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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
# sliding doors
'I said f**k this and I quit... and look what happened then' - The rise of Caoimhín Kelleher
The young Liverpool goalkeeper will start tomorrow’s League Cup final at Wembley, but it could all have turned out very differently.

Kelleher (1) PA PA

EACH SUCCESS IS built from a thousand discrete events. 

Liverpool last won the League Cup 10 years ago, a few months after the game that will have played an integral role if there’s another victory this weekend. 

The result of that game? 

Ballincollig U14s 8-1 Ringmahon Rangers U14s

Robbie O’Leary was the chastened goalkeeper for Ringmahon: he was still U13 but playing a level up for a team coached by his Dad.  So chastened, in fact, that he decided he had enough. 

“It was a bad loss”, he tells The42. “I was getting a lot of stick off the boys and I was like, ‘Fuck this.’ I quit that team and just played at my own age. Looking back now it was nothing major; there was nothing malicious about it. It was just me being a little baby, basically.”

That left Ringmahon in need of a goalkeeper, so Ray Kelleher rang coach Eddie Harrington to say they should try out his son in goal. The ramifications of that phonecall will be on show at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. 

“They got Caoimhín and look what happened then!” laughs Robbie. 

WhatsApp Image 2022-02-22 at 12.34.39 PM Robbie O'Leary Robbie O'Leary and his father, pictured after a Ringmahon Rangers victory. Robbie O'Leary

Robbie’s decision to quit cleared a path for Caoimhín Kelleher to first become a goalkeeper. To that point, he had been Ringmahon’s main striker. 

“He was a quality striker”, says Robbie. “I wouldn’t say he would definitely played for Liverpool as a striker, but definitely would have at a slightly lower level.”  

Kelleher was a regular goalscorer for Ringmahon and the Cork league’s representative team, who occasionally asked him to go in goal amid murmurings of his talent in that department. Given he wasn’t playing in goal for Ringmahon, Kelleher resisted the calls.

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There was an initial reluctance at Ringmahon to move Kelleher, too, as Robbie’s father explained to The42 in 2019. 

“When he was playing outfield we all thought he’d make it as a professional striker, he was that good. When he went in goal the first time I was shocked. I was saying, ‘What in the name of God is he going in goal for?’, because he was so good outfield.”

Thus it came to pass: Kelleher was lobbed from distance for a 1-0 defeat in his first game but he impressed nonetheless. 

Robbie played for the age-group below but continued to train with the U14s. He was happy simply to train, because it was instantly clear he wouldn’t be getting his spot back. “As soon as you watched him in a game, you could see how good he was. Ah, the man was gifted. You can see him with the ball at his feet, he was like a striker.

“A bit like Ederson at Man City, he’s quality with the ball at his feet. That’s what Caoimhín was like at schoolboys, you couldn’t touch him. And in training, you just couldn’t score on him. Nobody could.

“I have never seen a goalkeeper our age that good with the ball at his feet. It comes from being an unbelievable striker.”

Kelleher spoke admiringly of Manuel Neuer when he was first introduced to the Irish press as an underage international, and given his position, he didn’t have much cause to pay close attention to goalkeepers of an earlier vintage. 

If his pedigree as an outfield player is evident when this ball at his feet, his character is seen in everything he does. 

Roy Keane praised Kelleher’s temperment when he was first called up to the senior international squad in 2018, while Liverpool goalkeeper coach John Achterberg recently told The Athletic that Kelleher “is doing really well, unbelievable speed and reactions, but he’s also calm”. 

“He is very, very quiet. You can’t get him excited”, says Robbie. “My Dad loves him, everyone loves him. He’s just so quiet. A cool fella. Everyone likes Caoimhín, you can’t not like him. He doesn’t do anything wrong to anyone. 

“That comes from his Mam and Dad, and how he was raised.” 

Caoimhín is one of six siblings, most of whom have made their mark in a sporting sense. Fiacre Kelleher is also a professional footballer – currently at Bradford City having been at Celtic – while Tim is a scratch golfer and Olan has won hurling medals with Blackrock. 

Their father Ray tragically passed away in 2014. 

“I’ll never forget his Dad’s removal, I have never seen a crowd like it anywhere”, remembers Robbie. “There were a thousand people backed up, there to pay their respects to the family. They are a very well-known and very nice family.” 

Kelleher’s performances for Ringmahon quickly garnered interest, with Manchester United, Arsenal, Blackburn and Aston Villa all interested. Ultimately he signed for Liverpool, having initially gone on trial. 48 hours into said trial, he was tossed into the deep end of an U18s game with Derby County. 

“He came in on the Friday, I took him out in the afternoon and did 30 to 40 minutes just to settle him down, then he played the game. We wanted to sign him straight away,” said U18s goalkeeper coach Neil Edwards. “The rest is history, as they say.” 

Kelleher took the time to leave Ringmahon on a majestic note. 

Needing a draw against College Corinthians in the final game of the season to win the league, Ringmahon trailed 1-0 going into injury time. Kelleher went forward for a last-gasp corner, from which a team-mate bundled in a glorious equaliser. 

And thus he left for Liverpool and climbed the ranks. The rivalry that has come to define his international career first cropped up at Liverpool: Achterberg did his due diligence by joining the scores descending on Tallaght to scout a 16-year-old called Gavin Bazunu but decided Liverpool were better off sticking by Kelleher. 

Stephen Kenny may envy the fact Liverpool have only had to make the choice once. 

Kelleher sprang through the age-groups at Liverpool – U18s to U23s – and found himself on the fringes of the first team by the 2018/19 season, nudging his way into third-choice behind Alisson and Simon Mignolet.

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tottenham-hotspur-fc-liverpool DPA / PA Images Kelleher celebrates the Champions League victory in Madrid with fellow goalkeepers Alisson Becker and Simon Mignolet. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

He sat on the bench for an FA Cup tie with Wolves and, most gloriously, the Champions League final against Tottenham in Madrid. That season was preceded by a pre-season friendly against Napoli at the Aviva Stadium, after which Jurgen Klopp enthused that Kelleher was an ”outstanding talent”.

The following season brought his debut against MK Dons in the League Cup, in which he became the first Irish player to appear in a competitive first-team game for Liverpool since Robbie Keane appeared in a 1-1 draw with Wigan Athletic on 28 January 2009, almost 4,000 days earlier. An appearance in a bonkers 5-5 draw with Arsenal in the following round followed, through which Liverpool scraped on penalties. An onlooking Virgil van Dijk tweeted his approval. 

Debuts in the Champions League and Premier League followed last season, and Kelleher kept clean sheets in both. 

“Nothing fazes him”, says Robbie. “He plays against Ajax and gets man of the match, like. It doesn’t surprise me.” He made his senior international debut at the end of last season, playing the second half without conceding in a hostile atmosphere away to Hungary.

That debut might have come much earlier has it not been for bad luck: starting 2021 as second-choice to Darren Randolph, Kelleher was in line to start Ireland’s World Cup qualification campaign away to Serbia until he too was stymied by injury. Bazunu then forced his way in after Mark Travers’ struggles in Belgrade, and has been undroppable since. 

For as long as Bazunu is playing this regularly and this well, Kelleher may ultimately have to seek first-team football to become first-choice for his country. For now, Liverpool are thrilled with the quality of their understudy. 

“At some point in the future, there could be a time when Caoimhín might decide he wants to be a No 1″, said Achterbeg. “I have no doubt about his ability to achieve that.” 

Hence why Kelleher will play Sunday’s final against Chelsea: Liverpool want to keep him. 

“Caoimhín will play, if he is fit,” said Jurgen Klopp. “As a football manager you have to consider a lot of things and one of the things is we consider Caoimhín an outstanding goalie. Not a good goalie, an outstanding goalie, and we want to keep him here. And to keep him you need to make sure of a few things.” 

Liverpool are now making sure of things with a goalkeeper who was once anything but a sure thing. Robbie is a Manchester United fan, but does he ever sit back and think of how he did Liverpool an enormous favour?

“It is true. I’m not saying he would never have gone in goal, but he wouldn’t have done so in that season and that’s when he took off. He wouldn’t have gone in goal that year, but he might have gone in goal in a future year.” 

Robbie, by the way, is still playing in goal for Ringmahon, now at Junior level. Will Kelleher’s involvement make him yield slightly toward Liverpool, in spite of his United allegiances? 

“I don’t want Liverpool to win, I don’t. But I hope Caoimhín has an unbelievable game. Like, I hope it goes to penalties and Caoimhín saves four but Chelsea score one.

“He is a great fella, and hopefully his career goes on and on.”  

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