With his balding head, pallid features and scuttling gait, Keith Kettleborough didn't cut a glamorous figure on the football pitch, even during his prime with Sheffield United in the first half of the 1960s. No matter: the slim Yorkshireman was one of the game's true craftsmen, a subtly constructive midfield general who brought to his work an appealing cocktail of artistry and industry which, during mid-decade as plans were being laid to capture the World Cup, prompted the England manager Alf Ramsey to call him into his training squad.
Kettleborough never made the final cut, despite shining brightly for Newcastle United and contributing significantly to their escape from relegation in the spring before his country's supreme triumph in 1966, but he had achieved enough to prove that if he wasn't quite in the international bracket, he didn't lag far behind.
For all that achievement, encompassing more than 400 games for five League clubs, he embraced cricket more enthusiastically in his early teens, playing at schoolboy level for both Yorkshire and the North of England. However, after succeeding at the winter game during his National Service in the RAF, Kettleborough found himself on the radar of numerous talent scouts. A trial with Grimsby Town proved inconclusive, but in December 1955 he was signed by his home-town club, Rotherham United, and graduated rapidly to the first team.
By 1957-58 he had earned a regular berth with the Merry Millers, who were struggling in the lower reaches of the old Second Division (now the Championship), and soon it became clear that he was an uncut gem. Operating as a deep-lying link-man between defence and attack, Kettleborough proved to be a passing master who could stroke the ball accurately over long distances and short, always probing for openings. He was endowed with remarkable stamina, too, revelling in his box-to-box remit, and he was a feisty tackler, leaving his imprint on any uninformed adversaries who deemed, perhaps from his somewhat studious appearance, that he was easy prey.
Come 1959-60 Rotherham were a much-improved side in the top half of the table and Kettleborough was a major influence, notably in that term's FA Cup third-round second replay against Arsenal, in which he scored a beautiful goal in the Millers' 2-0 victory over the Gunners at neutral Hillsborough in front of 56,000 fans.
With his profile duly heightened, a transfer to Sheffield United was arranged in the following December, but he did not bow out quietly. In his last match at Millmoor before his £15,000 move to Bramall Lane, he was booed by his own crowd after rounding the opposing goalkeeper but then missing an open goal. His response was to run to the main stand where, fleetingly but unmistakably, he dropped his shorts.
Despite being hampered by a knee injury which limited his appearances, Kettleborough proved an important factor in the Blades' rise to the top flight, as runners-up to Ramsey's Ipswich Town, at the end of his first half-season at his new club. And he was prominent as they reached the FA Cup semi-finals, subsiding only after three fiercely contested encounters with First Division Leicester City.
More impressively still, Kettleborough touched fresh peaks as United finished fifth at the end of their first campaign in the élite tier, not finding the net frequently himself but proving an astute provider of opportunities for the predatory centre-forward Derek Pace and his fellow attacker Billy Russell. However, Kettleborough was a modest character, and always insisted on due credit being paid to a doughty rearguard in which 'keeper Alan Hodgkinson, central stopper Joe Shaw and full-back Graham (Shaw (no relation) were outstanding.
Thereafter United consolidated their place in the premier grade without rising again to such heights and, while attracting the eye of the England manager, Kettleborough was invaluable in nurturing such promising rookie forwards as Mick Jones, later to earn fame with Don Revie's Leeds United, and Alan Woodward, who would go on to play more than 600 times for the Sheffield club.
Strong-minded and never afraid to stand his corner, Kettleborough did not always see eye to eye with the Blades' equally steely manager, the Glaswegian John Harris, and in January 1966 he was sold to Newcastle United for £22,500. At that point the Magpies looked to be likely candidates for demotion to the Second Division, but the 30-year-old's creativity, energy and experience did much to transform Joe Harvey's side, which escaped the drop with something to spare.
Kettleborough's sojourn at St James' Park was unexpectedly brief; in December 1966 he placed his foot on the management ladder, accepting a player-manager role with Doncaster Rovers, newly promoted to the Third Division, a fee of £12,000 changing hands. It was a testing time, as the Belle Vue side was already struggling, and when they were relegated Kettleborough was dismissed as manager but remained as a player.
Having already incited opprobrium for dropping local hero Alick Jeffrey, the former manager became something of an aunt sally to disappointed fans and it was hardly a shock when he moved on to Fourth Division Chesterfield, who paid £6,000 for his services in November 1967. While at Saltergate he became one of the few men to play against a club he had once managed, no doubt irritating his former critics at Doncaster by performing with undiminished skill.
In August 1969, aged 34, he became player-manager of non-League Matlock Town, after which he left the game. His cricketing prowess, which enabled him to play professionally for Rotherham Town and Rawmarsh in the Yorkshire Leagues, continued to find expression with the Whiston Parish Church club, for whom he starred as a high-scoring batsman.
Away from sport, for many years he ran a milk business in south Yorkshire and later he was clerk of works for a private preparatory school in Sheffield, his duties including the coaching of football and cricket. Not surprisingly, given his undying enthusiasm, Kettleborough excelled in the work, attracting plaudits from parents who credited him with imbuing their offspring with his own enduring affection for both sports.
Keith Frank Kettleborough, footballer; born Rotherham, Yorkshire 29 June 1935; played for Rotherham United 1955-60, Sheffield United 1960-65, Newcastle United 1965-66, Doncaster Rovers 1966-67, Chesterfield 1967-69; married (one son, one adopted son, one adopted daughter); died Rotherham 2 November 2009.Reuse content