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Will Liverpool's 22-year-old from Cork continue incredible journey with Premier League debut?

Caoimhín Kelleher made his Champions League bow during the week.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher after during the UEFA Champions League Group D match at Anfield.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher after during the UEFA Champions League Group D match at Anfield.
Image: PA

A MEMORABLE WEEK could be about to get even better for Caoimhín Kelleher.

A hamstring injury to first-choice goalkeeper Alisson, ruling him out for approximately two weeks, meant the Corkonian made his Champions League debut against Ajax mid-week.

Prior to Tuesday, 33-year-old Adrian has largely been preferred to Kelleher as back-up to the number one. 

The Spaniard has played five times for Liverpool this season, including in the reverse Champions League fixture against Ajax — a 1-0 away win.

And so Kelleher, who turned 22 last month, would not have been expecting to start, particularly having featured in a 7-2 loss for Liverpool U23s against Man City at the weekend.

However, Adrian has made a couple of high-profile errors when given a chance of late, notably amid last season’s Champions League exit at Anfield against Atletico Madrid.

Kelleher’s rival for the number two spot has also played twice in the Premier League this season, with Liverpool dropping points on both occasions — the 7-2 loss against Aston Villa and the 2-2 draw with Everton.

Kelleher, by contrast, has yet to make a Premier League debut. Prior to the Ajax game, the Ireland U21 international had made just four senior appearances for Liverpool — three in the EFL Cup and one in the FA Cup last season.

Yet his selection on Tuesday for an important game, which Liverpool needed a positive result from to confirm their place in the Champions League knockout stages, indicates he may now have jumped ahead of Adrian in the pecking order.

A couple of impressive saves and a clean sheet will also have helped the Irishman’s cause.

Moreover, one reason Klopp cited for picking Kelleher was his accomplished distribution, and it seemingly paid off.

Per Sky Sports: “Kelleher’s passing accuracy was 71 per cent on Tuesday night, compared to Adrian’s average of 65 per cent for his three Premier League and Champions League appearances this season.”

Of course, Adrian is vastly more experienced than Kelleher in senior football, and so, Klopp may yet opt for the ostensibly more conservative choice against Wolves on Sunday evening, but the youngster has certainly done all he can to leave the manager with a significant selection dilemma.

“We made that decision, but you never know how they are going to cope. I am really happy with how calm he was and how good he was,” the manager said of Kelleher after Tuesday’s game.

“In the end, it is about keeping the ball out the net and he did that twice and he did that in an exceptional manner. He will either sleep really well tonight, or not at all.”

And the German boss is certainly not the only one who thinks highly of Kelleher.

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Speaking about the goalkeeper last month, Irish boss Stephen Kenny revealed how Alisson’s injury meant a planned loan move to the Netherlands for Kelleher was ultimately scrapped at the start of the season. He also told reporters: “[Goalkeeping coach] Alan Kelly can’t believe how good Caoimhín Kelleher is, having seen him in training. He hadn’t appreciated how good he is.

“We really need Caoimhín to get matches under his belt, because he is ready to play for us now. He is good enough to play for Ireland.”

Kelleher may ultimately need to move away from Liverpool to gain regular football at club and international level — at 28, Alisson is unlikely to be displaced anytime soon. But for now, he should savour the moment, particularly amid the current unusual and unforgiving schedule, which will likely test Liverpool’s squad depth, with the injury list at the club already piling up.

And it’s been quite a journey already for the young goalkeeper. He joined Liverpool in 2015 as a 17-year-old, with Aston Villa, Arsenal and Manchester United among the other clubs linked with Kelleher at one stage.

He also previously played as both a midfielder and a striker for local side Ringmahon Rangers.

“Caoimhín would easily score 20 or 30 goals a season up front,” Eddie Harrington, his manager at Ringmahon, told The42 last year. “We played him as a centre forward and he was on the Cork Kennedy Cup team for a reason, you know? He’d say himself that playing as a striker for so many years helped him become a better goalkeeper. He could read where the striker was going from his own experience.”

He always had a brilliant attitude to everything,” added Kevin Regan, another former coach. “Anything you said to him, he took it on board. He wouldn’t talk much at the start. When he first went in goal at 14 we used to have to shout at him and tell him he had to be more vocal. But then a year later, we couldn’t get him to shut up! He came on leaps and bounds, month after month.”

The Blackrock native comes from a big sporting family. One brother, 24-year-old Fiacre, is currently a defender at Wrexham, while other family members Tim, Olan and Cáit  have excelled at golf, hurling and camogie respectively.

He has made significant strides since joining the Reds, making the bench for their Champions League final win over Tottenham the season before last and featuring in the youngest-ever Liverpool side, beating Shrewsbury Town 1-0 in an FA Cup replay back in February.

Kelleher will hope there are many more memorable feats to come, though it won’t be easy, of course. In a club with strong Irish links that has been home to the likes of Ronnie Whelan, Mark Lawrenson, John Aldridge and Steve Heighway, Steve Finnan and Robbie Keane, who left in 2008 and 2009 respective, were the last high-profile Irish stars on the books at Anfield. Not since Shay Given has an Irish goalkeeper enjoyed a sustained run playing regularly for a top Premier League club, so there is plenty of work to be done, but the early signs are certainly promising.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures:

Saturday

Burnley v Everton (12.30)
Man City v Fulham (15.00)
West Ham v Man United (17.30)
Chelsea v Leeds (20.00)

Sunday

West Brom v Crystal Palace (12.00)
Sheffield United v Leicester City (14.15)
Tottenham v Arsenal (16.30)
Liverpool v Wolves (19.15)

Monday

Brighton v Southampton (20.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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