Football: Kelly gone but never forgotten at Newcastle

Guy Hodgson talks to the veteran striker who could make his old club suffer today
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The Independent Online
WHEN you are known as the Messiah, criticism is not a normal day-to-day problem but if Newcastle ever dared to have doubts about Kevin Keegan it was usually over strikers. Andy Cole's departure for Manchester United shook the city and, while the off-loading of David Kelly did not hit similarly high numbers on the Richter Scale, it did cause tremors.

A skim through the fanzines as Newcastle hit the Premiership in 1993- 94 soon located a consensus that went on the lines of "if anyone else but King Kevin had sold Kelly there would be riots, but as it's him....". He had scored 27 goals in a season that had promoted Newcastle into the Premiership and was developing a partnership with a young striker called Cole.

Nevertheless he went to Wolverhampton, Peter Beardsley arrived in his place and any potential dissent disappeared as Newcastle produced the sort of football their supporters believed was only played elsewhere. Kelly was gone but not forgotten, getting an ovation from St James' Park even in the most strained of circumstances: his appearance in a Sunderland shirt last season.

He returns to Tyneside today in a more acceptable form, captain of Tranmere Rovers. After the rancour of the Stevenage saga in the fourth round, Newcastle are delighted to be among more sympathetic spirits again, as Kelly definitely places himself. "Just because you're transferred, it doesn't mean you stop supporting them," he said.

Ask him whether being discarded by Keegan hurt and he says yes, but not so much that he holds grudges. "I've always got on with managers as well when I've left clubs as when I arrived. Being with Newcastle was the highlight of my career but I'm not a bitter and twisted sort of a person.

"I've always had the opinion if a club accepts a bid for you then it doesn't matter whether you stay or go, you're probably surplus to requirements. I've no animosity to anyone who has sold me. Kevin had his own ideas about Newcastle and the Premiership and although I was disappointed to leave, it was just another part of football, another stage in my career.''

Such sang-froid probably stems from the fact Kelly has a football career to talk about at all, as he was just four years old when he was diagnosed as having a bone disease, Perthes, a potentially crippling hip disorder. The treatment included two years with both legs in plaster and he was nearly eight before he could lead a normal life again.

Kelly, 32, has been invited to be a patron of the Perthes Association - "a great honour" - and when he is not working on behalf of the charity he acts as a role model. "Perthes is a disease which is contained if they catch it early enough," he said. "It doesn't affect later life. I'm the perfect example for any sufferer of that disease.''

No one could say he has not spread the message over most of the country. He began at Walsall and arrived at Prenton Park last summer for a pounds 350,000 fee via West Ham, Leicester, Newcastle, Wolves and Sunderland, scoring nearly 200 goals in the process. Eleven of those have been for Tranmere where Kelly has had the unenviable task of replacing the irreplaceable, his player-manager John Aldridge.

It is not something new because Kelly has spent much of his international career with the Republic of Ireland being held up against a striker for whom the word prolific scarcely does him justice. Kelly scored a hat-trick in his first match for his country in 1987 but never played three consecutive matches partly because Aldridge was around.

"No one could fill Aldo's shoes," he said. "Without doubt, he's a greatest scorer of our time. The records speak for themselves, he's got more goals than anybody and at the very highest level. If I'm compared to him, great.

"The biggest lesson he hands out is his ferocious will to win. Even at 39 he's desperate to score. He'll get a goal in training and his arms go up and he's leaping around. You're thinking `what are you doing?' but it's such a big thing for him. You learn from him all the time.''

Tuesday's win over Swindon - watched by Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish - elevated Tranmere out of the First Division's relegation places and Kelly believes the team's passing style will suit the surface they'll encounter tomorrow. "We always try to play football," he said, "which is difficult on the bog of a pitch we've got at Prenton Park. We're handicapped at home. As far as I'm concerned it couldn't have been a better draw. I had some fantastic times at Newcastle and I'll be going back there as captain, leading the team out. It will be a tremendous thrill.''