Caoimhín Kelleher is a John Achterberg project, according to Jürgen Klopp, in the sense that Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach was convinced the “skinny boy from Ireland standing in this big goal” had first-team potential when others harboured doubts.
Another Achterberg project is the goalkeeper mural at Liverpool’s Axa training centre, a work he commissioned from the local artist John Culshaw to commemorate those with a hand in shaping the club’s history – from Elisha Scott to Tommy Lawrence, Ray Clemence to Bruce Grobbelaar, Jerzy Dudek to Alisson – and which decorates a wall behind the keepers’ training area.
It is an ambition of Kelleher’s to marry the Achterberg projects together.
“There are absolute legends up on that wall so to be up there would be an honour for me,” the 23-year-old says. “It would be quite cool and special if I was there. It is nice when you go training every day to be having a look at that. It is cool that we have a chance to win a trophy and maybe I can get myself on there as well. It is a good inspiration for us when we are training every day in front of it.”
Kelleher will have his chance to win a trophy and press claims for a place on the mural – there remains space for an addition or two – in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Chelsea. The Republic of Ireland international will make his eighth appearance of the season, and 17th of his Anfield career, when Liverpool attempt to win their first domestic cup in a decade.
The Carabao Cup is Kelleher’s dedicated competition this season and has demonstrated why the young talent has overtaken Adrián as Klopp’s second-choice keeper. After two penalty saves in the quarter-final shootout win over Leicester he was unflappable in the semi-final second leg win at Arsenal – in keeping with a laid-back personality – but discovered he would be playing at Wembley only when Klopp was asked his intentions at a press conference the following day. “My idea is to play him,” the Liverpool manager said. “Caoimhín deserves that. He brought the team there.”
Kelleher recalls: “That was nice to hear. I didn’t know if I would be playing the final, not even when I was playing most of the games. I would never want to take anything for granted. I was obviously very happy. It is an honour to represent Liverpool in a final. I always had belief that I could get up to the first team but this is still a really nice moment for me.”
A Liverpool fan from childhood in Cork, Kelleher was a prolific striker for the county and for Ringmahon Rangers until he was 13. Three of his four brothers play hurling (the other, Fiacre, is a defender for Bradford City) but there was no temptation to follow suit. “I tried a bit of GAA but for me it was just football,” Kelleher says. “It was the only one I was good at.” He switched from Ringmahon’s leading goalscorer to goalkeeper when their regular stopper left.
“Obviously it has worked out well,” he says, with considerable understatement. “I did OK in the first game but it was more that I really enjoyed playing in the position. I took a love to it and kicked on. Maybe six to eight months after becoming a goalkeeper clubs would come looking and wanting to take me on trial.” Blackburn, Aston Villa and Manchester United were interested. When Liverpool called, however, there was only one place he was going.
“I have had belief in myself since I came over that I can do it but it has taken a lot of hard work and a lot of coaching sessions to bring me on,” Kelleher says. “I have a lot to thank John for in that respect. Ever since I came here he has been brilliant with me. He saw something in me since I came into first-team training and he brought me on in leaps and bounds. I know for sure I would not be here if it was not for him.
“I am nowhere near the highest level yet – I think I have a long way to go if I want to reach that – but I’ve always had belief in myself that I can play here and obviously playing games for the first team and performing relatively well gives you the extra boost of confidence that you are good enough. Now I need to push on and keep going.”
Kelleher has been to Wembley once, for the Republic of Ireland’s friendly defeat by England in November 2020, and claims he will feel more excitement than nerves in the buildup to a final attended by his family and girlfriend. He prefers to listen to music than re-analyse opposition strikers before kick-off and, though his relaxed character appears well-equipped to handle pressure, Kelleher’s manager has removed it from him anyway.
Klopp says: “If it works out, then it’s all about Caoimhín. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s all about me. It’s as easy as that, and I take it. It’s just a thing we have to do because of the quality Caoimhín has. We want to keep him as long as somehow possible knowing that, from our point of view, the best goalkeeper in the world is our No 1. Caoimhín is an exceptional goalkeeper and we want to keep him here. And for that, he needs games. These games are his competition, and there’s no chance of him not playing.”