Sport Soccer

Saturday 17 March 2018

Proud skipper Kelly unfazed by fitness concerns

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

AFTER four months of frustration, Stephen Kelly joins an illustrious list tonight when he leads out a senior Irish side as captain.

The Fulham defender hasn't kicked a ball at senior level since November's friendly with Norway at the Aviva Stadium, a grim situation for a player who was once involved in every minute of the Premier League season during his stint with Birmingham.

Injury and an inability to win his way back into the Fulham team afterwards have been the factors in the 27-year-old's miserable spell. So when Giovanni Trapattoni pulled him aside after training to confirm he had the armband for the meeting with Uruguay, it was a badly needed pick-me-up.

"I'm delighted with the privilege," said Kelly. "It's something you always dream of when you're a kid. First of all, you want to represent your country, and then to lead them out is one of the greatest honours you could possibly ask for.

"I captained the U-21 side for a couple of campaigns and I was fortunate to get the band against South Africa (in September of 2009) when Kevin (Doyle) went off, but I had captained the U-21s properly and to do it now at senior level surpasses that."

Kelly was awarded the honour as the longest-standing member of the starting XI. He has 20 caps to his name, and has been around senior squads since the days when Brian Kerr was in charge.

The Dubliner doesn't envisage suffering from nerves; a more obvious concern would be his lack of match fitness.

However, he is confident that he can overcome that hurdle.

"I have always been an extremely fit player and being able to come in and play 90 minutes now, I don't think will be a problem," he said.

"It has been difficult alright (the last four months). I went through a phase in the team before Christmas but I got injured and had an injection in my ankle.

"Since then, the team has been picking up points and playing better and better.

"If you look at the table, it's very tight, so you probably don't think Fulham have been doing as well as we have, but we've been playing good football so you're just waiting for your chance to get back in.

"Everyone has been fit and the team has been consistent, so you're just waiting."

Kelly will be at centre-half for this test, a role he was deployed in during his youth days at Spurs, and it's also where he finished the Norwegian game. It is a long time since he started a game in that berth, however, and he has more recent experience in both full-back slots.

Ciaran Clark, who is chosen at left-back, offers similar versatility. Kelly considers it a benefit, rather than worrying about the danger of being considered a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none.

"For me, I can only see that as an asset," said Kelly. "For him (Clark) it's a good thing -- you learn different things playing in different positions.

"A right-back is more one-on-one defending, you're using quick feet and balance, whereas a centre-back is about reading the game and positional sense. That can only stand him in good stead for the future."

Irish Independent

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