Given faces a Euro Fight
Former keeper coach Kelly says big names will miss cut for Euros
A glove affair will be uppermost in the mind of Martin O'Neill in the coming months as, for the first time in Ireland's history as a nation at a major tournament, the goalkeeping position is up for grabs.
Alan Kelly enjoys the status of being the only man to have travelled in an official capacity to the last three major tournaments with Ireland, as a player (1994 and 2002) and also a member of the coaching staff (2012).
No longer part of the backroom staff with Ireland since he was replaced by Seamus McDonagh once Martin O'Neill took over in 2013, Kelly is now enjoying his day-to-day role as goalkeeper coach at Preston.
He misses the involvement with Ireland and will be watching Euro 2016 from home as a regular fan, "just like I did in 1990", he jokes.
But in a way he's also relieved that he won't have to be involved in the harsh calls that are on the way, when it comes to naming the 23-man squad for Euro 2016.
Because a couple of goalkeepers will be very, very disappointed when O'Neill has to make that call in May and it's a very live possibility that, for all their years of service, two players from the three-strong cohort of Shay Given, David Forde and Keiren Westwood will spend next June on holiday with their families and not in France with their international team-mates.
And Kelly believes that the door is open for a player with little or no competitive international experience, like the in-form Newcastle United keeper Rob Elliot, to use the March friendly games and make themselves Ireland's No. 1 by the time we kick off our Euro 2016 campaign against Sweden in Paris.
"Someone has to miss out and it will be harsh," Kelly told The Herald.
"You have five keepers fighting for three spots and it's an extremely difficult position, for them and for the manager. I think Martin will have a large training squad going into all the friendlies so everyone can prove themselves but it will go down to the wire.
"All five have experience, whether that's 133 caps like Shay or Premier League experience like Rob Elliot.
"They all have something to offer so the manager knows that whoever he picks, he will be well served. Any one of the five can do the job for Ireland and I'd be happy to see any of them playing for Ireland in France, but it will hurt badly for the ones who don't make it into the squad," added Kelly, aware of Elliot's form.
"What Rob is doing now is putting himself in the window, week in week out in the Premier League. He is proving himself on a weekly basis so he can come in and make his case for the Euros.
"Ok, he lacks international experience but he's getting the man of the match award every second week, playing against some of the best players in the world every week, if he can do it at that level, he's entitled to ask if he can also do it at international level," Kelly explains.
The Irish goalkeeping position is more open than ever: just two keepers have played in goal in a major tournament for the Republic, Packie Bonner and Shay Given. The Donegal-born pair travelled to those tournaments knowing they would start, but with months to go before Martin O'Neill decides, even making the squad, let alone the starting XI, is a battle.
O'Neill had six keepers involved during qualification: Given played five times, Forde and Darren Randolph claimed four appearances each, while Keiren Westwood, Rob Elliot and Stephen Henderson were non-playing subs.
On the back of his recent Ireland form, West Ham's No. 2 Randolph is certain to make the squad while the omission of Elliot, now established as first-choice with Newcastle, would be a major shock. That would leave Given, Forde and Westwood fighting for the last remaining spot, all three currently out of their club's first team due to injury (Given, Westwood) and loss of form (Forde).
So the March friendly games could be key, though Kelly knows that pre-tournament omens don't always bear fruit. "In 1994, I made my full debut in the second-last game before the finals, when we beat Germany away, I felt I played well and I thought I'd laid down a marker, but I didn't get to play in the finals," he recalls.
"The good thing, to me, is that all the keepers feel they have a chance of playing, they have all played for Ireland in the last while. So they all have recent experience of being Ireland's No. 1, they all know there are only three spots and each one of those five keepers wants to be one of the three.
"Martin will look very closely at the games in March and then in May, I think he will leave it as late as that to make a call. As a goalkeeping coach, you offer your opinion, you provide the evidence why you would pick someone, but the manager might just have a hunch and make the call."