Shropshire Star

Former Wolves forward David Kelly’s eye still on the game

It’s a Friday afternoon, the sun is shining, and David Kelly is walking his dogs in Sutton Park.

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Which all sounds pretty idyllic, and the former Republic of Ireland international striker enjoys the relaxation.

But rest assured. He would swap it for the muck and nettles and exhausting pressures of a football dressing room the day before a game without a moment’s hesitation.

After 20 years as a player, and another 20 as a coach, football is in the blood. And even though Kelly would feel extremely happy with the four decades he has enjoyed thus far should he never land another opportunity, the fire still burns strongly. He still talks to a lot of players, he still goes to a lot of games. He still has a lot more to offer.

“I am really enjoying going to games, keeping my hand in, and with living in Sutton Coldfield so many grounds are within an easy travelling distance,” says Kelly, affectionately known throughout football as ‘Ned’.

“But if you are asking me if I would like to get back in at some stage, then yes, I would.

“I miss the dressing room, that’s what I miss the most, but if I don’t ever get back in, I feel very lucky to have enjoyed the opportunities that I have, both as a player and coach.

“I’ve had huge experiences working with absolutely brilliant people whether that be managers, members of staff, fitness coaches, physios, really interesting people.

“Being involved in football is always a real privilege.”

David Kelly in his Walsall days. Picture by Dave Bagnall

Wolves prepare to return to action after the international break at West Ham on Saturday, two of the illustrious clubs on Kelly’s CV where he enjoyed very contrasting fortunes.

But it was a career which began and flourished with Walsall. Kelly, who was on crutches until the age of ten due to suffering with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease which led to his left leg being four inches shorter than his right, was spotted by Saddlers scout Steve Josebury.

Then playing for Alvechurch having previously been on the books at his boyhood favourites West Bromwich Albion, Kelly played in several trial games for the Walsall youth team before notching a brace in an FA Youth Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.

On the team coach on the way home, he was offered a permanent deal by first team boss Alan Buckley.

Walsall, the launchpad of Kelly’s career, would become the club at which he spent the most time, made the most appearances, and scored the most goals. A total of 190 games, featuring 82 goals, including a memorable hat trick in the play-off final replay against Bristol City in 1988, his Saddlers swansong, after which it was Hammer Time as West Ham came calling and snapped him up for a then club record £600,000.

Albeit he had also gone off and impressed on trial with German giants Bayern Munich, eventually opting against a move as they already had their quota of two foreign players and wanted Kelly to move on loan somewhere else until a space emerged.

“Walsall was so brilliant for me, I absolutely love the place and still do, it’s a fantastic club,” says Kelly.

“I scored quite a few goals but I always had great backing from the fans at Walsall, it was a really special time.”

Less special were the 18 months spent at Upton Park.

With his successes at Walsall, and an ever-growing profile including being named in Ireland’s squad for the 1988 European Championships, the time was probably right for the ambitious 22-year-old to make the higher move to a team then in the top division.

But, as happens in football sometimes, it just didn’t work out.

“It was a move which could have gone a whole lot better from a footballing point of view,” Kelly recalls.

“I struggled to find my form, we were relegated in the first season and a couple of managers moved on very quickly.

“I am not one for looking back and regretting decisions in football because hindsight is a wonderful thing and, at the time you make decisions there is no hindsight.

“West Ham is a fantastic football club but I didn’t enjoy it there, I take full responsibility for that but it didn’t work for me and it didn’t work for the club either.

“I found it difficult in the dressing room, there were a lot of players coming to the end of their careers and a lot of others just starting out, but I still took it all as a really important learning experience.

“I picked up an awful lot about the dressing room, living away from home, and it was a deep, learning experience which probably helped me in the rest of my career.”

A coach at Walsall with Dean Smith

Kelly moved on to Leicester, a happy 18 months in which he rediscovered his form and goalscoring touch in a ‘brilliant dressing room’, latterly under manager Brian Little, with whom he played alongside at a recent charity golf day and was reminiscing about the move which properly put the striker on the map.

Because it was at Newcastle, initially in helping the club avoid relegation from the Second Division particularly with a crucial late goal against Portsmouth in front of the Gallowgate End, then comfortably top-scoring with 24 as they stormed to the title the following season, that Kelly ensured he should never have to buy a drink in the Bigg Market ever again.

“It just exploded at Newcastle, it was brilliant,” he enthuses.

“Sir John Hall came in as owner and Kevin Keegan as manager and the whole city erupted.

“They brought new players in and changed the team and just took everything to a whole new level.”

For the final stages of that season Kelly was paired with a certain Andy Cole up top, but when it came to the summer following promotion, there was an even bigger ‘name’ whose return to the Toon prompted a quickfire change in circumstances.

“I was on my back to Birmingham for the summer when Kevin phoned me,” Kelly recalls.

“He said the club had accepted a bid for me, and he was signing someone else, and so I asked him who that was.

“He wouldn’t tell me, so I said I wasn’t going then.

“He then said if I stayed, I would only get limited minutes, so I said, ‘o-k I’ll go, but only if you tell me who you are signing’.

“Then he told me it was Peter Beardsley, and my reply was that even if it was me doing the signing, I would go for Peter Beardsley instead of David Kelly!”

The bid of £750,000 was from Wolves, and Kelly managed to get hold of Steve Bull on his way to Molineux to ask him what wages he was on to give some inside information into salary negotiations. “He told me to **** off.” Kelly laughs.

But after what was a very quick and straightforward conversation with Graham Turner, a deal was done, setting the tone for the next chapter of Kelly’s career.

It may only have been for two years, but what a dramatic two years, both for Kelly and the team.

A positive debut along fellow new signings Geoff Thomas and Kevin Keen in an opening day win against Bristol City which fuelled so much optimism; a run to the FA Cup quarter finals and defeat at Chelsea; the departure of Turner and arrival of another GT in Graham Taylor; winning a penalty and scoring a header in a derby against Albion; another FA Cup run featuring an extraordinary penalty shootout with Sheffield Wednesday and superb goal in a giantkilling upset against Leicester. And, of course, John McGinlay.

“I loved my time at Wolves, and really liked playing for both Graham Turner and Graham Taylor, who were always straight down the line which is what you want as a player,” says Kelly.

“Everyone knows I’m an Albion fan, but there was a brilliant dressing room at Wolves, good managers and backroom staff, massive support including away from home, and I really enjoyed it.

“All my pals who are Albion fans think that’s a terrible thing to say – and I probably got more stick from Albion fans about joining than I did from Wolves fans about supporting Albion!

“But I am one of these who, whether it’s playing or coaching, when I join a club I am completely ‘all in’ for that club, I think that’s the only way you can be.

“You have got to do everything you possibly can to help the team be as successful as they can and that was the way I looked at it throughout my career.”

Kelly takes a tumble in a clash with Leicester City

Those cup runs were a particular delight, including the fantastic breakaway goal against Leicester where Kelly fed Don Goodman on halfway and got himself into the box to head home his cross.

That of course followed the momentous shootout success against Sheffield Wednesday, where Wolves came back from 3-0 down to win 4-3 on sudden death and Kelly, who had also scored in the replay, fired home his spot kick to keep his team in contention.

“Wednesday’s keeper Kevin Pressman scored the best penalty I have ever seen in that shootout – nobody in the world could have saved it,” Kelly recalls.

“We had missed a couple and I was one of those who had to score to keep us in it but I didn’t really feel the pressure too much.

“To be fair I was crap at penalties, I just used to take them when I could because it was such a good chance of scoring a goal!

“That was a great night and followed up with that Leicester win, which was also a brilliant game, when obviously I was delighted to get the goal which took us through.”

Football being football however, there is always the agony to accompany the ecstasy.

And the most painful memory of Kelly’s time at Wolves, one shared by the thousands within the Molineux fanbase, is that a team packed with such quality and character could never quite make it to the Promised Land of the Premier League.

The biggest chance came in the play-offs in that 1994/95 season, when, having dominated the first leg against a Peter Shilton inspired Bolton but only won 2-1, they lost 2-0 in the Burnden Park return after extra time when McGinlay inexplicably escaped a red card after knocking Kelly to the floor with a left hook. At the time, the start of the added period, the score was level on aggregate but McGinlay, of course, went on to score his second of the game and send Bolton to Wembley, where they defeated Reading in the final.

Referee Steve Dunn was right on the spot and somehow decided to book both players, a decision which the commentary team of Alan Parry and Jimmy Greaves found inexplicable, the latter blasted it as a ‘copout’.

“It just wasn’t meant to be in that Bolton tie, was it?” says Kelly.

“It’s funny because in football you always end up bumping into people and chatting about old games but I’ve never actually spoken to John about that incident.

“At the end of the day it is what it is – the referee bottled it because he clearly saw it – and as everybody knows it meant that we missed out on getting to the final.

“The irony of football is that the guy who should have been sent off scored the winner, while I got booked presumably for falling over!”

It was to prove Kelly’s last appearance in a Wolves shirt and getting punched by John McGinlay doesn’t quite carry the same panache as his previous finales such as a hat trick in a play-off final for Walsall or a promotion party with Newcastle.

Whilst at times he, Goodman and Bull had lined up together in a hugely attacking front-line, with Goodman operating down the right, Taylor was keen to reshuffle his pack because he needed to bring in a midfielder.

“Having not been promoted, ultimately three into two just didn’t go and Graham felt there was something missing in the team,” Kelly explains.

“When he sold me, he said it wasn’t a deal he particularly wanted to do, but he needed a midfield player and needed to sacrifice a striker, which I absolutely understood.

“It was nothing against me, just the circumstances, as of the three of us Don was a new signing he had brought in during the season and Bully was the club legend and the best goalscorer out of the three of us by a mile.

“Graham needed a midfield player more than he needed an extra striker, and I have never been one for being a reserve or hanging around to make the numbers up if I’m not in the team.

“It was one of those things, and I moved on, but still with happy memories even though we couldn’t quite make it.

“It was brilliant to be a part of that dressing room, everything felt really exciting, and while ultimately we failed on the most important level of getting promotion, the build-up was fantastic and I really enjoyed the ride!”

A total of 36 goals in 103 games was an impressive return for a striker who had so much more to his game than just scoring, and certainly never left anything out on the pitch such was his attitude to his sport.

And there was still much more remaining of Kelly’s career after departing Wolves, and more achievements, including another Championship with Sunderland, Wembley goal for Tranmere in a 2-1 defeat to Leicester in the 2000 League Cup Final, and rounding off his career, at 36, with an FAI Cup Final win with Derry City against Shamrock Rovers.

Ireland was perhaps a fitting finale to Kelly’s life as a player because, qualifying for the international team thanks to his Dublin-born father, he spent the best part of a decade within the senior set-up for the Republic of Ireland.

That 1988 European Championship was added to by trips to the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, and in all he won 26 caps and scored nine goals, and – while at Wolves - another in a fixture against England which was abandoned due to crowd trouble at Lansdowne Road.

“That one still counts in our house,” he points out.

Graham Taylor applauds the Wolves fans at Burnden Park alongside a dejected David Kelly, Steve Bull and Gordan Cowans following the heartbreaking play-off semi-final defeat to Bolton

“I had ten fantastic years with the Ireland squad working with world class players and I always remember coming back after internationals and being obsessed with scoring goals because that quality had really pushed me on.

“I have so much to thank Jackie Charlton for – what a man.”

It was after hanging his boots up that Kelly’s thoughts turned to coaching, albeit it hadn’t been a huge ambition while he was still playing.

And it was a twist of fate that saw him land the opportunity which has since turned into two decades of a new footballing chapter.

“While I was at Derry, I had started doing my badges but I thought the chances of a job were very slim as there are only 92 jobs of everything within English football,” Kelly admits.

“But then I was at a game and bumped into Ray Mathias, who was Tranmere manager, who asked me to go in and do a bit of coaching and that’s how it all started.

“I went on to complete my badges, and have since spent 20 years working as a coach, give or take a few spells with losing jobs and waiting for opportunities.”

During that time Kelly, now 56, has worked under many different managers including Mathias, Neil Warnock, Billy Davies and Mark Robins, and had a very short stint with Dean Smith at Walsall before the chance emerged to reunite with Davies at Nottingham Forest.

Throughout it all, he has remained in touch with many of his former Wolves team-mates, particularly Steve Froggatt with whom he enjoys regular catch-ups, and those Molineux memories remain strong.

“Was there that feeling that you had everything in place but just somehow couldn’t get over that line?” I ask.

“Exactly that,” Kelly replies. “But that can sometimes happen, it’s just football, isn’t it?”

It is indeed. But, make no mistake, Kelly would love to be right back and in the thick of it.