As he celebrates his 54th birthday, former West Ham United and Republic of Ireland striker David Kelly reflects on his long career in football with author and lifelong Hammer Steve Blowers...
The world was his oyster back in 1988.
But after opting for Green Street’s seafood stalls, ahead of both the Michelin-starred restaurants of France and Germany’s top tables, David ‘Ned’ Kelly still has no regrets about making his move to London’s East End.
“I chose West Ham United over some other big sides and learned more there than I did at any other club in my career,” says the former Hammers and Sheffield United striker, rewinding 31 years to a surreal summer that saw him head to the 1988 European Championship finals with the Republic of Ireland, while a string of English clubs – plus the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich – came calling after his fantastic 30-goal haul had propelled Walsall out of the old Third Division.
“I was only 22 but my time at Upton Park shaped my footballing life and, although things didn’t really work out, I don’t have any regrets,” said Kelly, recalling his £600,000 transfer from the Saddlers.
“The manager John Lyall was a lovely man, who’d been at West Ham for a long time, but after finishing third in the First Division only three seasons earlier, the club was in transition.
“Frank McAvennie was a Hammers legend, while Tony Cottee had been a truly great goalscorer but they’d both left and John was trying to replace the irreplaceable. I’d scored 80-odd goals in the third tier but suddenly I was in the top-flight with big boots to fill.”
I’d scored 80-odd goals in the third tier but suddenly I was in the top-flight with big boots to fill
Despite netting nine goals in his opening 16 league and cup matches, Kelly sadly found his relationship with the Hammers fans floundering during a season destined to end in relegation.
“I was getting on the scoresheet but it’s never about the individual and we needed to win football matches,” concedes the 26-times capped Ireland international, who made 63 appearances, scoring 14 times during his two seasons in Claret and Blue.
“Results were poor and things weren’t happening for the team. We managed just three victories before Christmas and struggled in the league.
“I’ve got to take blame for some of my performances, too. The fans loved me at Walsall but Upton Park became a tough place to play yet, with hindsight, it was a learning process that equipped me well for my subsequent career.”
Relegation in May 1989 proved the catalyst for Lyall’s departure and the consequent arrival of Lou Macari who, in turn, was succeeded by Billy Bonds shortly afterwards.
“I’d lots of respect for John but didn’t see eye-to-eye with Lou; my days were numbered and I’d just become his bench-warmer,” David revealed.
“Billy was a breath of fresh air – a true gentleman, who treated me well. During a man-to-man discussion, we agreed that it hadn’t happened for me at West Ham and I should try my luck elsewhere.”
A move to Leicester City followed in March 1990 and, after subsequently helping Newcastle United and Sunderland into the top-flight, ‘Ned’ eventually found himself joining Sheffield United in summer 2000, aged 34.
“I loved my season at Sheffield United,” says the Midlands-based father-of-two, who ultimately put 250 goals on the board during his fruitful near 750-game playing career. “Neil Warnock signed me saying: ‘Play until Christmas – then become one of my coaches’. That never quite happened but I did end up going back to Bramall Lane as his assistant in 2003.
“Neil is cast as pantomime villain but I learned so much about how to look after people and he’s right up there. I’ve taken bits and pieces from every manager who I’ve played under or coached alongside – John Lyall, Kevin Keegan, Jack Charlton, Graham Taylor…”
Nowadays, Kelly holds the dual roles of First-Team Coach and Development Coach at Northampton Town, where another former Blade, Keith Curle, occupies the managerial hot-seat.
He has also been inducted into the Hall of Fame at Show Racism the Red Card – the UK's leading anti-racism educational charity, for whom his former West Ham strike partner, Leroy Rosenior, is Vice-President.
“The organisation does a great job and it’s something I’m very passionate about,” he confirmed. “Only last month, we saw more unacceptable scenes and I’m there to help by holding conversations that can, hopefully, change mindsets within society.
“I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to stay in football for so long and, last count, I’ve played and coached at 21 football clubs.”