Following on from my interview with Tony Agana, it is a pleasure to welcome another Blades hero of the last 20 years to the pages of A United View; former Blades and Republic of Ireland international goalkeeper Alan Kelly.
As with Tony, Alan was generous with his time and his answers and so I will post this interview in 3 parts over the coming days. You will be able to read about Alan's early career at Preston - where surprisingly he didn't start out in goal, his move to Bramall Lane - where his performances led to international recognition and provided many happy memories for Alan and Blades fans alike, some fantastic cup nights and heroic goalkeeping displays. We also touch on his surprising departure from Bramall Lane, nearly five years at Blackburn and the present, which is goalkeeping coach for the Republic of Ireland and Head of Goalkeeping at Preston North End's Centre of Excellence.
Alan can be followed on twitter @keepingskills and his website www.goalkeepingskills.com provides training guides for goalkeepers at all levels. Even if you are not a keeper, Alan's blog on the site is well worth a read for insight into both goalkeepers' performances in the big matches and general thoughts on the wider game as well.
The son of Preston North End and Ireland's legendary keeper Alan Kelly, I started by asking Alan whether it a natural decision to pursue a football career given his father's success?
Not at all, as a child I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or jumping over double-decker buses on a motorbike like Evel Knievel!! (I suppose being knocked over by a motorcycle in a road accident back in 1988 was the nearest I got to that stunt and that bloody hurt!)
I actually played outfield as midfield /defender for Preston North End's schoolboy team up until leaving school and then the goalkeeper got injured. I was put in goal and it just clicked!
On leaving school I got an apprenticeship with Leyland Motors and worked as an electrical engineer for the next 18 months ,while at the same time playing for Preston’s youth team on a Saturday and turning out for the Reserve team during the week.
I continued to work and play for PNE at the same time (can you hear the violin playing). I used to get up at 6 a.m. and cycle 11 miles to work for the first year. I then found out a lad who also worked at Leyland drove past the end of my road every day!
So it wasn't always the case that you would wear the gloves, did your Dad support the decision to switch?
My dad was a time served plasterer back in Ireland, before he came over to Preston North End, and he was quite happy that I had a 4 year apprenticeship when I left school because I don’t think he saw any future for me as a goalkeeper. That was largely because I had literally only fallen into the position during the summer of 1984 when I left school.
Who else did you look up to an idolise as a youngster and what made them stand out for you?
My Dad was the goalkeeping coach at Everton in mid-80’s and I went over to Everton’s training ground with him a couple of times and watched the great title winning side train and to stand right behind the goal. watching Neville Southall train was amazing! He was unbeatable and he sometimes saved a shot and threw it straight back to Graeme Sharp and said “go on son, have another go”. I think I wore a pair of Neville's hand me down gloves when I made my debut for PNE in 1986.How did your youth career develop and how did you end up at PNE?
At the end of 1984, PNE were relegated to the old 4th Division so it was a time of despair at Deepdale. I suppose with me costing nothing to play for the youths and later on that season for the reserve team, it would have seemed the least of their worries.
But in the summer of 1985, I knew that I had to make a decision, did I carry on with my apprenticeship, or did I ask to be given the chance to play football? I didn’t make that decision until the end of September 1985 and my dad was not happy about it! I was throwing away a good job, for the offer of an 8 month contract for a team playing in the bottom tier of the football league. The thing is, I was a bit head strong at the time and stood my ground. So I signed on 25th September 1985 with the management team of Tommy Booth & Brian Kidd.
The best thing that happened to me was going out and working for a living; it gave me an appreciation of how lucky I was to given the chance to play professional football for a living and I have always carried that experience with me throughout my professional career
I played for Ireland youths in the pre – Jack Charlton years and it was a world removed form today's international set ups. For instance, we had our pre match meals in a snooker hall next to the hotel, but the craic was brilliant.
Did playing at PNE place undue pressure and expectation on you?
I have to say that I didn’t feel the pressure or expectation because I was just enjoying being a professional. Mind you, I used to get a fair bit of stick if a made a mistake because I was a home-grown lad whose dad happened to be a legend at Preston!
But I now knew that this was what I wanted to do and I loved every minute of it. Brian Kidd used to take me out for extra shot stopping practice in the afternoons, so there I was, trying to stop a European Cup winner and goal scorer, who used to play alongside Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best, from hitting the back of the net! Who wouldn't love it?
It still makes me chuckle!
Do you remember much about your debut?
It was at home against Crewe on 8th March 1986….we lost 2-1. It was a proud moment for me and my family. The club had not been out of the bottom 6 all season and first of all our experienced keeper Jim Platt got injured and then on-loan replacement Phil Harrington suffered a bad injury. In the end there was no one left….but me!
The match went by in a flash, but I did okay and stayed in for the last 13 games of the season. This run of games included a five on the spin winning sequence that gave everybody the belief we could move away from having to apply for re-election at the end of the season…..unfortunately that is what happened when we finished 23rd.
To be honest the place was in uproar, we didn’t have any floodlights until the back end of the season and when they were officially opened against Cambridge on a wet Tuesday night, the lights were set at the wrong angle so you couldn’t see the centre of the pitch….we lost 2-1, it was my third game in professional football!!
They say it's tough at the top but it’s even tougher at the bottom!
Tough indeed and given such a difficult start to your career, it's amazing the turnaround within 12 months. What was the highlight of your time there?
Winning promotion the very next season, when the club appointed John McGrath as manager and we had a new plastic pitch. John was a fantastic man & a character who transformed the club. We played five at the back, which included Sam Allardyce and (ex-Blade) Bob Atkins. We had Frank Worthington up front with another ex-Blade, Gary Brazil, and we played some amazing football. The highlight being a 1-0 victory at home against eventual champions Northampton in front of full house at Deepdale.
I played the second half of the season and I was on Jack Charlton’s radar to play for Ireland Under 21’s on the night we had a game against Tranmere that, if we won, would confirm our promotion…I was desperate to play in the Tranmere match because I had been a ball boy at PNE, I had grown up around the place and to now have opportunity to be part of a successful Preston side was brilliant, we won 2-0 and the celebrations were great.
How did the move to Sheffield United come about? Did you need much persuasion?
I had decided to leave PNE because the plastic pitch was destroying my body. I had suffered two broken legs, a broken hand, torn knee ligaments, the lot and the pitch was taking lumps out of me.
I had just come back from honeymoon and I got a phone call to go on trial….to Neil Warnock’s Notts County for two weeks, so off I went. The pre-season was tough and I tore my thigh in the first week, but said nothing and carried on. I had a major collision with Notts County's star player, Craig Short in a training match, which resulted in us both being knocked nearly unconscious. When I came round the medics were carrying Shorty off on a stretcher, Neil called training off and everyone left me still dazed, flat out on the training pitch! I think it was a sign. Anyway, the two weeks finished, I decided Notts County was not for me and headed back up the M6 to Preston.
On the way home I got a call on my mobile (It was the size of a small brick and no one had called me on it before). Dave Bassett was on the line saying;
“Will you sign for me son?“
“Yes“, I said
“Right, get yourself to Bramall Lane for 4 a.m. in the morning, we are leaving for our pre-season tour of Sweden”
“No Problem, see you tomorrow morning then”
Harry rang me back 5 minutes later;
“Oh and we will give you a two year contract on £25 a week more than you are on at PNE ……you have just got married , haven’t you?"
“Yes Mr Bassett”
“Ok then I’ll give you an extra £25”
“Thanks very much Mr.Bassett”
“It's Harry son“
“Okay, thanks very much Harry”
Now, I had never been to Sheffield before. Me, my new wife and my new father-in-law arrived at Bramall Lane at 3 a.m. and when we saw the front of the South Stand we all said “Wow!”. It was just brilliant, I knew straight away that I was going to love it here. I got out of the car and standing in the doorway to the players entrance was the magnificent Derek Dooley. Derek took one look at me and said;
“You, get in that office and sign that contract and get you’re arse on this bus …pronto. Oh... and welcome to Sheffield United ”
Derek was a fantastic man who all the players respected and looked up to, God bless his soul.
So to answer your question, No it took no persuasion at all!
In Part 2 which you can read here, Alan talks about happy times at Bramall Lane.