New age beckons for Kelly

Simon O'Hagan talks to the Wolves striker making an impact in the FA Cup
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IT IS easy to keep in with David Kelly. Just lie about his age. The Wolverhampton Wanderers striker has an Irish journalist friend who has this down to a fine art.

"It started when I was 25," Kelly explained at a snowy Molineux on Friday, "and he used to write `the 24-year-old'. Then when I got to 26, it was still `the 24-year-old'. When I got to 27 it was 25. And now it's 26. What a player!"

So one feels a bit of a heel reporting that Kelly is in fact 29. Perhaps Kelly's friend thinks no one would believe him if he gave the striker's correct age, because Kelly is one of those sportsmen who burst on the scene as an exciting young prospect and seem stuck in the role for ever.

"I've always felt young," Kelly said. "I suppose it's my outlook on life." But did he feel he had missed the boat? "I don't think I've missed anything," he replied evenly. "I've been to two European Championships and a World Cup. Is that missing the boat?"

It is also true that, in spite of his relatively advanced age, Kelly still has a lot to look forward to. Like finally establishing himself in the Republic of Ireland team, and playing in the Premiership, a level which, for all his talent, he has only experienced in two of the 12 seasons he has been a professional. But those two seasons, at West Ham in the the late Eighties, were miserable enough to put him off for life.

Now, with Wolves fifth in the First Division as they go into today's match at home to Portsmouth, and through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup - they take on Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday - it looks as if we might at last see Kelly on the stage many feel should have been his natural habitat all along.

Kelly is from Birmingham - the Irishness comes courtesy of a Dublin-born father - and started as a non-League player for Alvechurch while working at a chocolate factory. Then Alan Buckley, the manager of Walsall, spotted him.

"He was absolutely brilliant," Buckley, now manager of West Bromwich Albion, said. "So much movement. Always looking for the pass he might make or might receive. He was raw, but supremely confident."

Then the question of money came up. For taking delivery of chocolate sent back to the factory by dissatisfied customers ("It just got recycled"), Kelly earned £75 a week. Buckley offered him £50. Kelly was a bit put out. "Well do you want to be a footballer or not?" Buckley asked the lad, and threw in £10-worth of bus pass as an incentive. The bus pass clinched it; Kelly was on his way.

Five seasons at Walsall brought him 63 goals in 147 games, the first of his 18 international caps, and the attention of the top division. But when the inevitable move came, Kelly chose badly - West Ham, "the wrong club at the wrong time", according to Buckley, where his potential was crushed under criticism from fans looking for a scapegoat for their team's failings.

"I don't feel bitter about it," Kelly said. Nobody ever says they do. "It was as if someone had to get it in the neck for what was basically a bad team. Looking back, I think some of the older players might have taken more responsibility. They seemed to be more interested in looking after themselves than the club."

Next stop was Leicester, and then Newcastle, where Kelly also had cause to feel let down. His 35 goals in 70 games were a big factor in the club's rise from the wrong end of the First Division to promotion to the Premiership, but within three weeks of that, Kevin Keegan told him he was not required any longer.

"Obviously I was disappointed," Kelly said. "But I've got total respect for Keegan. He thought he had got the best out of me and that was that. He's done it to other players, hasn't he? Andy Cole, for example. And the bloke he brought in to replace me was Peter Beardsley. So that wasn't too much of a dent in my pride."

It is Wolves, of course, who are now trying to "do a Newcastle" a club with which in terms of heritage, ambition and spending power they can certainly compare themselves. But Kelly sees differences as well as similarities. "At Newcastle, Sir John Hall and Keegan arrived and whoosh, it all happened in an instant. Here you feel it's been built up over years. There is more of a steady flow to things."

And they are different on the pitch, too. The team is just that, Kelly said, not the collection of stars of which he was merely one at St James' Park. "I'm definitely a better all-round player. I've got more responsibility going back as well as forward. I've got to link in more." It hasn't stopped Kelly scoring goals - 17 so far during a season in which Graham Taylor ("tactically the best manager I've worked for") has brought the best out of a squad ravaged by injury.

What of the future? At 29, even bright young prospects have to think about that. Kelly, married with a two-year-old son, is a partner in a golf driving-range in Lichfield. "I'm hoping that will do quite well." But in the shorter term what he wants is another contract - his present agreement runs out at the end of the season - and a few years at the top.