Tolka Park, where Conor Kearns plays his football

“European Games Are Not Priority Right Now,” Says Shelbourne Goalkeeper Conor Kearns

Damien Duff has transformed Shelbourne into potential title challengers in just over two seasons. The former Chelsea man’s first year in charge was ultimately one to forget as the Northside Reds struggled throughout the season, eventually finishing in a meagre seventh place. Now, they sit at the top of the league.

However, in 2023, Tolka Park was bouncing as the Irishman guided his team back to a European place. They will be competing in a UEFA competition for the first time since 2005, when Steaua București eliminated them from the Champions League qualifiers.

While normally fourth place is not deemed a European position, due to St. Patrick’s Athletic securing the FAI Cup and the Inchicore side already taking up one due to their league position, it resulted in the Conference League qualification being passed on to the team in fourth place.

However, despite the historical return to Europe’s elite, goalkeeper Conor Kearns states the squad “has not thought about it at all.”

Europe Not a Priority

“They’re so far away, so we haven’t thought about them; we haven’t talked about them,” says Kearns. “That’s for another few weeks down the line before that starts creeping into the mindset.”

The words of the Shelbourne keeper speak volumes about the mindset the squad has this season. While competing in Europe is the dream for most footballers, they aren’t letting the occasion, which is still months away, get to them. According to the 25-year-old, he doesn’t even know when they are: “I couldn’t even tell you when the games are, to be honest. June or July?”

With Shelbourne doing so well in the league, picking up 20 points from a possible 24, and being eight points clear at the top, the Conference League is currently “not top priority.”

Top of the League

At the beginning of the season, few wouldn’t of suspected Shels to be at the summit of the Premier Division. St. Pats and Shamrock Rovers were both tipped to challenge for this year’s championship. However, the Dublin-born man says Shels themselves were ambitious and were targeting a start like the one they’ve had. Although they aren’t letting their league position go to their heads.

“I think we were ambitious with our target, that we wanted to win as many games as possible. Obviously the first game against Waterford was a bit of a kick in the teeth with the way that the game went in general but look, you can be as optimistic as you want, 5 wins from 6 games is a good start and is probably one of the best starts the club has had in a while. But that’s all it is, just a start so we are happy with it but there’s plenty more work to be doing.”

– Conor Kearns

When it comes to associating praise for their form and incredible start to the campaign, Kearns was quick to heap it on his manager, coaches, and teammates.

“I think it’s just first and foremost that the gaffer and Joey and the staff in general are unbelievable and they set high standards. I think the key to the start this season has been the buy in from the players as well as that. They set high goals, they set serious targets for us and demand the work ethic but the players have shown proper buy in to that. Once you get both sides of that coin, things are only going to be positive.”

– Conor Kearns

Dublin Domination

“There’s no game like the Dublin Derby,” the former Galway United man told us and he has had to play three already this season. These are some of the biggest fixtures in the calendar, and can often times be intense and difficult to play in.

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Damien Duff’s side have come away with wins in all three, with only one being played at home. However, despite winning them, Kearns believes that will only make the next three in April even tougher: “The thing about winning the three of them is that you’ve now got three teams who are gunning to make things even and not make it feel like we have their number or anything like that.”

He continues to say, “We are expecting three more really, really tense, really tight games. But hopefully we can take lessons from the good things we did and the not-so-good things we did in those games to give ourselves the best chance of winning them because they are never easy.”

And while the Dublin Reds are currently unbeaten in the league, the Shelbourne man is under no illusion that this won’t mean much when they play these three Dublin Derby fixtures later this month.

“Form does go out the window a lot of the time in the derby, so we won’t be taking the fact that we’ve won those 3 as a given that we are going to win the next.”

– Conor Kearns

Matchday Preparation

Many would suspect that the build-up to a big game such as a Dublin Derby would mean preparations would shift. After all, bragging rights are on the line for both the club and it’s supporters.

But in contrast to this thinking, Kearns states that while “it’s not any other game for the supporters,” it is just another day at the office for the squad.

“In terms of your tactical preparation and how you prepare yourself for a game, you should be striving to be operating at as elite as a standard as you can going into those games, no matter who you are playing. There’s obviously a psychological difference to it but for us, you have to prepare for the game in a normal way, and then just control the atmosphere and control your own emotion when that game starts.”

– Conor Kearns

When it comes to his own preparation, the goalkeeper has his own methods to keep him focused in his matches.

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“Pre-game I’m quite relaxed, I’ve said before that I use kind of a trigger, I write this trigger word on my wrist.” The 25-year-old states this trigger word acts as a “little reminder” in case he starts “drifting in a game” or “feels like [he’s] done something [he’s] not happy with.”

While he knows “it doesn’t work 100% of the time,” he’s found it helps him in those big moments. He also goes on to say he sees a psychotherapist every couple of weeks to keep him in a good place before a match.

Duffer At the Wheel

“It’s not just his personality and man management, but the standards he sets upon players,” is the highlight of Kearns praise for his manager. Damien Duff has done an exceptional job at Shelbourne since joining, and it appears all of his players are buying into the project.

“I don’t think you need me to sit here and tell you tactically and technically how good he is as a coach, because that’s evident. The evidence for that is on the pitch and the way players have developed, not just this season but the last couple of seasons.”

And when it comes to the transfer business Duff has done, Kearns couldn’t be any happier, saying, “Every player he has brought in has added to the squad.”

Conor Kearns & Shelbourne’s Goals for the Season

When it came to his goals for the season, the goalkeeper remained tight-lipped but did state they were focusing on the short-term first.

“I think every year in the league people start to get ahead of themselves if the team put a few wins together, we’re fully focused on the goals we set at the start of the season and we’re fully realistic about our own ambitions, and keeping that momentum going and staying focused on the next short term goal is a challenge, but it’s one we’ve been doing well so far.”

– Conor Kearns

When it comes to his personal ambitions, Kearns believes he has been able to create an identity for himself under Damien Duff.

“I feel like especially at Shelbourne I’ve carved out my own identity as a goalkeeper, and I’m speaking more in reference to myself as a younger goalkeeper that I feel very comfortable in my own shoes and my own skin right now and when I play a game, I don’t try to do anything that doesn’t come naturally to me.”

– Conor Kearns

The Irish ‘keeper has been in good form this year, and will hope it continues. Kearns and Shelbourne are averaging less than a goal per game (0.5), but if needed, it seems the No. 1 could also do a job up front, playfully telling us, “When I played u19s, I scored an overhead kick in a match.”

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