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'I remember seeing Iniesta ten years ago. He was a little master' - Stephen Kelly

The Dubliner, who hopes to be in the team to face Spain in June, was at the U19 European Championships when he first watched the Barca midfielder in action.

Kelly making an early appearance for Ireland at schoolboy level in 2000.
Kelly making an early appearance for Ireland at schoolboy level in 2000.
Image: ©INPHO/Tom Honan

STEPHEN KELLY recalled the first time he came across Spain’s World Cup final hero yesterday.

The defender was on Ireland duty in Norway for the 2002 U19 European Championships when he had the chance to watch Barcelona star Andres Iniesta in action.

Brian Kerr’s side came runner-up in Group B to Germany and eventually finished fourth, after being beaten by Slovakia in the 3rd/4th place play-off.

The Germans met Spain in the final and a Fernando Torres strike in the 55th minute saw La Roja lift the crown in Oslo. El Nino, who can’t buy a goal at Chelsea at the moment, won the Golden Boot but the Player of the Tournament award went to Iniesta.

We stayed in the same hotel as them,” Kelly said yesterday. “He (Iniesta) was a little master then and look at him now. He’s just a fantastic player.”

Kelly is vying for a starting berth for Ireland’s three Euro 2012 games in June and would love nothing more than being able to pit himself against the current holders.

“If I get the opportunity to play in that (the Spain game) it will be amazing. You want to play against the best players in the world so you can judge yourself by how well you do. You want to see how you can cope on a one-to-one basis and in a game like that it is going to be the same.”

Iniesta celebrates the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final. The player he paid tribute to on his t-shirt, Daniel Jarque, also featured in that U19 team in 2002.  Credit: AP/Press Association Images

The Fulham player got all nostalgic on Wednesday and shared his childhood memories of Ireland competing on the European and world stages.

“The first one I really remember watching is 1994. I would’ve seen the videos of Euro ’88 over the years but the one that stands out for me is the World Cup in the US.

“I remember getting half days from school, people putting bunting up and the atmosphere that was around the place. There just seemed to be a green and white storm through Dublin city. It was unbelievable.

“To be in a squad now which has qualified for a major tournament is amazing.”

Kelly, who revealed that Paul McGrath was the player he most wanted to be like growing up, was a youth team player at Tottenham when Mick McCarthy’s men went out to Spain on penalties in 2002. Back in Dublin for a short break at the time, he decided to head down to the Phoenix Park to welcome the team home.

“I remember going with my cousin. I knew Robbie (Keane) who was at the club as well and took my cousin back to the lads. Wasn’t there something like 100,000 people there? It was an impressive sight.”

Stephen Kelly was speaking at ESPN’s announcement of their forthcoming live matches: Everton v Tottenham (March 10), Stoke v Manchester City (March 24) and Kilmarnock v Celtic (April 7). Live Barclays Premier League football and live Clydesdale Bank Premier League matches are shown on ESPN channels alongside live, top European soccer and other international sports. To get ESPN, visit: www.ESPN.ie.

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Ben Blake

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