Wednesday 13 December 2017

Meet the Irish wonder-kid looking to shoot down Man United this weekend

READING, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30: Reading's Liam Kelly in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Reading and Fulham at Madejski Stadium on December 30, 2016 in Reading, England. (Photo by Ashley Western - CameraSport via Getty Images)
READING, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30: Reading's Liam Kelly in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Reading and Fulham at Madejski Stadium on December 30, 2016 in Reading, England. (Photo by Ashley Western - CameraSport via Getty Images)
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

He has been hailed by his manager Jaap Stam as ‘world class’ and now Republic of Ireland hopeful Liam Kelly is about to get the chance to confirm that status on one of the biggest sporting stages of them all.

Reading will take on Manchester United in the FA Cup third round at Old Trafford on Saturday and while the return of Royals manager Stam to his former club will be the headline-grabbing story, all Irish eyes - including those of national team boss Martin O'Neill - should focus on Kelly.

This gifted midfielder has been overlooked by Ireland's under-21 selectors over the last 18 months, while a succession of Reading managers have also chosen to ignore the talents of a player who has the class to change the course of a game with a moment of magic.

Stam didn't take long to appreciate he needed to handle Kelly with a little more care and in the last couple of months, he has proved his worth as a Championship performer.

In many ways, this is a second coming for Kelly, with his introduction to the world presented in the form of an outrageous goal he fired for the Ireland under-19 side against Sweden back in 2013.

His long-range masterpiece fired in from the halfway line instantly became a YouTube viral hit but that magic moment did not prove to be the starting point for a career that has taken time to spark into life.

The last three years have been a tale of frustration for Kelly, as he has struggled to make his mark at Reading and has slipped off the radar with the Republic of Ireland underage squads.

All that changed when Stam arrived as Reading manager last June, with the former Dutch international quickly identifying Kelly as a player destined to make his mark in his first team.

"Liam is a quality player," confirms Stam. "He has got great skills, he is comfortable on the ball, he can go past players as well.

"His passing and technique is world class, and he's a player who can bring something extra to this team.

"He's not the biggest, but he's strong on the ball in turning away from players - if you can turn away from a player, then you create a dangerous situation and Liam can do that for us."

It was high praise from a figure of Stam's standing in the game, with the former AC Milan and Man United defender instrumental in ensuring Kelly was handed his first big contract as he signed a deal that secures his future at Reading until 2019 last Friday.

Kelly further justified the club's decision to hand him a new contract with his first senior goal on Monday to spark a huge Reading comeback. With the Royals 2-0 down away to Bristol City, the Irishman was introduced as a 66th-minute substitute and struck just six minutes later to make it 2-1 as a Yann Kermorgant brace then sent Stam's men home with all three points.

That a football great of Stam's gravitas was initially so eager to embrace Kelly's talents makes his rise all the more notable, with so many who have held the Reading job before the Dutchman refusing to look beyond the surface when passing judgement on this wonderfully inventive performer.

With Kelly standing at just 5'7'', a long list of decision makers associated with Reading and the Ireland international set up have been reluctant to put their trust in a player whose skills on the ball have always singled him out as being quite different to the rest.

Kelly sensed he might get a chance to force his way into the Reading first team when Stam became his manager, with the centre-half who was a member of United's fabled Treble winning team of 1999 offering an alternative view of the Irishman he had at his disposal.

"It's been really nice this season, coming into the first team squad from the start when the new gaffer and his team all came to the club," says Kelly.

"When I heard that they were coming to Reading, I knew the Dutch style of play was how I like to play - it's a style I've come up through the Academy playing all my career so I know it would suit me down to the ground.

"But I also knew that I had to come in and put my marker down and hopefully that was going to be good enough for the gaffer.

"It was a fresh start not only for me but for everyone at the club, obviously it has been fantastic for me so far."

Kelly admits he is struggling to comprehend how the pieces of his career have finally slotted into place, just a few months after he found himself playing in the sixth tier of English football for Bath City.

His eagerness to drop down several steps in a bid to play regular first-team football was evidence of Kelly's desire to play and love for the game, with his brilliant performances for Bath sparking interest from several clubs.

While his future at Reading seemed uncertain, Kelly may have been looking for a move in this month's transfer window or when his contract expired next summer but his future is suddenly crystalised.

"It's been a bit surreal for me this year when you look back at the journey I have been on," adds the English-born playmaker who qualifies to play for Ireland via his grandparents.

"To come from playing in the National League South to playing in the Championship and now I want more."

Kelly's emergence at Reading follows on from a fine tradition of Irish graduates making their mark in the blue and white shirts.

Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt and Shane Long are among the recent heroes who have become green, white and gold Royals, with talent spotting legend Eamonn Dolan leaving an Irish heartbeat at the club prior to his sad passing last year.

Ireland centre-back Paul McShane is the current Reading captain and it may be that O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane - who played alongside Stam during United's glory years under Alex Ferguson - will soon be paying a visit to the club's Madejski Stadium to assess the talents of another potential Ireland star in the making.

With Wes Hoolahan in the latter stages of his career at the age of 34, the Ireland squad would welcome the arrival of a passing maestro who offers something a little different in the heat of battle and Kelly could be that wildcard.

As Keano and Stam would doubtless confirm, there would be no better venue for Kelly to announce himself to the watching world than at Old Trafford this weekend.

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