Football: Kelly's sad error of judgement

Football: Former bank clerk who became game's most powerful administrat or lost touch with the grassroots
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The Independent Online
ON ANY given Saturday, Graham Kelly is as likely to be found standing behind the goal at a non-League ground as he is to be seen in the directors' box of a Premier League club. Still an enthusiastic centre-forward, he is, in his own way, as much a football man as the Fergusons, Grahams and Dalglishs.

But, somewhere along his route from Blackpool bank clerk to the most powerful administrator in the game, Kelly appears to have lost touch with those grass-roots. In allowing Keith Wiseman to involve him in this ludicrous votes-for-cash scheme, he has committed a fundamental error of judgement. The only redeeming feature of this squalid affair is that, unlike the FA's arrogant and bumptious chairman, Kelly has had the humility to realise this and fall on his sword.

This is no surprise. Though his public image is that of "Kelly the Jelly", the stumbling television performances hide a sharp mind and engaging personality. He once memorably responded to being crowned, by the fanzine, When Saturday Comes, as "the man who has done most damage to football" by turning up to collect the award in a dinner jacket and reeling off a Dickie Attenborough- style acceptance speech.

However, the bumbling manner also hid an ambition which was revealed when he jumped ship from the Football League to the FA and promptly oversaw the emasculation of the former by linking the FA with the major clubs to create the Premier League. Having done this he failed to control the clubs, allowed them to push him into a larger league than envisaged, and to ignore much of the "Blueprint for Change" which was supposed to accompany the new structure. The consequence has been a steady increase in the gap between the top clubs and the rump which sits uneasily with the FA's duty to foster the whole of the game.

His supporters will point to the (belated) overhaul in the coaching structure, the more pro-active and media-minded administration, and the enormous increase in revenue. His detractors say that that is part of the problem - that the FA has become more interested in commercial activity than football activity.

It was Kelly's head for figures which first brought him into the game, in 1968. His playing career having stalled at the level of Blackpool's third team, for whom he kept goal, he had moved into banking with Barclays when the job of accounts assistant came up at Football League headquarters in nearby Lytham St Annes. Kelly rose to become secretary, the top job, in 1979 before moving to the FA 10 years later.

The Hillsborough tragedy was his first appearance in the spotlight; he did not handle it well and an image was formed. Despite losing weight, swapping his bouffant look for a sleeker gelled hairstyle, and sharper clothes, he has never truly lost it.

This led to his being a popular scapegoat and symbol of the FA's perceived lethargy when he was one of the leading proponents of change. The bureaucracy did need streamlining but the danger of concentrating power in the hands of the executive is that you are dependent on the quality of the few individuals concerned.

This is where Wiseman comes in. A compromise candidate on his election in the summer of 1996, he moved quickly to ally himself with Kelly. However, his position was further weakened by the revelation that he had made a paper fortune from the sale of Southampton and his failed attempt to make his position a salaried one - at pounds 75,000 pa. His unsuccessful attempt to get on to the Uefa Committee further dented his stature and the cumulative effect was that, instead of strengthening Wise- man's position by linking himself with Kelly, it fatally weakened the latter's.

The FA has now been plunged into crisis, with the position made worse by Wiseman's intransigence. Though David Davies, who has taken executive control, said the World Cup 2006 bid would not be affected, there would have been champagne and cheers at the German and South African headquarters yesterday. Quite apart from the obvious jibe that, if they cannot run themselves how can they run a World Cup, the bid has now lost Kelly's contacts and will be, however unfairly, tarnished by association with the whiff of corruption about this affair.

Davies, a good choice as temporary chief executive and a candidate for the job full-time, also said Glenn Hoddle's position as England manager would be unaffected. Maybe, maybe not. Wiseman and Kelly were two of Hoddle's biggest supporters and he is not thought to be as close to Davies as might be suspected from their collaboration on Hoddle's diary. That book, incidentally, did not help either Kelly or Wiseman and may hinder Davies if he seeks the top job.

Kelly is unlikely to spend long in the wilderness: one suspects his organisational skills and contacts will earn him another job soon enough, either on the board of a club or another administrative body. He may even try and organise a takeover at Blackpool, whose financial distress has pained him, even if the irony that this is partly due to the rise of the Premier League he created may have escaped him.

Nothing has marked his decade at the helm as much as the contrast between his departure and Wiseman's resistance. For all his faults, the FA could ill afford to lose Kelly. If it fails to get rid of Wiseman the folly will be compounded.


1 Graham Kelly worked in a bank until the age of 22, when he joined the accounts department of the Football League.

2 Kelly was assistant to the legendary League secretary Alan Hardaker, a man he described as "a cross between Napoleon and Genghis Khan on a bad day".

3 Kelly moved to the Football Association in February 1988, just nine weeks before the Hillsborough disaster, which he witnessed and later described as "horrendous".

4 Kelly was once a goalkeeper, who was told by Emlyn Hughes, the former Liverpool and England defender: "You'll always be a banker."

5 Kelly has played as a centre-forward for the FA's staff side, otherwise known as "Kelly's Heroes".