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The making of Caoimhín Kelleher: How Liverpool keeper's destiny was shaped in Cork

Liverpool stand-in ’keeper’s calmness on the ball comes from his years as a prolific young striker with Ringmahon Rangers
Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher started life as a striker with Ringmahon Rangers. Photo: Peter Powell

Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher started life as a striker with Ringmahon Rangers. Photo: Peter Powell

Chris BascombeTelegraph Media Group Limited

It was the final minute of the Cork U-17 Premier League and Ringmahon Rangers needed a goal to win the title. In desperation, manager Eddie Harrington sent his goalkeeper, Caoimhín Kelleher, forward to cause mayhem in the penalty area.

The set-piece was delivered, the opposition defenders from College Corinthians were distracted by the appearance of the No 1, and, in the melee, Ringmahon equalised to secure the 1-1 draw to make them champions – the first trophy in the club’s history.

“It was Caoimhín’s last game – his last moment – before he left for England in 2015,” Harrington recalls. “I’ll never forget the image of him and his team-mates jumping on top of each other. It wasn’t quite Alisson scoring the header last season, but he took a few of their markers away from our strikers – all pretty dramatic.”

Liverpool’s back-up ’keeper, who impressed against Chelsea last weekend and is in line to face Arsenal in the League Cup semi-final tomorrow, took an unorthodox route to Anfield. If the 23-year-old appears calmer than most ’keepers in possession, there is a reason: he was a centre-forward until he was 13, when a quirk of fate changed his future and ultimately led him to Anfield.

“We were playing a game on Saturday. On Tuesday, our ’keeper told us he didn’t want to play anymore, so we were stuck,” Harrington remembers. “Caoimhín’s father, Ray, gave me a call and said his son quite fancied giving it a try in goal. ‘Just give him a chance,’ he told me. Initially, there was scepticism.”

Seán Fitzgerald, Ringmahon club secretary, says: “It was a bit like telling Jurgen Klopp he should pick Mo Salah as ’keeper. Caoimhín was scoring 20 or 30 goals a season and was a real prospect as a striker.”

So there were doubts, confirms Harrington, who coached Kelleher for six years.

“People thought we were daft. Caoimhín was our only player representing the Cork county side – our talisman in attack. We then found out he had always felt he could be a ’keeper, but he didn’t want to upset the lad we were playing in goal. It was only when he saw there was a window there that it was mentioned to us.”

Kelleher was not a complete novice to the role. He had caught the goalkeeper bug after having a go in training with Cork, and by the time he was full-time between the posts, his outfield skills helped him shine.

“It was obvious from the first game how cool he is on the ball,” Harrington says. “He brought calmness with the ball at his feet. Because he was a striker himself, he was one step ahead and knew what the striker was going to do.

“Things started to happen fairly quickly after that. The big tournament in Ireland for the U-14s is the Kennedy Cup, where all the English scouts go and watch. Caoimhín started to become big news in the area. Blackburn approached him, then Aston Villa were interested.”

Liverpool’s head of recruitment in Ireland, Clifford Ferguson, also started to pay attention, along with other Premier League scouts.

“In his final season, we were an unbelievable team and we started to get some crowds coming to see us,” Fitzgerald says. “We heard about scouts from Villa and (Manchester) United and Liverpool watching him, and wanting to get in touch with the family. Once Liverpool made the call and said they would like to look at him, that was it. Caoimhín had been with us since the under-fives and was always a Liverpool fan.”

The Mahon area has become something of a talent hotspot, with Kelleher one of several youngsters making the move to England. His brother, Fiacre, joined Celtic and now plays for Bradford City, and the roll of honour and mementos in the Ringmahon clubhouse have been steadily expanding in recent years.

“We have one of Caoimhín’s jerseys on the clubhouse wall,” Fitzgerald says. “Hopefully he will get plenty more games in the Carabao and FA Cups. An appearance at Wembley would be great. It’s fairy-tale stuff, really.”

For Harrington, still in regular contact with the young ’keeper, there remains a sense of disbelief. “It is all a bit surreal watching him at that level,” he reveals.

“When I see him, I am buzzing and nervous for him, too. I travelled over to watch his Liverpool debut against MK Dons in the Carabao Cup (in 2019). He has been around the squad for three or four years now and is used to that level.

“It is great for Ringmahon, too. There are three former players in England now – Alan Browne and Adam O’Reilly are both at Preston. Alan and Caoimhín are from the same parish and have both made it into the Irish squad. It’s an amazing story and achievement.”

Sadly, Kelleher’s father was never able to see his son fulfil the goalkeeping promise he identified before anyone else, as Ray Kelleher passed away in 2014.

“His dad deserves all the plaudits for picking up that phone and telling us to put him in goal,” Harrington says. “It is so great to see a great kid like Caoimhín doing so well.”

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