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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 2 December 2020

One of Irish football's most promising youngsters is dreaming big

St Patrick’s Athletic defender Ciaran Kelly chats to The42 amid his impressive start to the season.

Ciaran Kelly celebrates scoring his first St Pat's goal against UCD.
Ciaran Kelly celebrates scoring his first St Pat's goal against UCD.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

CIARAN KELLY IS not one to settle for less.

Signing for St Patrick’s Athletic on his 17th birthday, the Dubliner impressed at U17 and U19 level with the Richmond Park outfit.

In 2017, he progressed to senior level, featuring in Leinster Senior Cup matches against Firhouse Clover and Shelbourne.

Yet the then-teenage defender was frustrated at a lack of regular playing time at first-team level. Some people in his position would have been happy to stick around and be on the periphery of the side.

Instead though, Kelly left the club and moved to Drogheda ahead of the 2018 season, which required him to take buses and get lifts up from Dublin to Louth on a regular basis. The move was a resounding success — the youngster played in every game, as Tim Clancy’s side narrowly missed out on promotion, losing to Finn Harps in the play-offs.

Nevertheless, the centre-back impressed enough to earn a move back to Pat’s and has since established himself in the starting XI amid an encouraging start to his Premier Division career, making nine appearances so far this season.

“He is after settling into the team great,” Pat’s boss Harry Kenny said recently. “He has come into the centre of defence, he’s a young lad, he’s quick over the ground, he’s good in the air and he made some great interceptions. He can read the game well. So I’m very pleased with the way he has gone since he came into the team.

“I saw him a couple of times for Drogheda. He is dangerous as well from set-pieces. I don’t know how many he scored for Drogheda, but he scored a few. And he got his first one for us [recently], so he is definitely dangerous in and around the box as well. I have high hopes for him alright. He’s a big fella, he has a good career ahead of himself.”

Kelly already knew Kenny from their time spent together on a Football Association of Ireland Fás course and the player has thrived under the former Shamrock Rovers player’s guidance this season. He has featured in a defence that includes more experienced League of Ireland campaigners such as Simon Madden, Lee Desmond, Ian Bermingham and David Webster, as well as another promising young centre-back, ex-Aston Villa player Kevin Toner.

This mixture of youth and experience has helped Pat’s enjoy a decent start to the season. They are currently fifth in the table and could close the gap on third-place Bohemians should they beat them in this Friday’s Dublin derby.

“Those sort of games you kind of take by themselves. We’re going to have to get the ball down to play, but it’s going to be a battle and we’ll have to fight for everything as well,” Kelly tells The42.

The season has gone well so far for the Lucan native, who began with playing organised football as a five-year-old with Pat’s-affiliated club Esker Celtic, later moving on to Lucan United.

I knew from my previous years coming in to try to get my place was going to be difficult. When we sat down at the start, Harry wasn’t saying you’re definitely going to be in [the starting XI]. You’re going to have to work for it.

“[I knew Harry from] the Fás course. He was saying it’s not going to be a ‘friends’ thing. You’re going to have to earn your place to get in. At the start of the season, I wasn’t really getting in, I wasn’t playing many games. If there was a chance I was going to have to grab it with both hands.

“[Harry is] always positive and he’ll help you out with everything. Me, as a young player, he’s always giving me good feedback and when I’m doing stuff wrong, he’ll tell me. It’s not all positive — he’ll give me some constructive [criticism].”

Harry Kenny St Pat's boss Harry Kenny signed Ciaran Kelly from Drogheda. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Of the difficult decision to switch clubs ahead of the 2018 season, he adds: “I wanted to stay at Pat’s, but the age I was, I knew I needed a bit more experience to get into the team and play regularly, so I decided to step down into the First Division. I’d say it was more of a step up, because you’re going into senior football.

“[I got the] experience of playing with stronger players and more intelligent players, and obviously I can bring that to Pat’s now. It’s a big step up and more experience in the Premier Division — it’s faster and stronger. But hopefully I can just keep [progressing].”

Unlike a number of other players in the League of Ireland, there is no college or part-time job on the side for Kelly, as he wants to purely focus on his football for now. If it doesn’t work out, he plans to go back into education, but these possible alternative career paths have been put on hold.

At 20 years of age, time is on his side, and the young defender retains ambitions of playing at the highest level possible.

I always wanted to go over [to England],” he says. “Hopefully I can get abroad soon, that would be the main aim.”

Kelly is well aware that he is currently at a crucial stage of his development, where regular game time is vital if he is to progress further.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone to stay with a big club and think: ‘I’m going to try to get in here or there.’ You need experience to play in the Premier Division and that’s what I got when I was at Drogheda.

“I feel the step up to the Premier Division is easier than from 19s to the Premier Division.

“So my advice would be go down [at a lower level] and get experience before you try a really high standard, because if you keep playing, you’ll keep getting the experience.”

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Paul Fennessy

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