By Damian Spellman, PA
Caoimhin Kelleher has been handed a chance to make the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper’s jersey his own in Saturday’s friendly clash with world number one side Belgium.
The 23-year-old Liverpool keeper, who scored the winning penalty for his club in last month’s Carabao Cup final, has got the nod with number one Gavin Bazunu missing through illness and Bournemouth’s Mark Travers injured.
It will be Kelleher’s third senior appearance for his country, although he has had to remain patient after his own unavailability gave Manchester City’s Bazunu, currently on loan at Portsmouth, an opportunity in March last year.
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny said: “Caoimhin will definitely start, that’s absolutely right, for sure. He’ll most likely play the two matches now, I think it’s fair to say, and deservedly so.
“He’s had to be patient because of an unfortunate injury. He missed the last March camp with injury and Gavin Bazunu has come in and been absolutely outstanding.
“We’re on a run of four and a half games now consecutively without conceding a goal – and Caoimhin has played his part in that because he played against Qatar.
“In Caoimhin’s two matches to date against Qatar and Hungary, he hasn’t conceded a goal either, so he deserves his chance because he’s been absolutely excellent.”
Kelleher will hope similarly solid displays against the Belgians and Lithuania on Tuesday night will help him keep his place when competitive football returns in June with the start of a new Nations League campaign.
Kenny knows from experience that injuries and illness could have an impact on that, but is simply happy to have three keepers in addition to the more experienced Darren Randolph – who is not in the current squad – competing for a starting berth.
Asked which of Kelleher’s qualities stood out, he said: “His composure under pressure and his general athleticism, his ability to make brilliant saves.
“But obviously he’s been in a great environment at Liverpool for a few years now and training every day at a very high standard and playing in the games that he’s played in, so he’s got good experience.”
Kelleher and his team-mates will line up against Belgium as part of the Football Association of Ireland’s centenary celebrations, an opportunity to celebrate the great Irish players of the past.
Current skipper Seamus Coleman has played with some of them, and grew up watching the likes of Roy Keane as he helped to drive Ireland to the 2002 World Cup finals.
Coleman said: “I’ve been lucky to play with some great players with Ireland, Damien Duff comes to mind, Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane, Shay Given – they were really, really powerful players for Ireland.
“I suppose growing up, for me you would be looking at Roy Keane, how good he was for Ireland, how in certain games he carried them in big games, the Holland game, which was a memorable one.
“I know Jason McAteer scored, but Roy Keane’s performance in that game was unbelievable.”