Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The rise and rise of Martin Kelly

Or: “He that courts injury will obtain it” – Danish Proverb

It was an obscure October night, with nothing particular of note about it. Wet, with classic northern rain, and cold, bitterly cold. European Cup ties were taking place all over the continent, and a team from the centre of France was fulfilling the requirements of its fixture list, at Anfield. The Lyon side contained on the bench an injury-prone youngster called Maxime Gonalons, who would come on to score, and effectively put an early end to Liverpool’s European dreams, which were swiftly morphing into a nightmare. A bright spot emerged that night, an injury-prone youngster, but playing in red, not the white of Lyon. Martin Kelly, a surprise name on the teamsheet to some, who were worried about Govou’s hellish pace. In keeping with the pathetic fallacy and his own past, he was taken off injured in the second half, the skies bearing portents of hurt for the club and the player. Despite all the negative signs and signals from nature though, he was awarded man of the match, and received a standing ovation upon leaving the field.

Despite the array of contemporary criticisms of Rafa’s youth policy, and his preference for expensive foreign imports over the historically vaunted Liverpool academy, his stubbornness and lack of opportunity had a flipside, if a young player was given a chance, you knew he was good enough. This point was added to when a debut was given in Benitez’ favourite (some might say pet) competition, the European Cup. Furthermore, when his first competitive start comes directly against a full French international, with pace to burn and proven goalscoring ability, one had to question, but, as ever blindly trust Benitez’ seemingly-foolish judgement.

Let this not be a tale of woe though, as having seen this genuinely superb first competitive start, I have always felt some affinity with Martin Kelly, as we all do when we chance upon seeing the development of something special.

I had and have heard that there is serious talent developing in Liverpool’s academy, could recite the names of these anointed ones and club saviours, and whilst I endeavour to watch the bigger games, the lack of genuine, first-hand knowledge is why, for me, the arrival of such a player is always both a surprise and a pleasure. The dearth of homegrown talent since Steven Gerrard’s burst onto the scene last century leaves a desire to rave about every single sub-21 year old with a bit of talent. Unfortunately, the nature of modern football makes it clear that very few of these players will ‘make it’, as history has so often taught us. Therefore when one does, or threatens to, it is a joyous occasion that the whole club participates in. Kelly was, and is, one such occasion, one such breakthrough.

It is easy to forget that it was Kelly who was given his chance this season by Roy Hodgson, a regular in the Europa League and a starter in the league against Wigan, after coming on against Chelsea the previous week. However, the previous assertion perhaps disregards Dalglish and Clarke’s role in Kelly’s rise to potential England full-back this calendar year. The confidence Kelly was given in displacing England’s number one right-back Glen Johnson has been on show in his rampaging runs forward, providing two assists thusfar. Shunting Johnson to the left-hand side has also benefited the team as a whole, where he looks much more alert defensively, as well as providing an option who cuts inside whilst going forward. Moreover, the 3-5-2 system that Liverpool employed in February suited Kelly and Johnson’s attacking instincts and gave Liverpool genuine width, something which had been lacking.

Kelly, as a natural centre-back seems to be following in the footsteps of the illustrious Jamie Carragher, starting as a full-back before eventually making his way to the heart of the defence. His defensive abilities have also aided the team, with Liverpool having kept eight clean sheets in the League since Dalglish’s takeover and Kelly’s installation as regular right-back. Kelly’s understanding of the game, for someone so young, is excellent, having made nine interceptions up until his injury.

Alas though, Kelly’s rise has always been a tale blighted by injuries. Although promoted to first-team training at Melwood whilst only 17 years old, Kelly had already lost two years of development to a repetitive back injury. Indeed, his injury-prone nature was highlighted by the game against Lyon, in which he was excellent, but left the field with a groin injury, which prevented further appearances until February. Injured against West Ham this season, and subsequent dropout from the England U-21 squad, followed by an aggravation to the original injury completed Kelly’s third major injury in five seasons, and conclusively ended his 2010-11 campaign. Kelly’s style of play seems to contribute somewhat to his injury record, as someone who flew into 38 tackles in 11 games, with a 76% win record, the highest for any club defender. His buccaneering, rampaging full-back play which takes no prisoners, either offensively or defensively, leaves Kelly prone to more injuries than others. Alternatively, as seen with numerous players down the years, Kelly may be one of those talents who is inexplicably prone to injuries, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Redknapp, Michael Owen, Daniel Agger are all brought to mind. These injuries have another side-effect, which is the constant need to prove oneself. After every injury, it is necessary to remind everyone that you are the same player, possess the same skills, and that the injury hasn’t had any knock-on effects. However, a ramification of this desire to demonstrate fitness and retention of ability can sometimes manifest itself in overdoing it too early, and for a wholehearted performer such as Kelly, taking it easy is not natural.

Kelly shows signs of being the brightest English full-back in years, possessing the attributes to make a success of the role, pace, stamina, strength, tackling and passing ability, as well as sound defensive understanding. The question surrounding the young buck is whether his injury-prone nature will decrease or increase with time, if the former is the case, I fear his career will become as disrupted as Fabio Aurelio or Daniel Agger, if the latter, then Liverpool fans can look forward to a long period of defensive stability, and Kenny will be posed some serious selection headaches. I’m sure though, as the immortal cliché goes, it’s a problem he’d like to have.

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