Kelly leading fight for West Yorkshire pride

Dewsbury coach faces a fierce rivalry in National League One qualifying final but he has already won a far bigger battle, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

The Dewsbury coach has steered his side into tomorrow's National League One qualifying final, despite being diagnosed with cancer in mid-season. "I found a lump in my right testicle and thought that, at 44, I'd better get to the doctor," Kelly says.

That turned out to be a false alarm, but a routine scan on his kidneys showed a tumour there. "Any tumour in the kidneys is treated as cancerous, so they said they would have to remove it."

It came as a shock to Kelly and everyone around him. A former top-line second-row forward with Wakefield Trinity and Hull KR who has had a varied coaching career since retiring as a player, he gave - and still gives - the impression of being fighting fit.

"I felt all right, so it was a massive surprise to me. Everyone said the same thing - that they didn't believe it. I felt fine. I'd had some backache, but I put that down to wear and tear.

"But news like that suddenly puts your mortality in question and you have to make sure that things are sorted out for your wife and family, just in case. You're more concerned about your family than yourself."

Kelly had the operation to remove his right kidney this summer and was back at work with Dewsbury a few weeks later, after senior players like Ryan Sheridan and Francis Maloney had held the fort in his absence.

"You've got to be positive and optimistic and I wanted to get back as soon as I could. You do start to feel stronger and last week was the first time I've taken all the training sessions.

"That has been the motivation for me. My schedule was to be all right for the play-offs and then to be ready for my job as assistant coach with Ireland for the European Nations Cup. I wanted to be involved in that and I didn't want it to be a passive involvement.

"Rugby league has been a great help to me in giving me something to aim for. I'm quite happy to talk about it all, because it might help other people. They don't want to see me for another six months and that's a good sign."

Much as he enjoys the international dimension that Ireland give him, Kelly's immediate priority is to guide Dewsbury to a victory over Batley at the Halton Stadium tomorrow that would see the two neighbouring clubs swap divisions.

Under the arcane system in use for the National Leagues, Batley - next to bottom in NL1 - have been involved in the play-offs with the sides finishing second to sixth in NL2. The upshot is that two towns four miles apart do battle at Widnes. "We can't do any worse than we did last time, at least for the first 40 minutes," Kelly says. "We couldn't hold the ball and we lost our discipline."

Batley beat Dewsbury 40-20 in that meeting earlier in the play-offs, leaving the Rams to negotiate the longer route to the final by beating Workington.

That is probably enough to install Batley as favourites tomorrow, although Kelly and his opposite number, Gary Thornton, agree that what they would really like is for the two clubs to be in the same division, with the guarantee of regular derby matches.

Of the two, it has been Dewsbury who have experienced the more dramatic highs and lows in recent years. They actually qualified for promotion to Super League - under the coaching of Kelly's brother, Neil - in 2000, but were turned down because their compact ground does not meet the competition's criteria.

Andy, whose finest hour was two years earlier when he led Wakefield into Super League - where they have been ever since - now believes that the transition from NL2 to NL1 could be even more difficult than that. "There will be at least five teams in NL1 next year who will be full-time professionals. That's half the division and there's no prospect of Dewsbury being able to do that in the foreseeable future.

"Competing with that top five will be extremely tough. We would be comfortable just competing for two years before we start to progress again or to think about winning anything." Perhaps what Kelly has been through this season has helped him to see matters like this in their true context.

"Something like this does put everything into perspective. You see the importance of things differently. You look at little feuds and arguments and they just aren't that important any more."