Too good to be No. 2? – Caoimhin Kelleher faces a pivotal summer at Liverpool

After a milestone campaign for Caoimhin Kelleher for Liverpool, the competition he faces for both club and country puts him in a difficult position this summer, writes Kevin Coleman.

When you think of Liverpool’s transfer strategy, you think of a well-oiled machine that has been honed to precision after years of tinkering from Jurgen Klopp, Michael Edwards and their team of scouts and analysts.

Everything is methodical, targets are identified, departing players are placed delicately in shop windows and usually, before the dust has even settled on the prior season, business is done and boxed off just in time for a relaxing couple of weeks on the beach, with any anxiety over transfer windows and deadline days a non-factor.

When Liverpool wrapped up the additions of Darwin Nunez and Calvin Ramsay, there was a suggestion that that should be it for the club this summer, with any more movements going in the opposite direction with Sadio Mane to complete his move to Bayern Munich and the likes of Neco Williams and Takumi Minamino expected to leave.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, May 25, 2022: Liverpool's Director of Football Michael Edwards (R), Chief Scout Barry Hunter (M) and Sporting Director Julian Ward (L) during a training session at the AXA Training Centre ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final game between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid CF. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

This, clearly, doesn’t suit the transfer gossip column agenda, with Liverpool being an ultra-popular namecheck for any player on the market.

They do, after all, desire a central midfielder, and despite reports that Jude Bellingham is the aim for 12 months’ time, expect plenty of Twitter ITKs and gossip columns to dedicate inches to potential Liverpool additions.

Having said that, if you were to take the reports at face value and Liverpool are considering this business done for this summer, it does paint an interesting picture for the goalkeeping stable at the club.


In safe hands

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 22, 2020: Liverpool’s goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, goalkeeper Adrián San Miguel del Castillo, goalkeeper Alisson Becker, goalkeeping coach John Achterberg and goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher celebrate with the Premier League trophy as the Reds are crowned Champions after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. Liverpool won 5-3. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The goalkeeper position itself is in relatively rude health.

Alisson is in the top tier of goalkeepers in the world and isn’t going anywhere any time soon, coming off arguably his best season to date – or certainly on the shortlist for Liverpool’s best and most valuable performer over the course of the campaign.

Adrian is a respectable No. 3 and seems to be relishing the role as the glue-guy, keeping everybody together and offering friendship and advice to players around the camp.

Although his playing time has been curtailed, he’s often seen in the background with his arm around the shoulders of team-mates and whispering words of encouragement in their ears.

This is evident by his contract extensions and although his playing time is almost zero given the rise of Caoimhin Kelleher, his off-the-field intangibles seem to be offering plenty of positivity to the squad.

And that does take us to Kelleher, who is coming off an incredible season playing second fiddle to Alisson.


Kelleher’s rise and role

Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher was the hero (Nick Potts/PA)

When it was mooted that Liverpool’s summer transfer business was complete, it put an interesting spin on Kelleher’s role looking ahead to next season, suggesting that he will continue as the backup to Alisson and won’t be positioned for a loan spell elsewhere, as had been proposed regularly over the last 18 months or so.

Perhaps Klopp and Co. see Adrian capable of slotting back into No. 2 in the pecking order and playing some League Cup minutes, or that perhaps Brazilian youngster Marcelo Pitaluga could step up and emulate Kelleher’s rise into the first-team ranks.

Loanees Vitezslav Jaros, Jakub Ojrzynski and Liam Hughes are now back at the club while there are high hopes for 18-year-old Harvey Davies, so there could be a succession plan in place.

But it’s very unlikely that the club will go into the coming season by loaning Kelleher out without strengthening the position should catastrophe strike and Alisson go down for any considerable period of time.

Kelleher is by far the most capable backup and given his performances thus far – not to mention his heroics in last season’s successful League Cup run – is one who would be coveted by a large cohort of clubs.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, October 18, 2021: Liverpool's goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher during a training session at the AXA Training Centre ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group B Matchday 3 game between Club Atlético de Madrid and Liverpool FC. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

So, No. 2 it’s likely to be for the Corkman next season, offering a steady replacement for Alisson and allowing for another run in the domestic cup campaigns.

This poses an interesting conundrum for Kelleher who, at 23 years old, is still in the early reaches of his career, but still warrants as much playing time as possible to hone his craft.

Speaking on the subject himself this month, while on duty with the Republic of Ireland, the player said: “I’m not sure on what’s happening yet.

“I’m still finishing this season and then we will have conversations after that to see what happens.

“I’m not sure yet – obviously I need to play these few games and see what happens with these and maybe decide after that.”


The waiting game

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 16, 2022: Liverpool's goalkeeper Alisson Becker applauds the supporters after the FA Cup Semi-Final game between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. Liverpool won 3-2. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Goalkeepers tend to get better with age and there is a waiting game to play at Liverpool, should the stars align.

Alisson is 30 in October. Who’s to say he could turn around in a couple of seasons and, like Mane did this summer, say that he’s achieved all his wishes in a red shirt and is ready to move on?

It’s not inconceivable, albeit unlikely right now, but it would pave a route for the Irishman to claim the No. 1 shirt for as long as he can perform.

In the immediate future, game time is paramount, and you’d have to wonder if Kelleher is best-placed finding a starting role elsewhere for the season ahead.

He is in an enviable position for a young ‘keeper at Liverpool.

He gets to train with Alisson and Adrian every day in a team perennially contending for trophies, under Klopp and some of the finest staff anywhere to be found, with even a World Cup-winning goalkeeper in Claudio Taffarel recently added to the concoction.


Kelleher, Bazanu and Travers

CARDIFF, WALES - Sunday, November 15, 2020: Republic of Ireland's goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher during the pre-match warm-up before the UEFA Nations League Group Stage League B Group 4 match between Wales and Republic of Ireland at the Cardiff City Stadium. Wales won 1-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

On the international front, Kelleher is in an equally sticky position.

Ireland boasts one of the finest young goalkeeping unions anywhere in Europe with the Liverpool man, 20-year-old Gavin Bazunu – who has now joined Southampton from Man City – and 23-year-old Mark Travers, who helped Bournemouth to Premier League promotion with an excellent season, topping the Championship clean sheet charts.

Kelleher earned four caps for the Republic in the post-season Nations League games, thanks in part to the absence of injured Bazunu.

That doubled his cap haul, but the main takeaway was that – with a single clean sheet from clashes with Armenia, Ukraine (twice) and Scotland – he hadn’t done enough to usurp Bazunu, who has been generally incredible for Ireland in his young career to date.

The fact that Kelleher beat out Travers to the No. 1 shirt is notable, given the latter had played a full competitive Championship season, and it was evident as to why pretty early on.

Kelleher is incredible and effortless with the ball at his feet, making every pass back look exceptionally easy.

DUBLIN, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND - Sunday, October 11, 2020: Republic of Ireland's goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher during the pre-match warm-up before the UEFA Nations League Group Stage League B Group 4 match between Republic of Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium. The game ended in a 0-0 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It’s a fantastic safety blanket for a team that isn’t necessarily blessed with the best ball-playing centre-halves, so Kelleher does have plenty to offer Ireland.

But with Bazunu’s move to the Premier League, where he will compete for the Saints’ starting position, it’s very likely their roles will reverse in the next international break.

For Kelleher to expand on his eight caps, he’ll need to be playing football on a more regular basis to show that he can match his younger counterpart in more departments, not just his comfort when balls are pinged at him by under-pressure defenders.


Where does that leave Kelleher?

WATFORD, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 16, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) embraces goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher after the FA Premier League match between Watford FC and Liverpool FC at Vicarage Road. Liverpool won 5-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It’s a delicate position Kelleher is in this summer.

He’s not in a bad one, of course – many young goalkeepers would dream of being understudy at Liverpool and a permanent fixture of their national side – but the playing time at this stage of the career has to be a consideration.

He is surely mulling that over after a long season that was elongated further with the national team.

If Liverpool are calling it business done this summer, the decision has possibly been taken out of his hands already. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But the iron is hot to strike a loan deal and get a full season of competitive football under his belt.

His ceiling is infinitely high, but until Kelleher fully pursues that it could be a long wait until we truly find out.

* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield by Kevin Coleman of Back Page Football. Follow Kevin on Twitter, @kvn_clmn.