On a handful of occasions this season, Martin Kelly has spoken of his desire to get back into the action for Liverpool after more than a year spent on the sidelines after he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. Inevitably, his hopeful statements have been followed by a rare appearance on the bench—at best—before he disappears back to the reserve level again. Or worse, before he picks up another minor knock in training that sees him gone completely for a few more weeks.
Once considered the club's brightest defensive prospect, Kelly has now missed nearly a year and a half at a time when he should have been transitioning from next big thing to established in the first eleven. He may yet be able to make up for the time he's lost and put his struggles with fitness behind him, but where as once his bright future at the club seemed a certainty, now it seems anything but. His first full match since the injury against Oldham, though, has given Kelly hope.
"It was brilliant," he said when asked about his return to the starting lineup. "I was probably more nervous for this match than any I've ever played for Liverpool, because after 15 months that was my first start. It’s great to get that behind me. I got cramp in my calf around the 65-minute mark but it was great to get the full 90 minutes, to get up and down that line. A good Cup run is vital for me in terms of getting games. With no Europa League, we have to keep going in the Cup games."
It probably is vital for Kelly's return that Liverpool make a decent run in the FA Cup, and despite standing in first in the league over Christmas, it's probably the best chance this Liverpool side has to win a trophy—even with four more rounds to go before the final at Wembley on May the 17th. Though the fans may be focused on making it back into the Champions League for the first time in five seasons, now that the worst of the winter fixture congestion is past that chance for silverware will begin to take on more meaning.
"We did what was needed, we got through to the next round," he added. "It was a good, strong performance overall. Whether we play Bournemouth or Burton next, we know it’s going to be difficult. We'll try our best and go out and give respect to the team we play. It's away so they'll have their fans behind them, but we'll have our travelling fans. As a Liverpool player you want to win every competition—that’s the mentality we have under Brendan."
Despite Glen Johnson's struggles for form over the past month, if the England right back is ready to go it will mean a return to the bench for Kelly on Sunday against Stoke—at least assuming he's fit enough to make the bench when the match rolls around. However, a strong performance in just two weeks in the fourth round of the FA Cup and continued struggles from Johnson would make it hard not to wonder about Kelly's chances of unseating the regular starter.
As has so often been the case when it comes to Kelly's senior career, though, the real question may not be whether he's talented enough to become a regular contributor for a side challenging for the top four in the Premier League. The question, as always, is likely to be his fitness and whether this time—finally—he's able put his injuries behind him or if he remains a player who, even if one is being optimistic, cannot be counted on to remain fit for more than a few matches at a time.