Stephen Kelly is developing a habit for throwing up statistical quirks. At Birmingham, he played every single minute of their 2007/08 Premier League campaign, the full 3,420 plus injury time, the only outfield player in the league to do so that season. His numbers at Fulham this season may not be as comprehensive but they're just as interesting. As of this week, the full-back has played more games in Europe for his club than he has in the domestic league, making him a unique specimen. Where most Premier League footballers are used to the frantic pace of English football, Kelly is fast becoming a player equally attuned to the continental game.
"I suppose that's just the way things have worked out," laughs the 26-year-old when confronted with the stat. His Europa Cup season started way back on 6 August with a start against Vetra Vilinius at Craven Cottage and he's lined out against Amkar Perm of Russia, CSKA Sofia, Basle, Roma, Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus since. In all, Kelly has started 10 European games as opposed to seven in the Premier League. At this point, you'd figure the full-back could pen an interesting guide to the variances of football on the continent.
"It's been a long season but I've enjoyed every second of it," he says. "It was so frustrating to be injured for the two Wolfsburg games because I think I played in nearly every European game before that. But the experience has been brilliant. There's been some amazing moments, games that will stay with me forever and the Fulham fans as well I'm sure. The Juventus game at Craven Cottage obviously, stood out. There aren't many players who can say they were part of a team to beat Juventus 4-1. That was an amazing night but so were the games against Shakhtar Donesk, both home and away. They were a brilliant team, the holders, and we put in two magnificent performances."
Fulham's long European march continues on Thursday when they travel – volcanoes in Iceland permitting, that is – to Hamburg to take on the locals in the semi-final. From the outside, it's a minor miracle that they've actually got this far. With what looks on paper to be an average group of players, Roy Hodgson has moulded a team in the truest sense of the word. It has been refreshing to watch, if not a little puzzling, but for Kelly there is no great mystery behind what Fulham have achieved this season. "It's down to a few things, really," he explains. "We've worked very hard in training on shape, we've practiced what we've wanted to do and then gone out and done it during matches. We've been very confident in what we're doing on the pitch and that has given us an incredible self-belief."
The signing of Kelly last summer is a good example of how Hodgson goes about his business. The full-back has always been a steady player, one who perhaps struggled a little at Tottenham, the club where he started his career, but who was clearly a step above the general quality of the Championship when at Birmingham. Hodgson tried but failed to sign him in the summer of 2008 but he persisted because he knew that besides having a sound grasp of football's basics, Kelly was a bright individual, a player not only capable of following any instruction delivered his way, but of interpreting it in an intelligent manner. The current Fulham squad is full of solid footballers equipped with sharp minds and that is how, without a lot of investment, the club have prospered this season.
As has Kelly. In the March friendly against Brazil in London, he was arguably the best Irish player on the night: calm, composed and confident on the ball. Giovanni Trapattoni certainly seemed to be impressed and you can't help but get the sense that Kelly's experience of European football is not only going to be of benefit to him in the development of his overall game, but also in the way his international manager views him. "I certainly hope this Europa Cup run will have caught his [Trapattoni's] eye," says Kelly. "I don't think it will do me any harm, anyway. When you think about it, it's another string to my bow. If you're playing regularly in the Premier League as opposed to the Championship that's one thing, but to have played regularly in European competition has to be a help when trying to impress an international manager. After my experiences this season I suppose I can make him think, 'He's been there, done that, he's performed on the European stage'."
With his consistent form of recent months, Kelly clearly has his sights on becoming Ireland's first-choice right-back for the 2012 European qualifying campaign. "There's competition for the right-back slot, there's no doubt about that and I suppose in some ways it depends where the manager wants to play John [O'Shea]. But I'm a natural right-back. I've played there my entire career and I think I did well there against Brazil, I was happy with my performance. I do believe there's a chance for me to go out and make the spot my own."
Kelly sees similarities between his club and international managers, a pair who are believed to be in regular contact. "They have quite a lot in common when you think about it. I suppose they're both quite regimented in how they want their teams to go about their business. They make sure that everybody in the team knows exactly what their job is on the pitch. They do the same kind of drills in training. There are a lot of similarities."
Certainly, there is a parallel to be drawn between the way, given their far from bountiful resources, Trapattoni brought Ireland to the cusp of the World Cup and Hodgson has led Fulham to the Europa League semi-finals. Kelly, however, is hoping that over the course of the next two Thursdays against Hamburg, the campaign not yet finished will have a happier ending then the other one he was involved in. "It sounds like such a cliché but you can never underestimate the Germans," he says. "Technically, they're going to be very good, I'd imagine they'll be similar in some ways to Wolfsburg. It's going to be a difficult match but we have a great belief in ourselves at the moment."
As for the strange and interesting statistics, Kelly could play his part in another interesting one in the coming weeks. The last two Irish footballers to win a Uefa Cup medal were a full-back and winger playing for a London club who wore white. All going well in the next few weeks, Kelly and Damien Duff could be the new Chris Hughton and Tony Galvin, 26 years on.