Belfast Telegraph

Liam Kelly's Republic of Ireland snub comes as shock to boss O'Neill


Waiting game: Liam Kelly is holding out for an England call
Waiting game: Liam Kelly is holding out for an England call
Martin O'Neill

By Daniel McDonnell

The tone was bemusement rather than anger.

It was Martin O'Neill who broke the news that Reading's Liam Kelly had refused a call-up for this week's trip to Turkey via a text message.

The 22-year-old evidently still believes that he has a chance of capturing England's attention at some stage in the future, a reflection of how Gareth Southgate's dwindling top-flight playing pool is encouraging others to dream.

Kelly is talented, a technically comfortable performer that his manager Jaap Stam has compared favourably to Andres Iniesta, but he does play for a team 20th in the Championship.

If he believes that making it with England is possible, then it illustrates how the laws of international engagement are changing for the Republic of Ireland. Flexible eligibility rules facilitate these about turns.

You win some, you lose some.

Michael O'Neill and the IFA will have little sympathy for the FAI if they lose a player that was part of their under-age system, although he has only featured sporadically.

In truth, large swathes of the Irish public know little of Kelly - who only really broke through at Championship level last term - so they are more likely to greet this news with a shrug of the shoulders. This is Jack Grealish without the hype.

The Republic manager seems content to move on anyway. He stressed that it's the player's choice if he wants to represent the country he was born in.

He admitted to surprise, however, seeing as the player's agent had given him positive messages in the past in line with public comments that welcomed Irish recognition.

Clearly, the head was turned at some juncture. And O'Neill's decision to let it be known that Kelly has refused a call has opened the player up to disdain from supporters who will find that hard to forgive if the playmaker has a rethink.

Grealish was raised in the context of the Kelly situation, and the former Northern Ireland captain also added a notable caveat.

"Jack Grealish is now hopefully, hopefully going to come through as a really decent player. At the time he had that decision to make and it was entirely up to him and we did all we could at the time but that decision was his," he said.

"This is the same. And, by the way, some players committing themselves forward and actually being good enough to play in our team, (that is) two different issues as well."

That addendum sounded like a polite way of saying that it would be rash to assume these players were firmly part of O'Neill's plans.

That was a suspicion that lingered with Grealish - although he is a much more resolute performer these days - and Kelly had the potential to become a divisive talking point.

He shares some attributes with Wes Hoolahan, while tending to operate from a deeper starting point, and he might have been faced with a stiff task to really break into the manager's plans.

That's an obsolete debate now, and it's difficult to see O'Neill opening the door again during his tenure.

His willingness to volunteer that Kelly had refused calls and communicated his position by text message perhaps hinted at a withering view of this episode, although the Irish boss smiled when it was put to him that it would have been proper courtesy for the player to speak to him.

"It's the name of the game," he said, smiling.

One imagines that a bit more discretion would have been applied if Declan Rice was prevaricating. He has always rated the West Ham talent and, happily, he is present and correct in Turkey.

Rice has said that his future lies with the Republic, although O'Neill is reluctant to speak as though it is a done deal.

"I've spoken to him yesterday and said I don't want to be pressurising," he said. "Be careful on these things. But I think he feels he's come up through the ranks and he's pretty strong and hopefully that will work out.

"But, regardless, it's a friendly game here so total commitment hasn't been made. Like everything else, I'll wait and see. Some things can change."

Rice will be made to feel at home with involvement in Antalya on Friday, though, and it appears that a debut in a defensive midfield role is on the cards.

O'Neill invited press in to watch the lion's share of training at the Regnum Sports Centre and, with Ciaran Clark sitting it out and Bradford's Colin Doyle only due in last night, the remaining 23 players split into a 12 v 11 game on a full-sized pitch.

Rice was positioned in a midfield role in his side while, interestingly enough, Cyrus Christie operated on the left wing for his team with the more established members of the group spread across the teams. Shane Long (31) was the oldest player involved.

A switch to the left side of the pitch might be necessary for Christie with Seamus Coleman back in the fold.

Versatility helps and Rice possesses that gift, with West Ham primarily deploying him in defence. Under-21 boss Noel King uses him in a shielding role, and O'Neill gave that option the strongest mention, yet he also warned against expecting too much from any new face.

"He might have preference for a position at the moment but in 18 months' time he might change his mind completely," he said. "At club level, he will have to find that.

"If, for instance, he steps in here in a defensive midfield role and does well in the game then of course it's something we would consider."

Rice held his own in the match, and it is only the manager that seems to be playing it safe when discussing his longer-term intentions.

"He has been pretty comfortable here," he said. "While he has still got that nice shyness about him, he can speak up for himself, so he is fine."

In other words, he won't be expecting a text message from him anytime soon.

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