Thursday 17 January 2019

Westwood moving on from season of misery

Ireland and Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper, Keiren Westwood. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland and Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper, Keiren Westwood. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

Keiren Westwood will miss three more Ireland games in the next fortnight. They may be meaningless end-of-season friendlies to the rest of us, and sadly they are not World Cup warm-ups, but these are important fixtures for Martin O'Neill's players. Missing out on appearances at Celtic Park, Stade de France and the Aviva will hurt the goalkeeper.

It sums up Westwood's woes. He will be glad to see the back of six months of his career which have prevented him from maintaining a serious challenge for the Ireland number-one slot with Middlesbrough's Darren Randolph and Newcastle United's Rob Elliot.

Since the retirements of Shay Given and David Forde, it is Randolph who has been the preferred choice for Martin O'Neill. But the Ireland manager keeps picking Westwood in his squads, despite his injuries this season. As for Westwood, he sees at least two more international campaigns of availability. Once he has put this season behind him.

"I have a different perspective on being injured," he says. "I've missed football. I have really missed playing. Sometimes you are so ingrained in football that you forget to enjoy it. Because there is a lot of pressure, and you are trying to make thousands of people happy every week, and win matches and ease that pressure, you can forget how much you love the game in the first place.

"It is game after game after game after game, and it is draining and it becomes just work, I suppose, and you get lost in it. When you have a long spell out, and this is the second surgery I have had in my career, you realise how much you really do miss playing.

"I've had ups and downs, obviously, and setbacks and frustrations, and it has been a pretty crap season and not what I expect from the standards I have set myself. But I had it after I had a shoulder injury and surgery at Sunderland, signed for Sheffield Wednesday and in that first season made Championship team of the year. This has given me a new enthusiasm to come back, get fit, get playing again and bounce back, as I did then."

Westwood's groin problems go right back to the start of the season when the 33-year-old former Carlisle and Sunderland 'keeper, already struggling with a broken rib, was diagnosed with Gilmore's Groin. Initially he was advised to rest and take on strengthening work. He was out of the Wednesday side for six weeks and missed the World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark. He eventually went under the knife before Christmas. And then rushed back.

"I was so desperate to play because the team were struggling, but the guideline from the surgeon was to train after eight weeks and I was probably back on the training ground in week seven and I broke down in virtually the first session, kicking a ball. I have spoken to a surgeon I know since and he said I should have been looking at 10 to 12 weeks. If I had known that I could have worked with that and got my head round it, but I really wanted to get back.

"I have been fine with the injuries and the surgery and keeping within the guidelines. Being injured is part and parcel of football, unfortunately. It is just the setbacks which have been frustrating."

This setback coincided with the friendly in Turkey, where, with Randolph resting from his non-stop involvement with promotion-chasing Middlesbrough, Bradford City's Colin Doyle played, having embarked on his own version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Another cap slipped through the hands. Three more out of his grasp this month.

Westwood is just a fortnight away from a return to training. Having had his break, his pre-season has already started. Isn't it as well that Ireland didn't qualify for the World Cup?

"Don't," he says. "I have thought about it but I reckon that I am two weeks away from kicking a ball and training now, so, if Martin had named me in the provisional squad, I would have had to play in the friendly on June 2 to prove my fitness. The groin actually feels brand new and there is more range and flexibility in the one I've been operated on than the other one, so I can feel a difference already.

"I think I could have made that but sadly, of course, it doesn't matter now. I am near enough fit and I'll be working in the gym all summer on strengthening and conditioning on the groin to come back in peak condition for next season. I feel great and, if anything, I have to put the reins on because there is that eagerness in me to play.

"I have spoken to Martin and he has been great. He's just said, 'See you next season'. He trusts me, which is brilliant. When he trusts you, he expects you to know football, know your job, take responsibility and, if you need to, help your team and your team-mates. If you do that, he loves it and I get that now.

"But it is still disappointing to miss out on these three games. They are great games for the lads. I would love to have played at Celtic today. I know it's only a testimonial but every player in that squad will have a soft spot for Celtic, always look out for their result and want them to win the league, the cups and qualify and do well in the Champions League, so I am gutted to miss that one. Anyone would want to play in Paris and end the season in Dublin in front of a good crowd.

"I will be glad to see the back of the season but in tough times, this is where the game tests you and shows how strong you are mentally and where you can be. I have been here before and I have bounced back before and I know I can do it again."

Where Westwood will be bouncing back is a different matter. Academy products Joe Wildsmith and Cameron Dawson shared the gloves in his absence, and Wednesday need to cut costs before reinvesting. Manager Jos Luhukay and chairman Dejphon Chansiri are expected to trim the wage bill and squad over the summer.

Westwood is a fan favourite at Hillsborough and was voted Championship goalkeeper of the year last season, the first Wednesday player to make the PFA list since John Sheridan in the '90s. He has a year left on his current contract and a number of Premier League and Championship clubs are 'sniffing' due to the perilous state of finances at the club.

Wednesday were defeated play-off finalists last season but finished this campaign in 15th. They were 16 points away from the drop zone but flirted with the bottom three under previous manager Carlos Carvalhal, who left Hillsborough on Christmas Eve, turned up at Swansea four days later and failed to keep them in the Premier League.

Westwood said: "The core of the team that got us to the play-off semi-finals and then the final in successive seasons was in the treatment room this season - myself, Fernando Forestieri, Gary Hooper, Steven Fletcher, Barry Bannan, Tom Lees, Kieran Lee all out for long periods. If that team had been out there we would comfortably be in the top six, I have no doubts about that.

"It will probably be a summer of speculation for a few of us because it's well known that the club is looking to offload some high earners, so we will see what happens. It will take care of itself but I just want to come back fully fit and ready to go for next season."

Just don't call him a veteran. Not yet. He adds, light-heartedly: "I know I am coming into that bracket but that's a bit harsh. I'm only 33 - that's young for a 'keeper. I've played over 450 games, got 21 caps. Can we stick to experienced goalie for now?"

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