THE question takes Stephen Kelly by surprise but the answer is delivered honestly.
So Stephen, how would you assess your Ireland career so far?
“Assess it?” the Fulham defender replies, before pausing for thought. “A little bit sporadic. I’ve been consistently in the squad since I was 19. I’ve been in the squad a long time now but I don’t think I’ve played as many games as I would have liked or probably should have. Hopefully now I’ll be given a chance to play more.”
Since making his debut in a friendly against Chile in 2006, Kelly has won 18 caps during a spell in which Ireland have played 41 times. His best run came under Steve Staunton when he played qualifiers against Czech Republic (twice), Germany and Slovakia.
Under Giovanni Trapattoni, involvement in the games that count has been less frequent. His one start in the last World Cup campaign came at home against Georgia. Aside from that, he was limited to nine minutes in Sofia.
“I would have liked to played more games. The opportunities were there. I didn’t get them and that’s disappointing but when you’re representing your country you take it on the chin a little bit better than when it happens at your club.”
He hasn’t always grasped the chances that have come his way to best effect, but his desire is not up for debate. Kelly played through a hamstring tear that day against Georgia and returned to his club having aggravated the problem.
“Playing for Ireland, it’s indescribable really. I don’t think it compares to anything else football-wise. Playing for your club is fantastic but playing for Ireland is something special, putting on that green jersey. I know people say it all the time, it’s a cliché, but there is something special about that.”
The bottom line is that he is 26 and feels he has been knocking around the fringes of the squad long enough. His ability to play in either full-back role is a bonus but he may have to bide his time a little longer.
Sean St Ledger’s emergence during the last campaign allowed Trapattoni to switch John O’Shea to right-back and Kevin Kilbane is doing a respectable Dorian Gray impression on the far side.
“All you can do is play well at your club and, when you come in, play well in training and, if given the opportunity, play as well as you can in whatever position you are picked in.
“You’re only as good as your last game and the last few games I played were Brazil, Algeria and Paraguay. I thought I acquitted myself very well. People were very appreciative of me in those games, the manager as well.”
His club situation should help. Last term, Kelly played as often in the Europa League as he did in the Premier League but he has started two of Fulham’s three league games so far, earning encouraging words from new boss Mark Hughes.
The departure to Liverpool this week of Paul Konchesky will not harm his cause either and three gutsy draws, at home to Manchester United and at Bolton and Blackpool have widened his smile.
“There has been change for the positive. Everything that happened under Roy (Hodgson) was fantastic. It is already legendary and will be remembered for the rest of the club’s history – how well we did last year.
“Everybody has really embraced the new manager being in, embraced his style, the way we train, just really jumped at it and really enjoyed it for the last couple of weeks. We’ve really enjoyed the training and the way we play.”
That last draw at Bloomfield Road came at a cost for Ireland with Fulham team-mate Damien Duff hobbling off with a calf injury that rules him out against Armenia tomorrow.
“He’ll be a big loss, he always is when he’s not playing. For him, it is disappointing, like all of us. He doesn’t take it well when he’s not playing for his country. I’m sure he won’t be happy about that.”
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