cup final Caoimhín Kelleher’s Liverpool journey is a source of pride to friends and mentors in Cork
Ahead of tomorrow’s Carabao Cup final with Chelsea, everybody who witnessed the goalkeeper’s early days is retracing their steps.
The Presentation Brothers College players were readying themselves to depart the dressing-room ahead of the biggest game of their school lives when the youngest player in their ranks piped up.
For a school synonymous with rugby and rowing, it was a big deal when the football team reached the Munster Schools Senior Cup decider in 2015 and the only Junior Cert student in their squad waited for that moment to find his voice and explain in simple terms how they would bring home the trophy for the first time.
“Lads, we only need to score one goal,” announced Caoimhín Kelleher, “Because I’m not letting anything in today.”
Aiden Twomey, the deputy principal and coach of that team, chuckles as he recalls the prediction. “It wasn’t cocky,” he stressed, “Just a matter of fact.”
What made it so memorable was how accurate it proved to be. Kelleher lived up to his words, producing a string of saves to deny Carrigaline and ensure that an early ‘Pres’ goal was enough to make history.
The junior netminder had previous, with Twomey recalling a display in an earlier encounter with their major rivals CBC where a 1-0 success for ‘Pres’ was such an injustice that ‘the guards should have turned up to arrest us.’
This kid was special. At the beginning of that season, Twomey had to break the news to Ger O’Connell, a sixth-year student and perfectly competent goalkeeper, that he would be dropping to the bench to make way for a ‘pleasant, easy-going and clever’ third year with braces on his teeth.
“Ger, we won’t be starting you and I’m not even going to explain it to you, but I’m going to tell you a story,” said Twomey. “One day you’ll be sitting in a pub having a pint and you’ll look up at the TV and say to someone ‘See him? He took my place at school’.”
Ahead of Kelleher’s Wembley bow in tomorrow’s Carabao Cup final with Chelsea, everybody who witnessed his early days is retracing their steps.
Aaron Ahern can still picture his childhood friend outside ‘that small house on the corner’ in Mahon, a short spin or eight-minute walk from his home. Whether he was walking past or being driven past, Ahern would see his Ringmahon Rangers team-mate out the front kicking a ball into a miniature goal. “He was always out there playing away,” says Ahern.
Kelleher was the youngest of six in a sports-mad family where both parents, Raymond and Jacqueline, were PE teachers. His elder brothers were making waves in various codes, with Tim a scratch golfer, Olan a talented hurler and Fiacre starting on the path that would see him become a pro footballer (he is currently with Bradford). Caoimhín’s initial relationship with the sport was all about trying to score goals, not prevent them.
“We started together when we were four or five,” reflects Ahern, “He was outfield and he was an unbelievable striker, you always knew there was something a bit special about him.”
His coaches recognised it from the outset too. Bar a curtailed year with Rockmount that accelerated his rise to Cork representative teams, Kelleher was with Ringmahon all the way up. Every life has a sliding doors moment, yet the rise of a distinctive-looking kid who at one stage had long blond hair running down his back was filled with them.
The story of how his father called Ringmahon’s Eddie Harrington to say that Caoimhín was willing to go in goals to solve a crisis has been well told.
Harrington oversaw the team along with Robert O’Leary, who brings another perspective to the yarn, for it was the pressures facing his son, Robbie, that created the emergency.
“Robbie was the goalkeeper in two age groups,” O’Leary explains, “When he started secondary school, it was through Irish, and the school was in Glanmire. It was a big trek from Mahon to Glanmire. He was involved with the underage Cork set-up too. He said the demands were too much, he was sick of playing because he was trying to do everything. I told him to leave it a few weeks and we’d try and find a ’keeper for the older team.
“So I rang Eddie and told him Robbie was up to his eyeballs, so we’d need to find a keeper for the older team and he said, ‘You won’t believe this, but Caoimhín’s dad is just off the phone with me’. Caoimhín had gone into goals in training with the Kennedy Cup team and had enjoyed it so much he wanted to play there for Ringmahon. I thought it was mad initially. Who puts your best striker in goals? It all happened in the space of a day or two, but it was meant to be.”
His first match between the sticks ended in defeat, but it was obvious to all present that the 14-year-old had found his calling.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” continues O’Leary, “Like we had Alan Browne in Ringmahon, who was amazing. Eric Grimes went to Leeds. Gearóid Morrissey (who is now his brother in law) went to Blackburn and won things with Cork City, but Caoimhín, you’d be saying this is unnatural. You couldn’t deny it. He’d do things and you’d just be saying to yourself, ‘That’s Premier League.’
“There was a small seven-a-side astro pitch and we used to have training games on that. The score would normally be 10-9 but Caoimhín would keep clean sheets and that’s not exaggerating. I was playing with the senior team at the time and I’d join in and go up front and I couldn’t score against him.
“It got to the stage where, as a coach, we couldn’t bring him any further. I’d say to him, ‘You tell me what to do’ – I was like a tool, I was looking at him saying I couldn’t do any more.”
As the left-back, Ahern was close to Kelleher in his new station. “When he went in goals, you could always tell he was going to make it,” he asserts, chuckling when informed of the schools final anecdote. “He’d say similar things to us, that he wasn’t going to concede today, that was always his mindset. But while he knew he was good, I don’t think he knew just how good he was.”
For club secretary Seán Fitzgerald, a lifelong Liverpool fan, the call from Anfield was a thrill. Once Kelleher settled between the sticks, word spread, international recognition followed and emigration at 16 was inevitable.
He had been away to Aston Villa and Manchester United without making any fuss over it and there was always somebody on the phone making enquiries. Liverpool made the strongest play in the end, although true to form for English clubs coming to these shores, they weren’t exactly willing to splash the cash.
Ringmahon collected €80,000 when Morrissey went to Blackburn and built a five-a-side astro pitch. Fitzgerald doesn’t disclose what Liverpool came up with for Kelleher initially, yet the early interactions paint a picture of where the compensation bargaining started.
“I remember thinking at the start, ‘Is this fella taking the p**s out of me?’” he says, “They were saying, ‘We think that’s good money for an Irish club’. And we were saying, ‘Are you actually serious?’ This was an Irish underage ’keeper, but that’s what they do, they haggle.”
Ringmahon did receive a fee and significant clauses, all but two of which have been activated. There’ll be a five-figure sum when he makes a competitive appearance for Ireland, and most importantly, there’s also a lucrative 20pc sell-on clause – that could tug at Fitzgerald’s heartstrings.
He wants to see Kelleher succeed at Liverpool, but if they were somehow to receive an offer they couldn’t refuse, Ringmahon would likely be in line for a substantial seven-figure windfall.
This is a subject that only comes up when Fitzgerald is asked about it; the issue is not foremost in his mind. Instead, he’s immensely proud that one of their own is genuinely mixing it on the world stage, participating in games that will be watched around the globe.
“For me, he’s with the best team in the world, one of the biggest clubs in the world, and it’s only a few years ago he was sitting inside in the dressing-room at Ringmahon Park and now he’s going to be playing in front of almost 90,000 people.”
The poignant angle to the story is that his father, Ray, didn’t live to see it. He passed away in March 2014, when Caoimhín was just 15. Friends and community rallied around. In ‘Pres’, the tragedy was even closer to home as Ray was a teacher there. “You mind him, that’s what you do, you mind him and make sure that solids are in place,” says Twomey. “There’s no party political broadcast in saying it, but that’s what this place is, you take care of people.”
In Mahon, it was similar. “It’s a real community thing,” Fitzgerald says. “We are classified as a disadvantaged area here. Everyone has their ups and downs, but at the end of the day, when things happen, everyone pulls together, you rally around.”
“Ray was a massive part of his life,” adds O’Leary, “He wouldn’t miss a game, he went on all the trials with him. Unfortunately, he lost him just before he went to Liverpool, which was very tragic. It just showed what determination Caoimhín had that he kept pushing on.”
Ahern’s recollection of the funeral is how the youngest of the clan stayed strong for the entire family.
To this day, he remains a walking ambassador for his upbringing, a point that everyone returns to, and he will never lose touch with those roots. His long-term girlfriend, Eimear Murphy, an accomplished Irish dancer, was a former student of his mother, Jacqueline. Kelleher remains in touch with his childhood network, and Ahern messages quite regularly.
“What I love about him is that he’s so humble, he doesn’t show off,” he says, “He gets my uncle tickets whenever he wants to come over. Some people go to that level and think they are higher than everybody else, but Caoimhín is the opposite of that.”
Ringmahon won the league after Kelleher went to Liverpool, but he made his way back to support them in the decisive fixture and any other significant games he was able to attend.
Harrington and O’Leary made the reverse journey for a tour around as their finest export adjusted to his new surroundings in England and the lines of communication have stayed open.
If he might have initially come across as quiet and reserved to strangers, a nice kid who nobody would say a bad word about, O’Leary remembers a good-natured edge that gave him a survival streak.
“We’d call him the silent assassin,” he laughs, with reference to a dry wit that wasn’t always obvious. “You’d see him in the corner of the dressing-room and you’d know he was talking about you. He’d cut you to shreds with a one-liner.”
When he posted an Instragram message at the beginning of January after his assured Premier League showing against Chelsea, O’Leary dropped him a line once the post crossed the 100,000 likes threshold. “You think you’re mad with those likes, don’t you?” said O’Leary. “Oh, massive time,” Kelleher replied, instantly.
In his spare time, the 23-year-old has become a proficient darts player. Ahern jokes that it could open the door to the stage at Ally Pally once he’s done with football. Quick as a flash, he declares it would be unwise to rule anything out.
“Honestly, once he gets something in his head and puts his mind to it, you’d never know,” he grins.
There wouldn’t be any fears about his ability to handle the spotlight in a raucous environment. Composure was always his calling card and that’s why there is no feeling that he will be flustered by tomorrow’s atmosphere. He’s already demonstrated that nerve by establishing himself as trustworthy at a club where the number ones are encouraged to step out and play the type of passes that goalkeepers a generation ago would never have tried.
“I don’t think nerves ever affected him,” says O’Leary, who adds that Robbie is proud of his part in the Kelleher journey.
“I remember seeing Caoimhín as a child in a GAA match with his school, he was playing outfield and went through on goal and he dinked the ball over the ’keeper. In a GAA game! Don’t get me wrong, he’s definitely a bit mad in his own way, but it’s a calm and composed way.
“From all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him get proper angry,” observes Ahern, a Manchester United fan who concedes that it’s strange to be cheering for Liverpool, but his gut urges him to do so when Kelleher is picked.
When Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019, Ahern, who now works in finance, saw a clip of his pal in the celebrations and a thought instantly struck him.
“I saw him dancing around with a Heineken and I was thinking that it was the first time I’d ever seen him with a drink in his hand,” he says, “Thinking back now, you realise how much he put it into it. He was never a big sociable one at the start.
“I got to know him better when we were 13/14, but he never really came out much, maybe once every three or four months, he was always training. There’s no fluke about where he got to. It was all the sacrifices he made.”
In the alma mater, there is pride in a past pupil’s progression to the global stage in a sport that wasn’t always played there. Declan Kidney, Ronan O’Gara, Peter O’Mahony and Peter Stringer are amongst the oval ball legends who walked those corridors. Kelleher would have played rugby for the mandatory six months, a term and condition of the fee-paying school where Latin is also on the curriculum.
Kelleher was academically bright and did what he had to do, but he was always in control of his destiny.
“I always think Caoimhín had it all worked out and he didn’t worry overly much,” muses Twomey, “He lived in the present.”
There’s a postscript to that schools cup final. Around six months back, a story came back third-hand to Twomey. A friend of a friend had been watching a game in a sports club and got talking to a fella called Ger O’Connell. He was telling the story about the reason he was dropped as the school goalkeeper.
The legend of Caoimhín Kelleher is only beginning to take flight.
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