Alan Kelly was a favourite among football fans on both sides of the Irish Sea, who came to admire his stylish and dependable goalkeeping.
His memory is revered in his homeland, the Republic of Ireland, where his reputation as one of the country's greatest keepers survives him. And Kelly remains a towering figure in the history of Preston North End, where his appearance record still stands. His status as a much-cherished adopted son of Preston was confirmed in 2001, when the Town End at Deepdale was renamed in his honour.
Kelly began his career with Bray Wanderers, and Drumcondra. While he was still at the Dublin club, Drums, Kelly made his international debut against West Germany at Dalymount Park in the city. The Irish memorably beat the reigning world champions 3-0 – a seismic sporting event in an era long before the days when Irish sides regularly qualified for World Cups.
The keeper's reputation spread to England, and in 1958 he signed for Preston North End – at the time one of the most powerful teams in the First Division. Kelly was obliged to serve his apprenticeship patiently in English football, and it was not until January 1961 that he was able to make his first-team debut. He replaced North End's regular keeper, Fred Else, who was unwell, for an FA Cup third-round tie against Swansea. Kelly played well in North End's 2-1 defeat, and he kept his place for a League game at Sheffield Wednesday in the following week. North End were trounced 5-1 – but Kelly survived the ordeal. It was the beginning of a Deepdale career that saw him play 447 League games and 65 cup ties – more than any other North End player.
Among the highlights of his career at North End was reaching the 1964 FA Cup final. Preston, by then, had fallen below the front rank of English clubs. They had been relegated to the Second Division in 1961 and endured a couple of mediocre seasons at the lower level. But they recovered some of their old pomp in a spirited march to Wembley.
North End could have gone out at the first stage, but a defiant display by the Preston keeper earned the Lancastrians a 0-0 draw at First Division Nottingham Forest, and they won the replay 1-0 at Deepdale. That was followed by a 2-1 replay win at home to another First Division team, Bolton. Preston beat Carlisle United 1-0 away in the fifth round, and in the sixth round they won 2-1 at Oxford. North End reached their first FA Cup final for 10 years by beating Swansea 2-1 in the semi-finals.
Their opponents at Wembley were Ron Greenwood's much-admired West Ham United side, but the Second Division team started the game much stronger. Doug Holden gave Preston the lead after 10 minutes, but the Irons equalised a minute later through John Sissons. Preston remained undaunted, and they proceeded to dominate for long periods. Their stand-out player was their 17-year-old wing-half Howard Kendall, who was making history as the youngest-ever Cup finalist.
North End took a deserved lead early in the second half with an Alec Dawson header. But the destiny of the Cup swung back towards East London when Geoff Hurst scored to make the score 2-2 as the second half ebbed away. Kelly's efforts were hampered by an injury which affected his mobility, and Preston lost one of the most exciting finals of the post-war era when West Ham's Ronnie Boyce glanced a header past the Preston keeper in injury time. It was the end of a bold adventure for Kelly and his team-mates.
Kelly retired from playing in 1973 and followed a coaching career. He was assistant to the Preston manager, Nobby Stiles, for a spell, and in 1983 he enjoyed a stint as caretaker manager at Deepdale. Kelly also worked as Everton's goalkeeping coach. Later coached at DC United in the US, where he settled in his later years.
In 1980 he also served as the Republic of Ireland's caretaker manager for one match. It was a proud moment for the native Dubliner, who always derived enormous pride from playing for his country. He had also assisted the Republic's manager, Johnny Giles, during the 1970s.
Kelly had been suffering from cancer when he died, aged 72. His sons, Alan Jnr and Gary, have also turned out to be accomplished keepers. Alan Jnr ranks high with his father among Preston's greatest goalkeepers, and he is also serving the Republic of Ireland national side, as goalkeeping coach. Gary played for Newcastle United, Bury and Oldham Athletic.
Alan James Alexander Kelly, footballer and coach; born Dublin 5 July 1936; played for Bray Wanderers 1956, Drumcondra 1956-58, Preston North End 1958-73, Republic of Ireland 1956-73; managed Ireland (caretaker) 1980, Preston 1980 (caretaker), 1983-85; married (two sons); died 20 May 2009.