Liverpool’s Caoimhin Kelleher interview: ‘The next step is for me to be a No 1’

Caoimhin Kelleher’s career went to the next level this season.

Patience proved to be a virtue as the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper enjoyed the kind of extended run in the Liverpool team that he had long since craved.

Between early February and mid-April, he played in 14 successive matches, including the Carabao Cup final triumph over Chelsea at Wembley. Concerns over the absence of Alisson due to a hamstring injury were eased as Kelleher deputised brilliantly. By the end of the campaign, he had clocked up 26 appearances in all competitions — more than in the four previous seasons combined.

“It was the first time in my career that I’d had a spell like that and I loved it,” he tells The Athletic, “I thrived on it. I’d been waiting for a moment like that.  It was a massive opportunity for me to be Liverpool’s No 1 for that long.

“It was my time to show the level I believe I can perform at and the level people at the club think I’m able to play at. I proved that I’m good enough to play in the Premier League — I’m comfortable there. I’ve always had that belief in myself. Proving it to people was satisfying.”

It was a far cry from the 2022-23 season when Liverpool’s early exits from both domestic cups meant that Kelleher grew frustrated as he played just four times all season.

Kelleher played a lot of first-team football due to Alisson’s injury (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

“When you’re going into games having not played for a few months, it’s really difficult, especially for a goalkeeper,” he explains.

“I’ve always tried to be professional and stay focused because anything can happen and you might be called upon to come in. But playing every week, I felt so much more comfortable. It was the best feeling.

“My decision-making was better. I was in the kind of rhythm you only get with playing regularly. There’s that excitement that you know you are getting games. Confidence grows from knowing not only am I playing this week but next week as well.”

Kelleher certainly showcased his development against Chelsea at Wembley when he played well before captain Virgil van Dijk headed home a late winner.

“It ended up being our only trophy of the season so that made it even more special and keeping a clean sheet that day was vital,” he says.

“Playing against Man City at home (the 1-1 draw at Anfield in March) was another big one for me with the rivalry between us. You’re not going to play in a more high-profile game than that in world football and I thought I did really well. You think, ‘Yeah, I’m capable of doing this every week at a high level’. I got the taste for it and I want to do it all the time. My main ambition is to be a No 1.”

The 25-year-old is realistic about his chances of achieving that status at Anfield given he’s competing with Alisson. The Brazil international is only 31 and has three years remaining on his contract.

“It would be great if that happened at Liverpool, but I’m not silly. I know that Ali has been the best goalkeeper in the world for years.

“I’ve had such an amazing time at Liverpool. It’s been a crazy journey for me and one that I’ve absolutely loved. I love the club, I love the fans and I have a great relationship with the players and the staff. Whether it’s here at Liverpool or somewhere else, I do feel the next step for me is to be a No 1.”

Kelleher, who is under contract until 2026, was heavily linked with a move away from Merseyside last summer but ended up staying put following a heart-to-heart with Jurgen Klopp. He has yet to hold talks with new sporting director Richard Hughes and new head coach Arne Slot over his future.

Kelleher was full of praise for Alisson (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

“I wouldn’t say I was pushing (to leave) last summer but saying, ‘Look, I need to kick on for my career’. Jurgen said, ‘If anything happens to Ali, we really need you to be there’. It worked out for the best this season because I played 26 games.

“There will be some discussions over the coming weeks. The club was busy with the manager leaving and appointing a new one. With all the new staff arriving, those talks will happen.”

After a short holiday in Ibiza, Kelleher will link up with the Republic of Ireland squad later this week to prepare for June friendlies against Hungary (Tuesday) and Portugal (June 11). He knows that going back to warming the bench at club level next season would damage his aspirations to be his country’s first-choice goalkeeper as he looks to add to his 12 caps.

“I love playing for my country. I’ve been fortunate to do that since I was 15 or 16,” he says. “As a kid growing up in Ireland, the national team is the biggest thing. My ambition is to be Ireland’s No 1. I want to help take us to major tournaments. That’s a big objective of mine but to really stake my claim I need to be playing week in and week out.”

It has been some journey for Kelleher, who arrived at Liverpool’s academy from Ringmahon Rangers in his home city of Cork nine years ago.

He had been a prolific striker at youth level before at the age of 14 he turned his hand to goalkeeping after Ringmahon’s regular shot-stopper departed. His dad, Ray, recommended the switch to his coach Eddie Harrington and it proved to be inspired.

“I do think about it sometimes — how it was an absolute stroke of fortune the way it all panned out,” he says. “I had started doing a bit of training as a goalkeeper before the other lad quit, maybe with the idea in mind that in a year or so I might become a ‘keeper. But I was never planning on becoming one that soon. Who knows, if I had waited another year, I might have left it too late to really create a career for myself. It’s amazing to look back on how everything just seemed to fall into place perfectly.”

Kelleher feels blessed to have learned his trade alongside Alisson for the past six years: “The biggest things are his mentality and the way he is within games. That’s what you need to be the best. He’s always very calm and composed. He never gets too high, he never gets too low. Goalkeeping is about making split-second decisions and he has that clarity you need to make good ones.”

It was in the 2021-22 season, after taking over from Adrian as Alisson’s deputy, that Kelleher’s career took off. He scored Liverpool’s 11th penalty in a remarkable shootout against Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley before opposite number Kepa Arrizabalaga blazed over the bar.

Kelleher scoring his penalty (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

“That’s one of the best days I’ve ever had. Looking back on it, always gives me a little smile,” he says. “The way the game went, it was one you couldn’t even dream of. The dream would have been saving penalties in the shootout and being the hero that way rather than scoring what turned out to be the winner.”

Kelleher has won all four of the penalty shootouts he’s been involved in for Liverpool and his tally of six saves in them is more than any other goalkeeper in the club’s illustrious history.

“Since I’ve been playing in goal, I’ve always had a good instinct for where a player will shoot,” he explains. “I’m quite quick and explosive. I can make it to the corners quite quickly so if I guess right with a penalty I always back myself to have a chance of saving it. Long may that record in shootouts continue.”

His accuracy extends to the darts board — having beaten all challengers at the club’s training complex this season. “I play a lot of darts. If you asked people around the club, they’d probably say I play too much! I’ve always watched it since I was really young and I play a bit of golf too.”

Liverpool have appointed Arne Slot as their new head coach — and The Athletic has every angle covered

Saying goodbye to Klopp was emotional. Kelleher left the German coach in no doubt about his debt of gratitude to him when they chatted at the leaving party at Liverpool’s Titanic Hotel.

“He’s been the only manager I’ve ever had at Liverpool. He gave me my debut and so many opportunities so I wanted to say thank you to him for everything he’s done for me. He said I’d developed into a really good goalkeeper and that he would follow my career wherever I go. They were nice words to hear. He got a great send-off and it was a fitting tribute to him.

“When a manager of his stature moves on having left such a mark on the club, there’s a bit of uncertainty over what will happen next. We’ve seen it with other teams, like with Manchester United and what happened after Alex Ferguson left. They struggled to replicate what he did before.

“But we have such an exciting, young, hungry squad and that will be a big help. Jurgen said it felt like the start of something rather than the end with the squad he’s left behind and he’s right. We’ve just had the first season after a rebuild. It looks really promising and the new manager is inheriting a strong squad. From what I’ve heard, Arne Slot plays exciting football, similar to what we’ve been doing in recent years, so it shouldn’t be too much of a transition.”

Kelleher heavily praised the departing Klopp (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Long-serving goalkeeping coach John Achterberg and assistant Jack Robinson have also moved on, but the services of Brazil legend Claudio Taffarel have been retained.

“John has been absolutely massive for me and I told him at the party that I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without everything he’s done for me. The work he put in was incredible — always first into the training ground and the last to leave. He brought me on leaps and bounds. I really loved working with him. I’m grateful that he was my coach for so long. Jack was brilliant too and I wish them both well. We know that Taffarel is staying which is good. It will certainly feel a lot different when we report back in early July.”

How the landscape looks for Kelleher then will depend to a large extent on what kind of offers are forthcoming. But there’s no doubt that his stock has never been higher.

“I’m proud of this season, I’ve really proved myself,” he adds.

“I love being at Liverpool and hopefully there’s more to come there. But I feel like I’ve done my years as a No 2. The ambition now is to be a No 1. I am ready and capable.”

(Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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