Martin Kelly returned to action on Saturday and Aaron Cutler previews a big season for the Reds defender.
Liverpool kicked-off their pre-season preparations with a routine victory over Preston on Saturday. Despite their League One opponents offering as much fight as Gavin Henson in a pub brawl, there were plenty of positives to take from a sweltering afternoon in Lancashire.
All-in-all a positive afternoon and a watchable contest, a rarity for pre-season.
One ray of light which has gone largely unnoticed was Martin Kelly’s long-awaited comeback from injury. The England defender had not donned a Liverpool shirt since a September defeat to Manchester United – ten months ago. Kelly’s career has been blighted by such setbacks ever since his debut in 2008.
Five years since that bow at home to PSV Eindhoven, the Whiston born defender has played just 54 games for the first team. A depressing figure given the great many qualities he offers.
A centre-half by trade former boss Rafa Benitez – along with Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish after him – deployed Kelly at right-back. Inheriting the ‘Mr Versatile’ tag from Jamie Carragher, the 23 year old has also appeared on the opposite flank and but very seldom in his favoured middling role. Nevertheless that has not prevented him from showing what a top player he is.
Capable of barn-storming, overlapping runs, he also possesses a terrific cross and great composure when in possession. Moreover he is defensively sound, with many supporters feeling he offers greater protection than Glen Johnson in that respect. In truth he is a perfect fit for Brendan Rodgers philosophy. The million dollar question is can he stay fit?
Liverpool have had their fair share of ‘Sick Notes’ over the years – Jamie Redknapp, Michael Owen, Harry Kewell, Fabio Aurelio … but Kelly probably trumps them all. Before graduating to Melwood his progression was stunted by back problems lasting two years. He limped-off 74 minutes into his full debut at home to Lyon and then missed four months with a groin injury.
An encouraging 2010/11 was also curtailed when a pulled hamstring ruled him out between February and April. Sadly, his planned comeback date was missed and it was later announced he would play no further part that campaign.
He did return for the start of the following season only to suffer a reoccurrence of his hamstring issues less than a month in. A series of niggling injuries disrupted the remainder of that year, while that ruptured anterior cruciate ligament against United wiped-out the entirety of Brendan Rodgers first campaign.
Following ten months sidelined, Kelly was introduced as a late substitute at Deepdale in a bid to build fitness. According to the payer himself that is the primary concern, not any after affects of the ACL itself. According to the fans his haircut is the primary concern – an unforgivable cross between Rafa Nadal and Andy Carroll. Almost a year out and the lad fails to visit a Barbers … poor form.
In all seriousness there is clearly a role for Kelly if he steers clear of Zaf Iqbal’s treatment room. He was highly rated by a succession of managers and lest we forget travelled to Austria as part of England’s squad for Euro 2012. Liverpool valued him highly enough to serve-up a new long-term contract in February.
At 23 he is at an age where he needs to establish himself as a regular. No longer can he be classed as an up-and-coming talent. But in what position can he realistically force his way into the reckoning?
In a curious twist of fate it may be his preferred centre-back role after all. Glen Johnson remains a key performer at right full back, with precious few questioning his first team credentials. Of course Glen can and has switched flanks to accommodate Kelly in the past, still a real possibility as Jose Enrique fights to win over his doubters.
But as Carragher did in 2004, Kelly may now find his rightful position at centre half. With the former retired and the futures of both Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates up in the air, Brendan Rodgers squad could soon look thread-bare defensively. Yes Kolo Toure has been drafted in to offer experience but is he a viable option going forward? Sure the Ivorian International will play his part but asking him to figure week-in, week-out may be a tall order.
Moreover it appears as though FSG have ended any interest in Kyriakos Papadopoulos in order to pursue attacking options. Andre Wisdom featured centrally this weekend but the opportunity is Kelly’s to seize. Indeed the consensus seems to be Wisdom will be granted a loan spell should Martin prove his fitness – no certainty.
It is of course unfair to expect too much too soon. The player has undergone major surgery and an intensive rehab programme lasting ten months. He has essentially needed to rebuild all strength in his knee, with rest days given even now. The squad have been in full training for a fortnight but Kelly has featured only sporadically, with caution the operative word. Rushing him would be counter-productive and potentially devastating.
But should he return to his former self he would be an ideal candidate to fill the void left by Carra. Quick, strong, composed; useful on the ball and an aerial threat he would compliment Daniel Agger perfectly. Furthermore his versatility would allow the manager to switch to a 3-5-2 system without inhibiting either player. Kelly’s athleticism could also lead to us playing a higher line, something Rodgers favoured at the beginning of last term.
These are all ifs and buts yet undeniable is the boost a returning Kelly gives the squad. The old cliché of him being like a new signing will be trumpeted but such was his absence (and current choice of barnet) it will ring true.
A big year lies ahead for the reds number 34, who has his sights set not only on a regular start but next summer’s World Cup in Brazil. From Liverpool’s perspective he could be the home-grown solution to a defensive headache. For the sake of both player and club he must now take centre stage.