Goalkeeping coach Kelly confident Ireland in safe hands with Westwood

 

SOCCER: MARY HANNIGANon the Coventry City netminder who has had to bide his time before finally making his competitive debut for the Republic of Ireland against Macedonia

WHEN HE was first called up to the Republic of Ireland squad in the summer of 2008 Keiren Westwood was under no illusions about how limited his opportunities might be.

“He’s seen off a few challenges over the years,” he laughs when asked about life as understudy to Shay Given. Tonight, though, with Given’s shoulder injury ruling him out, the Coventry City goalkeeper will finally make his competitive international debut.

“It’s massive for me,” he says.

“I think the goalkeeping position is in safe hands,” said the Donegal man of his replacement earlier this week, an opinion echoed, naturally enough, by the Republic’s goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly.

“They both tend to get in the way of the ball, which is a good habit to get into,” he smiled, when asked to compare the two. “Every ’keeper is different, every player is different in terms of what they bring to the table. Keiren has got a hell of a kick on him. If any of you have seen any of the games he has played, it’s a great weapon to have.

“I just look back to the games against Algeria and Paraguay last year and he acquitted himself very, very well. He came for some great crosses and contributed to two fine victories, so that says it all, really. People are saying ‘well, what about it being competitive, there’s points riding on it’?

“Well, in the five caps he’s had, he’s stepped up to the mark. Training has been fantastic. He has looked as sharp as I’ve seen him. I have to say, I have absolutely no concerns.”

The 26-year-old is not short of confidence either, despite the club season turning into a struggle for Coventry, now fifth from bottom in The Championship. His own form, though, has seen him linked with moves to the Premier League and Scotland, where Celtic are long-time admirers.

With his contract up at the end of the season Coventry were prepared to sell him in the January transfer window, but with the player available for free in the summer he wasn’t surprised nothing came of it.

“Yeah, the chairman was in the paper saying if we get an offer we’re going to sell him. I hadn’t spoken to anyone at the club about it, so picking up the paper and reading that wasn’t ideal. But what can you do? I just have to wait to see what happens in the summer.”

Celtic?

“A massive club,” he smiles, but he’s leaving it at that, still laughing at the response of his previous manager at Coventry, Aidy Boothroyd, to Celtic’s bid for the player last summer. “It’s £3.50 and a bag of haggis, which is nowhere near enough for a player of that quality,” he said, “the offer is not really worth talking about – it’s derisory and derogatory.”

If he can make a positive impression during Given’s absence Westwood should attract more suitors in the summer, but for now he’s just looking forward to his competitive debut.

“I spoke to Shay when he had the injury. I feel for him, he’s had some rotten luck these past 12 months, I just wish him the best. But, of course, this is a great chance for me.”

“I’ve always been happy to be in the squad, even when I knew it was unlikely I’d play, it’s always been a great honour. And it’s been a great experience for me working with Shay and Kels (Alan Kelly), it’s helped me improve as a goalkeeper because I don’t get the chance to train with Premier League players at club level. I’ve just kept my head down and worked hard, that’s all you can do.”

And now’s his chance.

Other Games in Group B (Kick-offs Irish-time)

Armenia v Russia

(Yerevan, today, 3pm Irish-time)

Andorra v Slovakia

(Andorra la Vella, today, 7pm Irish-time)

After two recent friendly defeats, to Iran last month (1-0) and Belgium in November (2-0), Russia coach Dick Advocaat has been asking his players for a touch more effort in tonight’s Euro 2012 qualifier away to Armenia.

“If you do not bring the performance and commitment . . . you are going to lose. And if we do not have commitment on Saturday, we have no chance there,” he said.

Russia do, though, bring the only unbeaten record in to the group to Yerevan, and, according to their own press, the squad has the added incentive of a €40,000 bonus per man if they beat Armenia.

Chelsea’s Yuri Zhirkov returns to the squad after injury, with two players, Aleksei Ionov (Zenit St Petersburg) and Aiden McGeady;s Spartak Moscow team-mate Yevgeni Makeev, called up for the first time.

After losing their opening group game to the Republic of Ireland, Armenia have picked up a draw away to Macedonia followed by home wins over Slovakia and Andorra, enough to put them level on points with the Republic and Slovakia.

Slovakia, meanwhile, will trust that Andorra’s winless streak in competitive games - 35 over six years – won’t come to an end at the Estadi Comunal tonight.

They welcome back Robert Vittek, scorer of four goals in the World Cup last summer, after a knee injury.