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FOOTBALL: Alonso learned a few tricks in Kells, Co Meath.

Byline: By MICHAEL SCULLY

XABI Alonso has claimed that a summer spent in Ireland prepared him for the rigours of the Premiership.

The stylish Liverpool playmaker, who is currently in his second season at Anfield, has already captured the Champions League with the club he joined from local club Real Sociedad.

And it would have been more of a major culture shock for Alonso, 24, had he not spent a month in Kells in County Meath.

"When I was 16 I went to Ireland for a month to learn to speak English," he told Mirrorsport. "I didn't know back then that it would turn out to be so useful! But I had a nice summer.

"At the beginning it was hard because my level of English was not very good. I tried to improve that and I made some good friends there in Kells.

"I stayed with the O'Brien family and I remember there were the parents, and two boys and two girls."

Alonso admitted that he got very busy after that summer - as his fledgling professional career got underway and he lost touch with the family that took him in.

"After that I went back and didn't think about returning again because I joined Sociedad and had busy summers," he laughed.

"It was very different to go to Ireland from the north of Spain, the Basque country - because of the weather, for instance. The culture is totally different but it was nice to spend a month there.

"I watched the Gaelic football but it was too quick. At that moment I wasn't ready to play."

However he did involve himself in soccer matches in the town - and those games opened his eyes to a different way of playing than what he was used to in San Sebastian.

He admitted: "It was the first contact I had with the UK and Ireland, and I realised that they liked to tackle and the physical contact. But I really enjoyed it.

"At that moment I did not know I would end up in the Premiership, but it was helpful."

Now a key member of the Liverpool starting line-up, Alonso believes that he has settled into Premiership mode at this stage.

"I feel that I am getting closer," he said. "This year has been different, but this second season at Anfield we are trying to do better in the domestic league than last year.

"Of course it is going to be difficult to repeat the win of the Champions League. You see the teams out there in Europe and it is very difficult.

"But you have to take it step by step and it is very possible now that we can get to the next round. Once we get down to the last 16 teams, it will be easier.

"We're getting better in the last few games - we scored seven goals and we haven't conceded. That's important, but we want to carry on and try to improve. We want to get close to the top of the League."

Alonso is generous in his praise of Ireland international Steve Finnan, who he plays alongside at Anfield.

"He's doing a great job. He is a very good player, he's a good defender and is very good with the ball," he remarked.

"Last season he was in the side very regularly and this season, when he's not in Europe he's not doing very well. He's a key player for us."

However for now all Alonso is focusing on is Spain's away trip to Slovakia today - the first leg of a crucial World Cup qualifying play-off.

"We have to focus on how important that game is because we want to win the World Cup," he concluded.

CAPTION(S):

SO HAPPY: Xabi Alonso celebrates in the Champions League final with Milan Baros
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 12, 2005
Words:634
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