Football / FA Cup Countdown: Kelly plays the joker in Wolves' pack: Irish striker focuses on Wembley and the World Cup. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
DAVID KELLY has never been one to toe the party line, as might be expected of a player who turned down Bayern Munich shortly after working as a porter in a chocolate factory. Plain speaking, often laced with an impish wit, takes precedence over platitudes.

The Brummie Irishman, who will spearhead Wolverhampton Wanderers' attack against Ipswich in Saturday's fifth-round tie at Molineux, has no time for the conventional wisdom that the FA Cup is at best a bonus for the First Division promotion contenders and at worst a distraction. Kelly's eyes are fixed firmly on the twin target.

'Even when I was with Alvechurch and Walsall and we were in the early rounds, the Cup gave me an incredible buzz,' he said. 'I love the build-up during the week, and the atmosphere on the day. As for distracting you from the League, that's rubbish. Any success has a knock-on effect on confidence and spirit.'

Wolves' current run - two defeats in 23 matches - seems to substantiate the theory. Victories over Crystal Palace and Port Vale, the latter marred by an injury likely to deprive them of Steve Bull for the rest of the season, have led them to the last 16 for the first time since 1981. It is the stage Kelly reached with Newcastle last year, only to lose to Blackburn in 'what seemed like the 97th minute'.

Not that the Republic of Ireland striker dwells on such disappointments. As a child he suffered from a disease which caused his left leg to stop growing. At one time it was four inches shorter than the right, and while he jokes about winning all the hopping races, learning to play football on crutches was no laughing matter. It did, however, foster a resolve to enjoy life once he had recovered.

Cadbury's loss was Walsall's gain. His scoring exploits brought recognition from Jack Charlton (plus a debut hat-trick against Israel) and a week's trial with Bayern. Uli Hoeness was keen and likened him to Denis Law, but Kelly was an unworldly 20-year-old and opted instead for West Ham in a pounds 600,000 move. Now 28, he admits to a soft spot for his later clubs - with one exception.

'Twenty minutes into my first game for West Ham, which was a testimonial, I went to get the ball back from the Chicken Run,' he recalled. 'This fan looked at me and said: 'F*** off back to Walsall.' I scored six goals in my first 10 matches but it was a divided club, full of cliques, and the team struggled.

'Myself and Allen McKnight, the goalkeeper, became scapegoats with the fans for our bad results. The harder I tried, the worse it became. I got dog's abuse, very personal. Someone even got into my car at traffic lights and threatened me.'

McKnight was last heard of in Hong Kong; Kelly, his price halved, escaped to Leicester. His new manager, David Pleat, was enduring similar vilification, but Kelly found him a kindred spirit and the goals began to flow again before Pleat was finally forced out.

'Brian Little took over and I wasn't scoring, so he left me out and eventually let me go to Newcastle. Ossie Ardiles paid pounds 250,000 - money they didn't really have - and told me to liven the place up.

'Ironically, I chose them ahead of Wolves. At the time, Molineux was a dump whereas now it's magnificent. I also had an inkling that if things took off at Newcastle it would be fantastic. I was right about that.'

The same feeling lured this self- confessed West Bromwich fan to Wolves last summer when, despite 28 goals in Newcastle's championship charge, it was made clear he could go. 'I'd like to have had a chance in the Premiership. But you'll notice it's now a Kevin Keegan XI. . . there's only Steve Howey left of Ossie's players.'

Graham Turner paid pounds 750,000 to link Kelly with Bull, the partnership sustaining Wolves through an indifferent autumn. 'Bully's the best goalscorer I've played with. So single-minded. I've known some greedy players - I remember wrestling for the ball with Gavin Peacock, who's in Christians in Sport for heaven's sake, when Newcastle had a penalty and I was on a hat- trick - but he takes the biscuit]'

In the absence of the man he calls Wyatt Earp ('because he shoots on sight') the onus is on Kelly to improve on his 11-goal haul. A few more would also enhance his prospects of a summer at the World Cup finals, although he acknowledges that John Aldridge is Charlton's first choice in his position.

'I played against Aldo at Tranmere recently and he was brilliant. He's doesn't chase back over the half-way line, but within 40 yards of goal he comes alive. He's got so much knowledge and craft, like Cyrille Regis at Wolves. If you can't learn from Cyrille you must be an egg.'

Regis is now enjoying a reprise as Bull's replacement. But Wolves' revival - surprisingly checked by Southend on Saturday - is based on defensive solidity. Kelly praises the influence of another veteran, Peter Shirtliff, even if the former Sheffield Wednesday centre-back is confused by Turner's rapid turnover in personnel.

According to the club jester, Shirtliff can not tell one new signing, Chris Marsden, from another, Neil Masters. This despite the fact that Marsden has 'the worst haircut in the League', though Kelly concedes that his own, severe brush with the barber led to his nickname changing from 'Ned' to 'Julian Clary'.

If friendly mickey-taking is a sign of a contented club, May should see Wolves laughing all the way to Wembley and the Premiership. It will take more than morale to see off Ipswich, of course, but in this winter of Cup upsets, Kelly is convinced a home draw against mid-table Premiership opposition offers a real chance of reaching the quarter-finals.

When the draw was made, the Wolves players were anxious to avoid Wimbledon away and Manchester United anywhere. There again, Kelly suggested, reflecting the burgeoning self-belief at Molineux, it would be nice to save United - or better still, West Ham - for Wembley.

(Photograph omitted)