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'Being Good With Your Feet Isn’t Enough': Analysing Caoimhín Kelleher's Big Night

By Donny Mahoney
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Caoimhín Kelleher added a silver lining to an otherwise bleak year for Irish football by holding Ajax scoreless last night in his first Champions League start for Liverpool. Kelleher was cool and composed throughout the match. The result means that Liverpool are into the knockout stages of the Champions League. It was an enormously encouraging 90 minutes in Kelleher's development. Not only can he now legitimately claim to be Liverpool's second keeper, he proved himself fully comfortable with the occasion. In some quarters, there's been an element of skepticism about whether Kelleher can make it as an elite goalkeeper. Last night vs Ajax, Kelleher gave the doubters something to think about.

David Preece knows a lot about the development of goalkeepers. The former Darlington and Aberdeen goalkeeper is currently GK coach at Ostersunds SK in the Allsvenkan. We spoke to him this morning from Sweden and he gave his thoughts on how Kelleher's game has evolved since his first appearances with Liverpool last season in the League Cup, the promising signs he saw last night, and why keepers like the Corkman need time to mature.

David Preece on Caoimhín Kelleher

I thought he handled the game superbly. He looked very unfazed by it. He’s not a kid as such but it’s his first taste of Champions League football.  I thought it was perfect for him that, going into a game like that, against Ajax, that there was no crowd there. There’s less pressure on him.

The first 15-20 minutes there wasn’t much for him to do. He could ease himself into the game. He wasn’t put in too many situations where he had to make big decisions. But the times he was called on - like the Klaas-Jan Huntelaar save - we've seen Adrian in a similar situation, and the ball went right through him. It’s not to see that Caoimhín is a better goalie than Adrian but at this moment in time, he’s proved he can play at this level.



Last night he played with Joel Matip and Fabinho, who’s not really a centrehalf. But they’re two characters that are very calm on the pitch, especially Fabinho. That helps as well. When the ball's going back to you as a keeper with back passes, half the time it's only about what you do with the ball. The other 50 per cent is about what the players in front of you are doing, and whether they’re comfortable with they ball, and they can take the pressure off you by how they handle things when they’re in possession. Kelleher also seemed to have a very comfortable relationship with Neco Williams at right back. A  lot of the passes seemed to go to him. 

A lot of us remember Kelleher in that Aston Villa game last year in the League Cup that Liverpool lost 5-0. It was great to have that experience but it didn’t feel like a true first-team experience for him. I think there were 11 U23 players in the Liverpool team that night.   

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Last night, it was a real first team experience. Not only that, but you’re playing against Ajax, in the Champions league, and there’s something on the end of it. They needed to win games to get through and qualify.

Klopp said it after the game. You’re confident in these players, but you’re never quite sure how they’re going to go until they get that experience. So when they do come through it, it’s not only a relief to the player, but it's a relief to the coaching staff as well. 

Goalkeeping put serious mental pressures on you. It takes more maturity to play the position, and so goalkeepers are given a bit more time to mature. With goalkeeping, there’s long periods of time where you’re not used. There’s periods of time where you have nothing to do but ruminate on what’s happened in a game, and that can affect you.


Growing to do

Thinking back on how he performed in that penalty shootout in the League Cup against Arsenal last season, it did look like that physically he had some growing to do.


It’s not to say you can’t overcome that with other aspects of your game like being positive and brave in your positioning. For people on the outside, you can tell whether you’re confident just by looking at the keeper. And that comes with age as well. The experience that’s he got now, those experiences in the League Cup that’s he had, they will give him a lot of confidence. 


A Great Demeanour

You saw that he was relaxed. There were a few clearances that went astray but looking at him on the pitch and in interviews after the game, he seems like a relaxed character. For me, that’s a massive plus for keepers. Mistakes will happen in games,  especially with young keepers, but it’s how you overcome it. He seems to have a great demeanour. It was great for him, having Edwin Van Der Sar in the stands. He’ll have taken note of that in how he approaches the game. 

From today onwards, it’s a balancing act. He needs to take that confidence from the Ajax game into the weekend should he be selected, but he also needs to stay level and not get ahead of himself, because if he doesn’t do that, especially at Premier League level, he'll be brought back to earth very quickly. But he doesn’t seem like a character who’ll get carried away with it. John Achterberg (Liverpool goalie coach) will go through the analysis of the game and the things he could have done better, especially with his distribution, but from a point of view of being able to handle the occasion, it doesn’t really seem to be a problem for him. 

Go out on loan or fight for the Number 2 shirt?

I know there's been talk about him going out on loan for a season. If you’re going to be number 2, there’s a lot of cup games and that can bring you on. But there’s nothing like playing game in and game out. Having the mental challenges of playing weekly and making mistakes. It's actually really important. All goalkeepers go through that period of uncertainty. In some goalkeepers, the later that comes that period comes, the more they suffer. The earlier you get used to mistakes occurring, the better you’ll get on in your career. That can be really healthy. It’s one for him to think about at the end of the season. If he stays as Liverpool's #2, there’ll be FA Cup games in January. That’ll be a great experience. From there, it’s a conversation with him, Achterberg and Jurgen Klopp on what his next step should should be. 

Being a ball-playing keeper is not enough

In the past few years, it’s become much more prevalent to see players converted into keepers. Teams are looking at players who aren’t quite good enough at 13, 14 or 15 to see if they have the attributes to play goal. One is the attributes. Two is the willingness. And that’s one of the reasons why it could be taking him a bit longer to develop, and he should be given more time to develop. If you’ve only been playing 7 years in the position, it’s not that long of a time. It’s okay to get commended for how good you are with your feet, but ultimately you will be judged by stopping the ball. We’ve seen it with Claudio Bravo. Being good with your feet isn’t enough to keep you at the top level. It’s a bonus that he started out like he did, like Ederson did, and he should be given the time to develop. We talked about the experience that being out on loan gives you. People have seen what Jordan Pickford did from 18,19, 20 in the National League. Dean Henderson has also done that. Nick Pope too. In the long run it’s probably the healthiest for him to do that, but you have to take into account how long he’s been playing as a goalkeeper and not just say ‘he’s 22, he should be playing now. 

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