Keiren Westwood must get the jokes on a regular basis, not that he ever actually joined the police force but being in the process of filling out the application form when football seemed to have nothing left to offer, is surely tantamount to justification for a lifetime of jibes.
“Officer Westwood”, he has surely heard on more then a few occasions. Now he protects the Irish goal and serves the Irish defence as the last line.
Andy Rhodes was the Carlisle United goalkeeping coach in 2004 and was the man who ultimately resurrected Keiren Westwood’s career. After being released by Manchester City after breaking his hand while on loan at Oldham Athletic there was an air of desperation in his hunt for a club. Bradford City weren’t convinced.
Westwood then played behind Dave Watson and Neville Southall in an All Star team against Accrington Stanley and played the proverbial stormer. With a 46 year old Southall offering protection at centre back he probably had no choice but to.
Westwood was asked back to Stanley for another friendly but when he turned up there were two goal keepers present and no kit for him. This seemed to be the end of the line and another line of the blue persuasion beckoned. But Rhodes and Carlisle got there first.
Initially used as backup, Westwood over time fought his way to become the clubs first choice goalkeeper and helped back to back promotions out of the wilderness of non-league football as play off winners in 2004-5 and straight up the footballing ladder as League Two champions in 2005-06.
Westwood’s gradual and steady progress continued when in his final season with Carlisle in the 2007-08 season he joined the likes of Jermaine Beckford and Jason Scotland in the League One PFA team of the year. He also one all of Carlisle’s player of the year awards that season.
And with the end of the season came a deserved move to Coventry City. And such was his form he made yet another PFA team of the year for 2008-09 in the Championship and also made his Republic of Ireland debut in a friendly against Nigeria at Fulham’s Craven Cottage, alongside 5 other Irish debutants. But it was a bitter sweet time amongst Irish Goalkeepers, Dean Kiely walking out of the Irish camp after learning of Westwood jumping the queue.
In March of last year, three months before joining Sunderland, Westwood made his competitive debut for Ireland replacing the injured Shay Given in the 2-1 victory over Macedonia; a game that a crucial late save by him ensured Ireland joined Russia and Slovakia on level points on the road to qualification for Euro 2012.
Within the two years before he made his competitive Irish debut, Westwood lost his link to his Irish roots. The heritage that ensured the man with the Manchester accent could join the Irish set up were his grandparents; Lawrence and Mary from Wexford.
His competitive debut was an emotional one. “They were just brilliant people,” he said after the Macedonian win. “It has been really tough losing them, one after the other. They were a massive influence on my life when I was growing up and always there for me. I wanted to play for Ireland for them since I was a kid. Before every game, I have a quiet moment under the towel on the penalty spot to think about them. This was for them.’” So his willingness to don green wasn’t a convenient option but one inherent in him.
The move to Sunderland at the beginning of last season in a free transfer started favourably but despite some decent and noted performances he lost hos place to Belgian international Simon Mignolet whos form has seen the 24 year old become Belgium’s number one keeper.
The favored line trotted out on Wednesday night was that Westwood needs regular first team football. He does, but a move is not imminent and it’s likely he will have to endeavour to fight for his place ahead of Mignolet. But with the fight he’s undertaken to date to rebuild his career it’s clear that it’s not beyond him.
Neither is the ability to repalce Given. Despite an early rush of blood, Westwood looked composed in Serbia on Wednesday night. Greater tests lie ahead, but it’s one a collective Irish effort will have to undertake.
Shay left quickly in the end, not much fuss. Westwood sat quietly in the background while everyone gave their farewell speeches. He took over from his mentor with little fanfare. He has competition from Darren Randolph and to a lesser extent David Forde, but relaistically his starting place for Ireland is his to lose. How he grows into the role time will tell. But it’s in his hands.