Thursday, 9 February 2012

Interview with Alan Kelly - Part 3 (Leaving the Lane, the Irish Rover and International Acclaim)

Part 2 of the interview had  Alan Looking back on some happy days and big occasions whilst playing for the Blades. All good things must come to an end and eventually the time came to leave Sheffield United. 

You left United after playing under 6 managers. Is it hard adapting to different management styles, or as a keeper are you largely unaffected?

Whenever there is a change in manager at a football club.  it is always an interesting and potentially unsettling time for any footballer because for those who are in the team you have to prove your worth all over again and for those whose face didn't fit , it is a clean slate and a chance to impress the new boss.

I have experienced this situation on over 17 occasions both as a player and a coach where each new manager has brought in his own ideas and style of play that the players and staff have to adjust to in a very short period of time. As a goalkeeper it is slightly different because the new boss generally looks at the rest of the team first!

What changed under Adrian Heath and what led you to leave Bramall Lane?

Aberdeen made a bid of £750,000 and it was accepted, I didn’t want to leave and I had a year left on my contract, but I was told I wasn’t going to get another. I spoke to the Aberdeen Chairman and told him I wouldn’t be moving to Scotland. Then Blackburn made a bid, which was also accepted, and it was made very clear to me that I had no future at Sheffield United.

I think Adrian Heath just wanted it all done and dusted and I was the least of his worries because Trace was staying. I can understand the situation because Simon was a top class goalkeeper, but it was a shame the way I was told because I was given very little time to say my goodbyes. However I did get to play in the pre-season friendly against Chelsea and it was great to play one last time in front of the Sheffield United faithful.

Were you at risk of leaving much earlier in your United career. Didn't Harry once drop you due to a contract dispute?

Harry being Harry….again! I had agreed the contract, Harry had the dispute. It took 7 games for him to get his head right and then it was all settled in an hour!

Whilst with United you gained full international recognition with the Republic of Ireland. What was Jack Charlton like as a manager/coach?  Did he have any key advice before your Republic of Ireland debut?

I made my full debut away to the world champions, Germany, and when he named the team the night before the game he turned to me and said;

“Right son, it’s your responsibility to organise all your defensive set plays, so you sort out the markers, everything. If we concede from a set play, it’s your fault."

No pressure then Jack! When you think of the players I had to organise, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge…..So there I am the night before my full debut, knocking on the players' doors and telling them where I wanted them on the pitch, Character building!

It was a happy debut too, we won 0-2 against Klinsmann, Koller and all.

After picking up so many Irish caps is it frustrating that you were on the side-lines for two World Cups?

I had a great career, with so many great highlights, to be part of two World Cup qualifying campaigns that resulted in qualification for the World Cup finals was brilliant. I get asked that question quite a lot and I genuinely believe that all I could do was my best and if I was picked then great. If I wasn’t, then I had to help the man in possession of the number one shirt. That was why Trace and I worked well at United, because we respected each other as goalies and helped the one who was playing, by training hard and with good quality.

I was lucky to be living, let alone playing, after being knocked over by that motorbike in 88 so I had a different outlook on life and football from other players and I could deal with the highs and lows in the same way.

How much were the players affected by the Keane/McCarthy Saipan incident in 2002? The results suggest it fired them up.

I don’t think I can type that fast and it is a subject that I have never spoken about publicly, but we had a great campaign and we should have beaten Spain to go through to the quarter finals. If Ian Harte had scored his penalty in normal time......we lost in a penalty shootout.

Do you consider yourself unfortunate to have been around with Packie Bonner and Shay Given in their prime, or just fortunate in that few players get the opportunity to win international caps?

I actually took over from Packie after the 1994 USA World Cup, after making my debut in 1993 and went on to win the majority of my caps under Jack Charlton. When Mick McCarthy took over I was having a few injury problems, Shay had made a massive entrance to football with Sunderland by winning promotion and Mick was blooding a lot of young players. Shay came in and played exceptionally well, so I had no problem with that as that is the nature of the game. He was and is to this day a world class goalkeeper.

In 1999/2000 season I played 9/10 games on the trot as Ireland lost out on qualifying for Euro 2000 by 9 seconds! But on a personal level I was awarded the International Player Of the Year Trophy ( the first time a goalkeeper had won it ) and as I was sat at the awards, I didn’t even give it a thought that I might be in contention as I was up against Roy Keane and Niall Quinn. So there I was still eating my dinner when the camera swings my way and it was announced I’d won! I looked up and thought, 'I am sure he just said my name?' My good friend and team mate, Alan McLoughlin, patted me on the back and said well done, so with a mouth full of steak off I went  and got the award. Like I say, the ups and downs of football! 

After leaving Bramall Lane Alan spent How did you find your 4 years at Ewood Park and was it injuries that led to your retirement?

I had nearly 5 years at Blackburn and in that time we won the Worthington Cup and gained promotion back to the Premier League. I only played 50 games, but that was due to the arrival of Brad Friedel, another world class goalkeeper and a great person.

Injury ended my career when I was teaching the young goalkeepers how to turn and react to save a shot. The young lad hit the ball a bit early and you can call it instinct, I just reacted. I threw out a hand and made the save, but my fingers dug into the turf and my body weight landed on top of them! My ring finger on my right hand was a mess and was hanging down the wrong side of my hand. I had surgery, but I couldn’t get the movement back and I nicknamed it the claw!

I had a wonderful time in football, played with and against some of the world’s great players. I started in a different era for football in the mid-80’s and witnessed the changing face of football through to the mid-noughties and I enjoyed every minute of it. 

After a spell coaching with the Blackburn Academy, you were asked by Steve Staunton to work as a goalkeeping coach with the Irish national team. With Euro 2012 on the horizon, is this your first major championships in a coaching role and what are you looking forward to the most?

Yes, it’s my first championship as a coach. I have been lucky enough to work in International football for the last 6 years and working with a master of his art, Giovanni Trappatoni, has been amazing. I can’t wait to pit our wits against Croatia, Spain and Italy!
Shay Given trains under the watchful eye of Alan

Who would you rate as the best young keeper in the country at present?

Joe Hart is a fantastic goalkeeper, A great lad, who should be England’s number one for the next 10/15 years barring injury.

Talking of young talent, have you seen much of the two Georges at Bramall Lane (Long & Willis, both England age group internationals). If so, how would you rate them and where do they need to develop?

I have to be honest and say I haven’t, but I have heard good things about them. Darren Ward is the Academy goalkeeping coach at Sheffield United and in his hands the future of Sheffield’s goalkeepers are in good hands.

On that positive note for Blades fans, the interview ends. He believes the Blades keepers are in safe hands and I think it is safe to say that so are both Preston’s and the Republic of Ireland's men between the sticks.

I want to thanks Alan for taking the time to answer my questions. By his own admission it was great to reminisce and hopefully you have enjoyed reading these posts as much as Alan and I enjoyed putting this together. There was plenty we didn't cover, maybe next time. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Interview with Alan Kelly - Part 2 (Cup Nights, Shoot Out Glory, Semi Final Sadness)

As we finished Part 1 of the interview, Alan was joining up with the Sheffield United squad for a 4 a.m. jaunt to the airport and a pre-season tour. Although Alan explained how easy a decision it was to join United, establishing himself in the first team didn't look that easy on paper.

United were blessed with goalkeeping talent around that time; You, Simon Tracey and sadly, only briefly, Mel Rees. Was that something difficult to deal with, or did you thrive under the pressure to perform and keep your place?

I knew I was up against some fantastic goalkeeping talent, but with me signing at 4 a.m. in the morning and going straight on a two week tour it was quite a full on intro to my new team mates. Trace was first class, as were all the lads, Simon even gave me a pair of gloves because mine were crap! I still speak to Trace to this day and when you think that it was 20 years this summer since I signed for Sheffield United then that shows how good our team spirit was at that time.

Trace was a great GK.  I thought I was signed as cover for Mel and Trace and I didn’t know at the time I signed that Mel was ill. When I found out and met Mel on our return to Sheffield he was brilliant. Mel came around the corner of the dressing room to where I was sat, held out his hand and said “ Don’t worry, it’s not contagious “

He was an amazing man, who was sadly taken from us too soon. I will never forget walking off the pitch at Wembley after the semi- final against Wednesday and seeing Mel stood by the side of the pitch, I walked over to him and we walked off together and if there was any moment in my life when I realised that there were more important things in life than football then that moment was it.

Alan collects with Brian Deane, then at Leeds, and David Tuttle watching on

For me, the sight of a gaunt and gravely ill Mel Rees walking around the Wembley pitch before the Steel City semi-final is one of the most moving things I have ever seen. Two groups of opposing fans, usually at each other's throats, united in acclaim and emotion.

On to the game and the Steel City semi-final was one of your greatest United performances for me. Several world-class saves, yet people will always remember and TV will always show Waddle's free kick. That must grate a little bit?

Not at all, it was a great finish, from a great player. From my point of view I was stood in a decent position, but as soon as it left Chris Waddle's boot I knew I was in trouble, such was the quality of the strike.

The free kick was awarded after 36 seconds from a long kick by Chris Woods and I wanted two in the wall as the ball was 30 yards or so out.  Mitch Ward was number one in the wall and John Gannon was the other. If you look back at the TV angle from behind the goal, Danny Wilson & John Sheridan are on the ball  for the free kick with Wardy & Ganns in the wall, but then Danny moved away & John Gannon's followed him to cover him which left Wardy on his own. Up stepped Waddle and I don’t think he could have hit it better…..but I would say that!  I don’t think I would have got it with four in the wall!

As I have always said, I couldn’t change the fact that I had conceded the goal in the first minute of a semi-final, whether it was my fault or not, but I could try my best to make sure another one didn’t go in. So I had to put the negative thoughts in a box and get on with it. When Corky (Alan Cork) scored to equalise, I nearly burst a blood vessel. I can’t put into words how special that day was, to see Wembley packed to the rafters with Sheffield fans, to see/hear the reception we got from the Blades fans as we walked out from the tunnel (it  ade the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, I actually felt 10 feet tall )  and to be fair the Wednesday fans gave it socks as well.

It was one of only a few games I experienced where the atmosphere, the colour, the balloons, the noise and the whole occasion, took you to another level …….. the only downside was the result.

We hear much about the tremendous camaraderie and team spirit that Dave Bassett generated at Bramall Lane, you touché don it before, are there any stand-out memories of that time?

I think Harry’s secret was putting together a bunch of lads who worked hard, who were strong characters, with good ability and who knew how lucky they were to play football. Add to that a good mix of home grown talent in Carl Bradshaw, Mitch Ward and Sid (Dane) Whitehouse and the result was a real connection between the crowd and the players. When you look at how many of the players from the early-90's who still live in and around Sheffield to this day, it tells you how they took to the city and how the city took to them.

I read the article from Giacomo Squintani about the Anglo Italian Cup. I have to say that witnessing player after player being sent off and then seeing Harry’s reaction - which led to him being sent off - was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. It was broadcast on Calendar (Yorkshire TV's local news programme) the next day and the reporter.....he was lost for words after the video was played!

Another memory…..seeing one of our players dancing naked through the foyer of a hotel singing  “I am the Lord of the Dance said he” with a roll of flaming toilet paper attached to his bottom…..that's a moment that springs to mind!!

It wasn't just the players though. Mick Rooker, Mary and Sue, Derek Dooley, Dawn “One Lamb Lunch” and all concerned with the club at the time helped to make the togetherness and camaraderie of the place what it was.

We used to have a pint in the social club under the South Stand when we came back from away games….can you imagine that now?

Interestingly, I was in hospitality at Bramall Lane for the Aston Villa F.A. Cup tie last season. Post-match two players appeared at the Platinum Suite bar not long after the final whistle; James Collins and Richard Dunne (don't tell Trapp!)  

As a keeper you are placed in a position where mistakes (albeit rare in your case) have a significant impact on the game. How did you deal with them?

When you make a mistake, you can’t turn the clock back,. The ball is in the net and there is nothing you can do about that, other than make sure that it doesn’t happen again. You cannot sulk or go to pieces, because that would be letting the rest of the players, fans and the club down again. You have to quickly work out why it happened, put your hand up to acknowledge it was your fault and move on.

I remember a mistake in front of the Kop at Bramall Lane against West Brom. Chris Wilder passed the ball back to me from the left back position, but the West Brom centre forwards -, Hunt and Hughes - read the back pass & were bearing down on me…. My head is saying kick the ball out of play, but my former outfield persona is saying “Go on, dribble around them” - so off I go. I dropped my shoulder and went around Hunt and, with just Hughes to get around next, I decided to try a crazy reverse pass back to full back Chris Wilder.
So, there I am, about to perform this pass about 10 yards from goal. I planted my foot, it gave way, I fell over the ball and Lee Hughes had the easiest open goal ever! Now that was the longest  walk back to get the ball out of the net that I have ever done. But as I was walking back I thought, 'I've got to acknowledge such a massive clanger', so I held my hands up to the Kop and said “Sorry”. To be fair, the response was fantastic. If you make a mistake, hold your hands up and most people will forgive you, but only if you make them every now and then!

The other standout games of your time with United for me are the shootout victories over Blackburn and Coventry. As a keeper, how do you approach a shootout?

It’s a no lose situation for a goalkeeper. I always used to try and appear confident, big but not dancing around on the line. That's because I wanted the opposing player to look at me as someone who was imposing and in control….it only used to happen in FA Cup shoot-outs though! Oh, and you need to be a good guesser!!

I think the fact that the Blackburn and Coventry penalty shoot outs were in replays back at the Lane made the occasions special.

I loved playing at Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane. Pulling up to the imposing South Stand, running out of the tunnel and the reception from the Blades fans was always fantastic. To top it off, the best song in football “The Greasy Chip Butty Song”.......brilliant!!

What are your memories of the Coventry replay? I remember being at Highfield Road for the first game. Your saves kept us in it that day and then Petr Katchouro nearly nicked it for us at the end.

I think the result we got at Coventry (1-1 draw) was a great performance from the lads, after being under siege for large parts of the game. Marcelo popped up with the equaliser and ripped off his shirt and threw it to the Blades fans. He must have been confident of scoring because he had a replacement shirt underneath his original!
Then, right at the end of the game, Petr charged down big Oggie's kick (Peter Ogrizovic) and was clean through on goal… but of all the things I have seen in football this was one of the funniest, the sight of Big Oggie  bursting his balls to chase after Petr was like something out of a Tom & Jerry cartoon! How Oggie got back so quick was unbelievable and, just as Petr is about to shoot into an open goal….crunch, Oggie got back to deflect the ball for a corner and the chance was gone. The final whistle went and I remember going up to Oggie, who still couldn’t speak because his lungs were screaming, and I just burst out laughing as he said “ never again, never again,”

The Replay……Reg (David) Holdsworth’s Brazilian overhead kick in the last minute of the 90 to take us to extra time, and then to the shoot-out. Gareth Taylor is one of my best mates and I remember he took the 1st one and missed & as I walked over to console him he said;

“Help me out Ned, save few will you!”

Dion Dublin was first up for Coventry and I knew he would place his spot kick in the same place as he had in the original game. As he ran up I was already diving to my left with a massive grin on my face and made the save, the feeling of knowing you went the right way was pure joy! 

The rest of the shootout went in a flash and as I stood there, in front of the Kop, watching Wayne Quinn step up to take the pen that would see us through to another semi-final, it was a brilliant feeling! I knew Quinny would score because he had such a sweet left foot. When he did, the whole place went bonkers! I found myself being carried up and along in a scene of relief, unbridled joy and celebration at a fantastic result. It was also Paddy’s night but, by the time I got back to the changing room and up to the bar, it was shut! 

Coventry shoot-out joy

I always think they have a more special feel due to being night games under the lights. Would you agree?

Night games always have that special feel to them and when you look back at some of the great memorable games they all seem to happen at night, the cup shoot –outs, beating Arsenal in a replay, knocking six past Tottenham! All were great games.

In the final part that you can read here, Alan talks about leaving Bramall Lane, his time at Blackburn and international honours.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Interview with Alan Kelly - Part 1 (Father's Footsteps)

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 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.