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‘I used to get comments about not being born in Ireland, but I didn’t feel the need to justify myself’

Former Ireland goalkeeper Alan Kelly speaks to The42 about his playing career, his move into coaching and his father’s legacy at Preston North End.

Alan Kelly celebrates 1/9/1999 Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

ON ONE HAND there is that quintessential northern England directness and no-nonsense approach to some of the questions I ask Alan Kelly, but on the other, they are always wrapped in a warm, self-deprecating manner.

When asked about his career, the former Ireland goalkeeper is always quick to play down his achievements – he prefers to pass praise onto others – perhaps that is the Irish inside him.

In many ways, he is an Irishman born in Preston.

Just like so many sons and daughters of emigrant parents down through the years, he is a product of circumstances.

Kelly’s father, Alan Kelly Sr, who was also a goalkeeper, moved to Preston North End in the old First Division in 1958 after an impressive spell with Drumcondra Football Club, where he won a League of Ireland title and FAI Cup medal.

Nearly 60 years later, Kelly Sr’s legendary status at the Lancashire club is now firmly cemented in their history.

No other player has played more times for the Lilywhites, and very few with as much distinction. His 14-year spell with the club culminated in a record 513 appearances before he went on to manage the side from 1983 to 1985.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Preston North End Photocall Alan Kelly Sr is a North End legend. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

His services to the club didn’t go unrecognised either before he passed away in 2009. As part of Deepdale’s redevelopment, the club named the Town End of their stadium in his honour.

When you consider that two of the other stands are named after Tom Finney and Bill Shankly, two of the most iconic figures in British football, it contextualises how highly he is regarded.

Football is a religion in this part of the world and these cult figures take on a God-like status with the faces of the three former players etched in the pattern of the seats in what the club claim to be the oldest professional footballing site in the world.

On the international front, Kelly won 47 caps for Ireland and became the first goalkeeper to captain the national side in the process.

He also went on to assist John Giles after he was named the international team manager in the 1970s, and was in sole charge for the friendly win over Switzerland before Eoin Hand took over the reins.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League Championship - Preston North End v Crystal Palace - Deepdale Source: EMPICS Sport

But his exploits with Preston are well documented and he is still idolised there.

Today, his namesake son is still heavily involved with the Championship club as a goalkeeping coach after lining out 142 times for Preston as a player.

“I was only saying to some of the lads the other day that I didn’t have a car until I was 24 because I could walk to the ground from our family home,” Kelly tells The42. “That gives you an idea as to how close we were, as a family, to the club.

“We were brought up with the club. On a Sunday, my dad would take myself and my brothers down to the stadium and it was our playground.

“We would play football on the pitch and we would run around the stands collecting the pennies that fell out of people’s pockets during the last game.

“I was speaking to our assistant manager [Steve Thompson] the other day, and he was talking about Brian and Nigel Clough as Nigel used to sit on the bench during matches, and we used to do exactly the same.

“Nobby Stiles was the manager of Preston and my dad was the assistant at the time, but a couple of seats along the way were myself and my brothers sitting there watching the game. It was an unusual upbringing, and it helped us become ingrained with the club.”

ENGLISH SOCCER Source: EMPICS Sport

Following in his father’s footsteps was not something Kelly necessarily aspired to achieve in his formative years as he was urged to find his own passions in life.

And even when he was signed by Preston as a teenager it was to play at full-back. It wasn’t until the youth team’s goalkeeper got injured in a practice game that he was asked to deputise between the sticks. A Kelly in goal for Preston though had a reassuring sense of security about it.

“I came very late into football; I only took up goalkeeping really when I was 15 going on 16. I was an apprentice electrician before I started professionally,” he says.

“I think I was a surprise package. I don’t even think my dad thought I was going to become a goalkeeper. Something within me decided this is what I wanted to do, but even though my dad had a certain status within the club, I never really felt any pressure, and I still don’t to this day.”

Kelly, who played in the Premier League with Sheffield United and later won the EFL Cup with Blackburn Rovers, carved out a successful career in his own right, but it was the artificial surface at Preston that ultimately forced the goalkeeper to seek opportunities away from his hometown club.

“After six years at Preston, I was literally falling to bits due to the plastic pitch. It was nothing like the 3G or 4G we have today; it was like a carpet spread over a concrete floor. That punishment was starting to take its toll on me, I had to leave.”

It was ultimately an emotionally difficult decision to leave Preston, who were in the third tier at the time, but playing with Sheffield United at a higher level helped him earn international recognition.

And although Kelly, who attended the same primary school as another Preston-born Ireland international Kevin Kilbane, always considered himself Irish, not sounding like the natives never bothered him, even if it did rankle with some people outside the camp.

“I used to get comments about not being born in Ireland, but I didn’t feel the need to justify myself. I am who I am. The fact my dad opted to travel meant I was born in Preston.

Alan Kelly 9/10/1999 Kelly in goal for Ireland in 1999. Source: Lorraine O 'Sullivan/INPHO

“All of my family live in Ireland; there was only my mum and dad who moved over to help his professional career. All my aunts, uncles and cousins lived in Bray in Wicklow. That was our home from home.”

The former shot-stopper, who was named in the PFA Championship Team of Year on two occasions, won 34 caps for his country but it could have been many more had his time with the national team not been sandwiched between two of the country’s most successful goalkeepers.

A debut in 1993 during a friendly with Wales came at Tolka Park – coincidentally the same stadium where his father caught the attention of Preston with Drumcondra in the 1950s – and even though Packie Bonner’s successful time as first-choice was coming to an end, rising star Shay Given was just about to come into the fold.

Ireland players before the press conference 10/6/2002 Source: INPHO

But there is no time for regrets or hard-luck stories; the former Blade prefers to focus on the positives.

“I’m a glass half-full type of guy. I remember making my first start in May 1994 before we went over to the World Cup. We played in Hanover against Germany, who were the world champions at the time, and we won 2-0.

“I believe I had a good game. I thought I just needed to do what I can to give me the best chance of playing, but the rest was up to other people.

“But I am proud to say I went to two World Cups, I would have loved to have played, don’t get me wrong, but my role was to be as supportive as I could and to help the first-choice goalkeeper be in the right frame of mind. It was always about the team for me.”

A career in coaching felt like the natural step when he retired from playing in 2004, as he went on to become goalkeeping coach with the Irish team under Steve Staunton and latterly Giovanni Trapattoni.

Giovanni Trapattoni, assistant Marco Tardelli and coach Alan Kelly Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

And Kelly, whose brother Gary also enjoyed an accomplished 20-year career in goal for teams such as Newcastle and Bury, hasn’t ruled out moving into management like his father did, but he feels opportunities may be limited.

“As a goalkeeper, I feel you’re pigeonholed compared to the outfield players.

“I’ve been doing the new Uefa goalkeeping A licence through the FAI for the past year and it’s the first recognised qualification at Uefa level.

“I think they recognise now that the goalkeeping coaches are contributing to the whole team, not just the goalkeeping positions, and that is a huge step forward.

“Goalkeepers are different. We see the match from a different perspective. Most managers standing at the sideline see it from a landscape point of view, but a goalkeeping coach would see it portrait.

“We see a different picture from both an attacking and defensive viewpoint.

“But in terms of management, I’m 32 years in football now and you learn to never say never to anything.”

But the 48-year-old’s more immediate focus is helping Preston build on a more than satisfactory campaign in the Championship with the side aiming to improve on their 11th place finish next season.

Fulham v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Craven Cottage Fulham goalkeeper coach Tim Flowers with his Preston counterpart. Source: EMPICS Sport

Six Irish players featured for the side over the course of the last campaign, with former Dundalk stars Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan the latest recruits, while Cork City striker Sean Maguire is set to sign in an attempt to bolster their promotion bid to the Premier League.

“Everybody we bring in, we want them to do well at the club. The fact we have so many players coming in from Ireland, just shows what Irish players can bring to a team. That can only be good for the club and the national side.”

And in case you’re wondering, Kelly does have an 11-year-old son. Maybe our long-term prospects in the goalkeeping department are not as bad as once feared.

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