It's full charge ahead for Kelly
STEPHEN KELLY says he's eager to build on his superb form with Fulham last season and finally nail down a slot in the starting XI with Ireland.
Kelly reported for duty with Ireland on Sunday, after being excused from last week's training camp due to the fact that he'd had a long, draining season with his club. And the 26-year-old will pick up his 17th cap in tonight's friendly against Paraguay at the RDS.
Other players such as Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Aiden McGeady, James McCarthy and Kevin Kilbane are not involved with the Irish squad this week due to injury or fatigue. Having played 25 games in five competitions for club and country, and also battled with injury for the past two months of the season, Kelly would have been forgiven for ducking out of Ireland duties.
But with full-back positions possibly up for grabs for the start of the European Championship campaign in September, Kelly was very eager to come to his native city for training and the two friendly games -- especially as it's a chance to get Fulham's Europa League final defeat to Atletico Madrid out of his system.
"I need to nail down a slot in the team now. I have played a part as a squad member in the past two campaigns, starting with Steve Staunton four years ago. This will be my third qualifying campaign," says Kelly.
"I have played in big matches for Ireland but I need to make it happen on a more regular basis, and hopefully I can use these two games in the RDS to catch the manager's eye.
"It's a matter of me performing well in the two games and proving to the manager that I should be in the team, but I need to make that full-back slot my own.
OFF ON A BEACH
"That's why I am here in Dublin and not off on a beach somewhere. It was important for me to come here to train and play, and I feel confident after doing so well in Europe with the club last season," he adds.
"Europe was a great experience for us. People are always asking me about the Juventus and Shakhtar games. Wolfsburg and Hamburg were big games for us, but the ones that stand out for people were Juve and Shakhtar, and I was lucky enough to be involved.
"It would have been a huge thing for me to get a winner's medal. Only a handful of Irish players have a European medal, but it wasn't to be, and if I can get a cap in the next two games with Ireland it would make up in a small way for missing out.
"It was heart-breaking to see the team go so close to winning it, especially as Atletico's two goals were soft. We were very unlucky and the European run was something to be proud of.
"Getting to the final was some achievement given the teams we played. It's hard to think that we beat top-class sides like Juventus, Shakhtar and Hamburg and still didn't win the trophy. We deserved better, but we have to take it and move on now," adds Kelly, who says he's over the injury worries which held him back at the end of the club season.
"Hopefully, I can get away for a week after these Ireland games and then I'll be back home in Dublin for a while over the summer to see my family and friends. It will be nice to spend some time with my wife. We had such a busy schedule with Fulham that I was away from home an awful lot -- I hardly saw her over the last season.
"It's been a long season. We started in the first week of August, we beat Vetra in the Europa League, and here we are at the end of May. I think it's 43 weeks on, and I am still involved with the Ireland games.
"It was the longest season I've had in my career. It was played over 10 months and we had so much travelling with Fulham for the European run. Someone at the club told the players the other week that, in terms of air miles, we had flown halfway around the world.
"We'd been to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Lithuania, Italy, all over the place, but it was a great season and I don't regret it," says Kelly, who played in 10 of Fulham's 19 games in Europe, though sadly the Dubliner wasn't involved for the semi-final win over Hamburg or the final defeat to Atletico Madrid.
"I picked up a knock in my calf against Tottenham in March and it was hard to shift after that. Then I picked up an ankle injury before the semi-final of the Europa League.
"But I am fit now, so hopefully I'll get a chance to play and get things back on track," he says.
"It was disappointing to miss out on the Europa League final. I wasn't fully fit but I wasn't selected either, I was carrying an injury. I had come on for half an hour against Arsenal in the last league game of the season and that was my first taste of action in two months and the team had done well in the two months without me.
"If I had been fit, I think I'd have made the team for the final as I had played in all the rounds along the way. I think I had 10 appearances in Europe, which is great, and the manager was happy with the way I'd played at right back in the tournament.
"I just picked up those injuries at the wrong time. I was pushing hard to get a place in the team or on the bench at least, but it was too much of a rush to get fit in time and I missed out.
"Now I am back fit and I am really looking forward to the two games. They will be two good games for us. Paraguay and Algeria are preparing for the World Cup so their players are eager to impress the manager.
"I think it's a good sign that these teams wanted to play us. Other countries know how well we did in the World Cup campaign and they know we'll give them a hard game. It's a test for them and a test for us," adds Kelly, who says he's eager to put pressure on Kevin Kilbane for the left back role with Ireland.
"I'm not a naturally left-footed player but I am comfortable playing there, and I think most of my games for Ireland have been at left back.
"I'd be happy to play in either full-back position. For me, it's a case of doing my best in training and in the friendly games, and nailing down a slot in the team," he says.
"I'm not the only one looking to play. Greg Cunningham has come into the squad and done well, Stephen Ward had a great season with Wolves and Kevin Kilbane is still around.
"With Ireland there is never really just one person competing for the slot, there is good competition. I know I am only one of a few players looking to play there, but hopefully with what I have done for Ireland in the last two campaigns, and with my form at Fulham, it will see me through and I can get into the side."