against already relegated Rotherham. Trailing at half-time, he immediately sent for Kelly, and Reading turned it around.

Reaching the play-offs will boost the profile of a youngster who has been with the club since the age of eight but only made his breakthrough to the first team this season after Stam came in with a philosophy that favoured his approach. Kelly was on loan with Bath City last season, in the sixth tier of English football.

Now, he looks comfortable in good company. In the Villa triumph, he outfoxed an expensively assembled trio of Mile Jedinak, Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane, even if they all towered over him.

His use of the ball was excellent. And he made a late break to win the penalty that sealed victory in front of 30,000 mostly disgruntled locals.

Reading know they have a player on their hands, who still cannot disguise his enthusiasm at his emergence.

"From the first day he came in, the gaffer showed faith in me," he told the Irish Independent. "I knew that he wanted to play football and keep it on the ground. That's the way I've always played.

Liam Kelly in action for Ireland U19s
Liam Kelly in action for Ireland U19s

"So I knew that if I could get my head down and show him what I could do, then maybe I could get a chance; but I've probably got more of a chance than I expected. Every day is a new experience for me."

Stam has highlighted his faith in Kelly by sticking with him through some rough patches; he was withdrawn after 28 minutes of his league debut, but the Dutchman then selected him for a League Cup date at Arsenal, and later described his passing and technique as "world class" before handing out a three-year contract to fend off suitors.

"We're one of the only teams in the Championship to play the way that we do and it's got us to where we are," says Kelly. "So we're going to keep doing it. We've had a few tough defeats, but every time we seem to bounce back and push on. It's why we are where we are."

The priority for now is to plot a path to the Premier League, yet he admits that another Irish call in the summer is on his mind. Kelly qualifies through grandparents from Mayo and Leitrim, and played at U-19 level.

When his club career stalled, he stopped making squads and appeared just once for the U-21s under Noel King. He should be around for the long haul at senior level, although it seems inevitable that he will face the same questions about physicality that are aimed at Hoolahan.

There was a point in the Villa match where a frustrated Hourihane just pushed Kelly to the ground, perhaps in some attempt to lay down a marker, but the little man got up without any fuss and continued to do his thing.

QPR's Ryan Manning is another emerging talent in a similar mould. Future Irish teams will have the option to field ball-playing midfielders; it's just a question of whether managers use them.

Kelly has spoken to team-mates Paul McShane and Stephen Quinn - both injured at the moment - about what he can expect with Ireland.

"That Ireland call is just another (proud) moment in my career that I can look back on, and hopefully in the summer, if I keep doing what I'm doing, I'll get another chance," he says.

My whole family was delighted; to get an international call is something not many players get so everyone is proud.

"First of all, I'm concentrating on getting to the play-offs and if you do well in that, then hopefully a call will be on cards but, if not, then I will push into next season.

"If I do get the call, then I will go and enjoy it, do what I do and take it in my stride."

The Irish public are likely to enjoy what comes next.

Irish Independent

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