Hugh Kelly: Footballer who captained the great Blackpool side of the 1950s

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The Independent Online

Hugh Kelly was skipper of the finest Blackpool side in the club's 113-year Football League history, an exhilarating team which finished as runners-up to the champions, Manchester United, in 1955-56 and contained as its jewel the wondrous Stanley Matthews, at that time the most famous player in the world. Not that fame was any sort of spur for the engagingly modest Kelly, an unflinchingly steely defensive wing-half who, if he was performing today, would be termed a "holding midfielder".

For all his sustained and integral contribution to the Seasiders' cause – between his debut in 1946 and his exit from Bloomfield Road a decade and a half later he made 470 senior appearances – the Scottish international one-club man was essentially unobtrusive. His way was to win the vast majority of his tackles through a combination of excellent timing and iron resolve, then to distribute the ball unfussily, and usually with the utmost accuracy, to more extravagantly gifted colleagues.

It was an admirable approach, but one which meant he featured only rarely when the newspapermen composed their headlines. How poignant, then, that such a selflessly loyal and persevering servant should miss out through injury on the most glorious of all Blackpool's achievements, the lifting of the FA Cup in 1953 when the two Stanleys, Matthews and Mortensen, sparkled so incandescently in the Wembley sunshine.

Kelly, who played his early football for the Perth-based juniors Jeanfield Swifts, was recruited by Blackpool as a 19-year-old in the spring of 1943, the only cash which changed hands being the customary £10 signing-on fee. Towards the end of the war he guested for East Fife before making his first-team entrance for the Seasiders in an FA Cup replay defeat by Middlesbrough in February 1946.

There followed a handful of outings as League competition resumed in the subsequent season, but it was not until midway through 1947-48, when George Farrow was sold to Sheffield United, that he gained a regular berth, with Blackpool's captain Harry Johnston switching to right-half to allow Kelly to slot in on his favoured left side. He finished that term at Wembley, part of a valiant team which twice took the lead in the FA Cup final against Manchester United before being swept aside by Matt Busby's first outstanding team in a breathtakingly entertaining contest. In 1951 he experienced another disappointment on what was then the gala day of the domestic game, as Blackpool were beaten by a Jackie Milburn-inspired Newcastle United.

All the while, though, Kelly had been consolidating his presence in a team which matured into one of the most powerful in the English top flight. In April 1952 he was rewarded by his sole full international call-up, putting in a characteristically efficient shift as the United States were routed 6-0 at Hampden Park.

He was denied further caps by a clutch of polished operators, including the likes of John Cumming of Hearts, Dundee's Doug Cowie and Tommy Docherty of Preston North End, a circumstance which nettled his legion of admirers at Bloomfield Road, who were hardly mollified by his selection for two "B" internationals during the 1952-53 season.

That term Kelly struck a particularly rich vein of form, proving particularly effective in tense victories over Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter- and semi-finals of the FA Cup, only to suffer an ankle injury in Blackpool's penultimate League game, against Liverpool. Thus, as the hat-trick man Mortensen and the inspirational Matthews enchanted the sporting world by leading a remarkable comeback from 3-1 down to overcome Bolton Wanderers in the final, poor Kelly could only look on ruefully from the stand, though he accepted his fate with typical good humour.

There was a brief blip in his enduring love affair with Blackpool when he requested a transfer after he was dropped following another injury during 1953-54, but he bounced back from that to be awarded the captaincy when Johnston retired at the end of the next campaign.

He proved to be a canny and immensely respected leader as the Seasiders rose to hitherto unscaled League heights in 1955-56, and although they finished 11 points adrift of Busby's precocious pre-Munich champions, they fully merited their second place.

That proved to be the peak of Kelly's career. Having celebrated his 33rd birthday in the summer of 1956 he became vulnerable to the challenges of younger men, but although injuries and the persuasive form of Ewan Fenton saw him ousted for much of the following term, the resilient Scot was far from done. He missed only a handful of matches as Blackpool retained their status among the top half of the elite in both 1957-58 and 1958-59, emerging as a reliable penalty-taker to boot.

It was not until 1960, by which time he was nearer 40 than 30, that he finally stepped aside, becoming an invaluable eminence grise to the reserves before leaving Bloomfield Road to become player-manager of non-League Ashton United in the summer of 1961.

Kelly excelled in his new post. His enthusiastic charges won a couple of coveted prizes, while his shrewdness, dignity and quiet authority moved some observers to speculate that he might have a management future at Football League level. However, after a spell on Blackpool's coaching staff, he elected to concentrate on his business interests in the town, running a café and making ice-cream, thus departing the game he had served so splendidly for so long.



Hugh Thomas Kelly, footballer: born Valleyfield, Fifeshire 23 July 1923; played for Blackpool 1944-61; capped once by Scotland, 1952; married 1949 Joan Cousens (deceased, three daughters); died Blackpool 28 March 2009.

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