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'Caoimhín would score 20 goals a season up front': Liverpool's Cork-born goalkeeper making strides at Anfield

Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher is aiming to become the first Irishman since 2008 to play for the Reds.

Kelleher joined Liverpool in April 2015 from Ringmahon Rangers.
Kelleher joined Liverpool in April 2015 from Ringmahon Rangers.
Image: Liverpool FC

WHEN ASKED TO offer his assessment of the bright, promising young Irish goalkeeper who had been named on the substitutes bench at the Aviva Stadium during Liverpool’s pre-season victory over Napoli, Jurgen Klopp was fully aware of Caoimhín Kelleher’s previous incarnation as a clinical striker up front.

Truth be told it wasn’t even all that long ago that he stood out as a star forward, considering the Blackrock teenager was still just shy of his 20th birthday back in August. Less than six years ago he had been bagging goals for fun representing Ringmahon Rangers in the Cork District Schoolboy League.

Now Kelleher, third-choice behind Alisson and Simon Mignolet in a season which could go down in the history books as the Merseysiders’ seek a first-ever Premier League title, has an altogether different reputation for keeping goals out with his hands, rather than scoring them with his feet.

“He is an outstanding talent,” boomed Klopp during his post-game press conference in Dublin. It was, to be honest, a shame that the Cork native didn’t get the opportunity to get a run-out at the Aviva in front of an Irish crowd of more than 51,000 spectators during the 5-0 hammering against the Italians.

But the Liverpool manager was more than happy to whet the public’s appetite of what we all could expect in the near future when talking about this quiet, talented, but altogether largely unknown player. Unlike during the 1970s and 1980s, Irish footballers plying their trade in the first team at Anfield had become quite a rarity in recent years, and Kelleher’s rise to become third-choice at the club has brought a whole heap of attention on his development and progress.

584fd207d0639fbdeac88c07841ac3980cf163c7 The Cork City native is Jurgen Klopp's third-choice goalkeeper.

Reds fans are giddy with excitement that he could potentially join the likes of Ronnie Whelan, Steve Heighway, John Aldridge, Robbie Keane and Steve Finnan as Irishmen to walk down the tunnel, touching the famous ‘This Is Anfield’ sign after being named in the starting XI one Saturday afternoon, before sprinting out in front of the Kop in the next few seasons.

“Outstanding,” continued Klopp, smiling as he lamented his young recruit from the Rebel County. “He is very cool with the ball. He played in front of 100,000 people in a pre-season game [against Man United]. He has played in front of 60,000 as well — so he isn’t really bothered about that [big crowds]. It’s a very important skill.

He was an outfield player in his youth, and he obviously must have been a very good outfield player as well as a goalkeeper,” the Liverpool manager said. “He has fantastic reactions. If nothing serious happens, he has a really fantastic future.

“I don’t know how many really good goalkeepers Ireland have, but one more is never a big mistake. I like him a lot and I’m happy that we have him in our squad.”

It was nothing short of a ringing endorsement from one of the best managers in the game and a declaration of confidence in the young Irish goalkeeper. Unlike the usual polite praise heaped on youth prospects coming through academies all over the world by managers which we have come to expect, Klopp has put his money where his mouth is and now counts Kelleher as an integral member of his 25-man squad in the Premier League.

Caoimhin Kelleher Pictured warming up at the Aviva Stadium before Liverpool's pre-season game against Napoli in Dublin back in August. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Since going on that pre-season tour with Liverpool in the summer of 2018, where he played 45 minutes in front of 100,000 fans against Man United and another half versus Man City, Kelleher has taken a massive step up, now combining his normal U23 appearances this season with falling in behind Alisson and Mignolet for the senior team, training with the pair on a weekly basis.

“It was amazing, seeing all the crowd and stuff,” he said after featuring against Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions back in July. “I really enjoyed it. I trained with them [the senior side] last year, but to actually play this year has been crazy. It’s been unreal.

I’ve been happy, I think I’ve done well. Every day we train hard with the ‘keepers, we all push each other to do our best every day and I think that’s all you can do really, do your best, so I’ve been happy.”

Eddie Harrington, Kelleher’s manager with Ringmahon Rangers, said it came as no big surprise to everyone at the Cork club that their man was picked up by Liverpool at the age of 16 four years ago. He simply had a gift that could not be ignored.

“To be honest with you, everyone was just astounded by him,” he explains. “Players’ parents and officials at other clubs would just look at him during games and think ‘Jesus!’ His reputation in the area built and built, especially when you saw the things he could do with a ball at his feet.

“He was pinging the ball about with ease and hitting every pass, picking people out. That type of thing stuck with you. I remember a scout said to me one time: ‘he’s got a really good chance with a Premier League club’. He was only 14 at that stage.”

Harrington says that, as it would happen, many fancied Kelleher to make it in England one day — but as a free-scoring striker at the other end of the pitch. He had been scoring with ease for Ringmahon and for the Cork Kennedy Cup team, and ironically it wasn’t until the age of 14 that he actually played his first game in goals for anybody.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

“Before Christmas we were playing a local Premier game, and we lost our goalkeeper that week — he had quit the team. We were playing on a Sunday and his father Ray rang me on the Monday or the Tuesday, just to say: ‘look we know your keeper has left, we know he doesn’t want to play anymore, so why don’t we try and stick Caoimhín in. Just to see how he gets on?’

“We were a bit reluctant, obviously, because Caoimhín was our top scorer. As I said, he was on the Cork county soccer panel as a striker, but Ray was telling me that Caoimhín would go in goal during training with the Kennedy Cup team and they spotted early on that he could make a pretty good keeper. Us at Ringmahon weren’t really aware of this, but from that very first game you knew he was special.”

An ironic twist in the tale, while Kelleher did shine during his first game between the sticks, he ended up walking away tasting defeat having had the ball chipped over his head and into the back of the Ringmahon net.

As it turns out, the first game he played in goal we lost 1-0,” recalls Harrington laughing. “He got lobbed, it was a pot-shot he could do nothing to stop. It was a shot from the very, very side of the pitch and the wind just caught hold of it. No-one would have saved it. But other than that, he just took over from there.”

Harrington remembers the young Caoimhín as a shy and reserved lad, but one with a relentless determination to get better, and better and better. His sense of humour is something everybody who knows him can agree upon, with Kelleher able to rip you apart with a one-liner you really wouldn’t anticipate from someone so normally quiet.

“He is actually very witty. Especially around younger lads his age. He wouldn’t be boisterous or anything like that, but he’d kill you with the one-liners. He was shy and laid back but fierce confident as well, without being cocky. Always very, very confident in his own ability.

Caoimhin Kelleher The goalkeeper played for Ireland at the U17 European Championships in Bulgaria. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Personality-wise he was just a really nice guy. Shy with adults and stuff, but once you got to know him you knew he was just a nice young guy. I was lucky to get to know him.”

Harrington explains that Kelleher’s experience as a goalscorer proved instrumental when he decided to switch it up and transform into a shot-stopper. He could anticipate what opposition strikers were thinking running through on goal, because he had been in that very position himself a million times before.

But his ex-manager is adamant that so many who watched him at a young age, particularly during his early teens, were convinced that he could have a real go across the water as a striker, because of his high ratio of finding the back of the net on a weekly basis for Ringmahon.

“Caoimhín would easily score 20 or 30 goals a season up front,” he says. “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 looked like he knew what his opponent was thinking running through on goal. Strikers can find it daunting in a one-on-one situation and it was like Caoimhín could read their mind over which way they were going to go.

“After he went in goal that first game, that was it though, there was no looking back. He has stayed in goal ever since and never played outfield for us again. It’s funny, in training he would try and go in goal the odd time, but it would just be for a laugh more than anything. And then when he went in goal, he would try and dribble out with the ball at his feet!”

The Liverpool goalkeeper comes from a fine family background of sporting success in Cork City. His brother Fiacre is two years older and currently plays with Macclesfield on loan from Oxford Town (featuring alongside another promising young Irish ‘keeper, Manchester United’s Kieran O’Hara, who is also on loan with the League Two outfit at the moment).

CoRo83gUkAE18mb Fiacre Kelleher, brother of Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin, spent a year with Celtic.

A tall and imposing centre back, Fiacre also started his career with Ringmahon Rangers before moving on to Avondale and then being snapped up by Celtic in 2016, where he spent a year with the Scottish champions.

Caoimhín’s other brother Tim is known for being a fine scratch golfer in Cork, while another sibling, Olan, starred for a number of years hurling for Blackrock, securing two All-Ireland titles with Cork at Junior and then at Intermediate level in 2012 at Croke Park against Tipperary.

Kevin Regan first came across the Liverpool goalkeeper at U13 level and was part of the coaching team with Ringmahon.

“I would be pally with his older brother Olan, we played GAA with Blackrock together,” he says. “Olan’s a very good hurler, I think he’s in Dublin at the moment. Tim, his other brother, was a very good golfer as well. I think all of their family are talented in their own right. They’ve all represented Cork teams in different sports and codes. There must be something in the Kelleher blood,” he laughs.

Regan recalls the much-told story of how the player’s father had called saying Caoimhín would be happy to go in goals after the team’s regular number one decided to up and quit one fateful day. Similar to Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, he also clearly remembers how talented Kelleher was with the ball at his feet. Firstly scoring goals, but then in terms of his precise distribution after he stuck the gloves on and went between the sticks.

He was always confident in his own ability. In our first training session I remember he put a ball in the top corner, and it was like it was nothing to him. Other lads would look at Caoimhín and think ‘wow, wow! look at this fella!’ But he was very shy and kept to himself when he was younger.

“He always had a brilliant attitude to everything. Anything you said to him as a coach 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.

“He was always so calm,” continues Regan. “Nothing ever fazed him. If someone hit him with a tackle, he’d just get up and get on with it — wouldn’t react. Next ball that came in, he’d just punish his opponents by putting the ball in the back of the net when he was outfield.

gettyimages-1002171032-594x594 He was named on the bench for Liverpool's FA Cup third-round clash with Wolves last month. Source: Getty Images

“Then when he was a goalkeeper he’d always get a thrill out of denying his opponent an opportunity. I remember doing shooting drills in training and he just did not want to let a goal in. Just shot after shot, he’d want to save everything. If even one went past him, he’d be annoyed at himself. He just wanted perfection, really.

“His determination to succeed was unreal. He had the talent, everybody knew he had the talent, but he was just so determined to get everything and be perfect, be a perfectionist. Even if he kept a clean sheet, if he misplaced one pass, he would remember that one pass and make sure to fix it next time. There would always be one part of his game he felt he could improve for the next week, rather than going around saying: ‘oh, I was brilliant today’”.

The player’s talent in goal was quickly identified by scouts in the Cork District Schoolboy League and he spent a number of weeks away in England on trial with a host of different clubs. Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal and Manchester United were all on his radar looking to potentially secure his signature at the ages of 15 and 16.

Kelleher remains an enigma for many Liverpool fans due to the fact that they have only seen glimpses of his talent during pre-season games last summer, and possibly the odd U23 game broadcast by the Merseyside club.

Speaking with those who knew him while he was still in his early years as a ‘keeper in Ireland, though, the parallels with Germany captain Neuer are quite pronounced. In fact, Kelleher name-checked the Bayern ace himself when he first arrived at Anfield four years ago.

I want to be the best and to get into the first-team,” he said when asked about his aspirations for the Reds. “There is no point in going over and thinking otherwise. I want to play in the first-team.

“I like Manuel Neuer, the way he plays football. He is good with his feet, the same as me because I was outfield. I like coming off my line,” Kelleher added. “I would do that a good bit. I think you have to do that in the modern game. It’s become a part of the goalkeeper’s game.”

As strange as it sounds, having just turned 20-years-old at the end of November, Kelleher would not have grown up watching some of the greats like Oliver Kahn, David Seaman or Peter Schmeichel, but instead spent his teenage years developing as a goalkeeper during a time of great change and transition for the position itself.

Source: FAI TV/YouTube

The so-called sweeper-keeper has been a crucial development in modern goalkeeping and with players like Neuer, Marc-André ter Stegen and Manchester City’s Ederson showing how important good possession skills are for a number-one, it comes as no great surprise to see a player of Kelleher’s promise adapt and take those learnings on board.

Rob O’Leary is another one of his former coaches and he, too, pays homage to Kelleher’s ability with the ball at his feet. Originally first coming across the goalkeeper at U8s level when he played up front as a kid, O’Leary saw a player of serious talent grow older and stronger year on year at Ringmahon, both on the pitch and in his own confidence. His sense of humour was unforgettable, too, he says.

“He was class, pure class. 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 was so good outfield. I remember I went down to see one of his games after a few months and, Jesus Christ, he was even better in goal than he was outfield. I couldn’t believe it.

“I’d describe him as kind of a silent assassin. He’d just destroy you with one quip. He’d rip you apart and have the whole place in stitches with one remark and you’d just be standing there, going: what just happened?’

He’d be very reserved around anyone he didn’t really know, lads from other soccer clubs, but the minute they’d turn their back he’d say something to one of our lads about them and have us all in stitches laughing.

“One particular match we were playing Carrigaline in the local leagues, he was playing in goal at this stage. There was a free-kick that came in from near the halfway line, out towards our side of the pitch near the sideline. They put in a big, long, high ball into the box and next minute I look at Caoimhín, and he was pushing his own defenders out of the way.

“He went up like a cat — his feet were up around other fella’s shoulders — and he grabbed the ball from the air. I was there, thinking: ‘this is Premier League stuff’. I couldn’t believe it. He came back down to earth with the ball in hand and just threw it without a problem out to our winger. Just like Schmeichel used to.

Paris Saint-Germain v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League - Group C - Parc des Princes Kelleher warms up before Liverpool's Champions League game against PSG at the Parc des Princes. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“I was blown away. We had Alan Browne and his brother Fiacre, who went to Celtic, before Caoimhín came through. Alan was special and I never thought we’d see anything like him again down here. But I was looking at Caoimhín that day thinking: ‘oh my God, that was like something off the TV’.

“Being honest with you, with Caoimhín he was just so naturally talented that you just kept him what he was doing already. He’d nearly be coaching you, he was that good. He was a natural, you couldn’t add anything to his game, only the lads in Liverpool would have been able to guide him any further because he was just streets ahead of everyone. He was streets ahead of even us the coaches, you know? He just had it — he was naturally gifted.”

All three of his former coaches, Eddie, Kevin and Rob, spent a weekend visiting their former player last year in Liverpool. Kelleher showed them around Merseyside before all three attended one of his underage game at home to Wolves.

They each reflect on how far he has come, how much more confident he has become and how proud they each are that he has come on leaps and bounds, recently even receiving his first international call-up by Martin O’Neill for a friendly against Northern Ireland in Dublin late last year.

Three weeks ago Kelleher was also named on the bench by Jurgen Klopp for their FA Cup third-round game away to Wolves, marking another massive step in his progression with the Reds.

When we went over, he had settled in well by that stage,” says Regan. “Nothing seems to faze him. He just seems to take everything one step at a time and that he’s not thinking too far ahead into the future.

“It’s what he does, it’s what he loves, it’s his passion. When we went over they were playing Wolves in an underage game. After the game he was his usual self, just quiet, just saying a few words, a few jokes thrown out.

“He was a messer during training with Ringmahon and had that great sense of humour, but at the same time he was shy. That’s his personality. I think he knows what he wants and he’ll just work towards it and be so determined to get there.

manchester-city-liverpool-soccer-2-390x285 He played 45 minutes against Manchester City last July in New Jersey.

“When we met him last year he’d just come on leaps and bounds. The confidence that he had is out there now, rather than hiding behind the shyness. He’s not as shy anymore, he knows people know him, he knows people are talking about him and stuff like that, and he just embraces it all.”

Ringmahon have an impressive record of players making it across the water. Alan Browne, scoring goals for fun in midfield for Preston, started with the Cork outfit, as did former Leeds United goalkeeper Eric Grimes, Cork City’s Gearóid Morrissey and most recently Adam O’Reilly, who signed his first pro contract with Preston just last month.

Seeing one of your own succeed makes any coach with the club very proud, says his old manager Harrington, who woke up in the dead of night to watch Kelleher pull on his gloves and race out without fear or hesitation to play against Manchester City.

Jesus when the likes of Liverpool come in for one of your players… you just feel very lucky that you had the chance to see him play and that we crossed paths,” he says. “I think everyone in Ringmahon would say the same, that we were the lucky ones to have Caoimhín.

“We’d like to think we helped him along in some small way in his journey. We were just delighted for him though, to be honest, everyone at the club was just thrilled when he got the move to Liverpool because he was so dedicated.

“I got up in the middle of the night to watch him against City. Watching him play in front of 100,000 people against Man United as well, you’d feel so proud. Then seeing him sitting on the bench next to lads like Mohamed Salah the other week against Wolves in the FA Cup too, it was surreal.

“I actually met him a few months back before the friendly against Northern Ireland at the Aviva. We got backstage passes from Caoimhín and got into the players’ lounge — we had a nice chat with him that day.

“But the funny thing I remember is that even when he was with us at Ringmahon, he might get off the plane after being with the Ireland underage international team, or be at a trial with a club like Aston Villa or with Liverpool, and I’d ask how he got on and he’d just say ‘grand’, and that would be it. That’s all you’d get out of him. ‘Grand, no bother’. He had no airs or graces about him.

Caoimhin Kelleher The 20-year-old was on the bench for Ireland's friendly against Northern Ireland last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I would say what makes him stand out from other players is his determination and his confidence in his ability. He always wanted to play and drive on and keep getting better, and I’ve no doubt he still has those qualities at Liverpool today. Caoimhín will want to be Liverpool’s number one some day. For me, that’ll be his ambition because he always wants to get better and better and not just go with the flow.”

Scouts representing Liverpool came over to Cork the day Kelleher signed his first contract with the club at the age of 16 and, as it turned out, his final game for Ringmahon had been the perfect fairytale ending during his time at the club, as Rangers secured the U17 Premiership title on the last day of the season with a goal in stoppage time.

Ah it was just magic,” smiles his old manager Harrington looking back on it. “It was his last game and we were playing Cork Corinthians. We just needed a draw to secure the title, but they took the lead with about half an hour to go.

“In the last minute we got a corner and we sent everyone up, including Caoimhín. We nicked a goal and got the draw we needed to win the league. It was a mad, mad finish for it all to happen in his last game for us. It was the first ever trophy that team won together. Ever. It was a fairytale way for Caoimhín to go out.”

His three former coaches with Ringmahon said there was not much coaching needed with their man in goal, but that they just had to stand back and watch the magic unfold week after week. They are not one bit surprised at all the success he has achieved, but state with firm conviction that Kelleher’s ambition to succeed, to constantly strive to improve, means the best is yet to come in the near future for a young lad they say they were proud to get to know.

Watching with pride and amazement at how he grew from a shy, quiet kid scoring goals up front, to a Liverpool and Ireland national goalkeeper who has found his voice keeping goals out at the other end of the pitch.

mainMediaSize=600x0_type=image_publish=true__image Pictured during his time in goals with Cork club Ringmahon Rangers.

“A few months ago I was chatting to Caoimhín, congratulating him for getting called into the Ireland squad and being third-choice for Liverpool this season, just chatting to him,” says Regan.

“But the one thing that has stuck in my head that he said was: ‘the real work only starts now’. That’s the way he’s thinking, he wants to get into the first team, he wants to earn his place and be playing games.

“If he keeps going that way and keeps his head down working, hopefully he’ll get his chance. I’ve spoken to some Liverpool fans who’ve seen him in training, and they always say how well he’s doing and how good he is with his feet. They say he could actually play outfield. As a keeper, if he’s that good with his feet, you’d imagine his hands are even better.

“It’s gas when you think about it — he was our star striker when he went in goal that day when he was 14. It was actually a big blow to our attack when he went in goal. But after two or three games, we knew we had a gem on our hands.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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