By Les Crang
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. – William Shakespeare
In many ways the forgotten man of Arsenal history, Eddie Kelly: a man who scored more cup final goals than RVP, Bergkamp and Thierry Henry combined; a player who captained the club but left under a cloud; and a player from Scotland who never made the full international team and only 3 appearances for the under 23 team [the precursor of the under-21 international teams]. People often say that Charlie George‘s career, after scoring the winner in the 1971 cup final, never reached the same heights thereafter, but for me, it feels like Kelly, who also scored in that same game, is the one who never really fulfilled his early promise.
Eddie Kelly was a Glaswegian who Bertie Mee signed as an apprentice from Scottish team Possilpark YMCA in 1966*. Although chased by Scottish teams Aberdeen, Celtic and Hibernian, Eddie liked the set up and Scottish contingent (such as Ian Ure, Frank McLintock and George Graham) at the Arsenal. Unfortunately, Kelly, when offered professional forms at Arsenal, nearly lost this chance when he went to see manager Bertie Mee. As David Tossell wrote in 71 Guns:
They had just introduced this new thing where you got a £250 signing-on fee, so I went to see Bertie and I sat down with him and he said, ‘Eddie, we want to sign you as a professional and you know you also get £250 to help you out. Are you going to sign?’ I said to him, ‘Well, I want to sign but I’d like to get my mum and dad something to show my appreciation for what they’ve done for me growing up.’ Bertie asked what I was talking about so I said, ‘is there any chance of the club getting them a three-piece suite or something?’
Bertie blew his top, He said ‘Get up and get out of this office. Arsenal don’t do things like that. Come back in the morning and your plane ticket will be ready to go back to Glasgow.’
Mee later rescinded the decision and Kelly was signed. A roguish midfielder with a knack for long range goals and some might say important ones too. Kelly’s debut was the season of 1969-70, against Sheffield Wednesday in 1969 in a match which ended 0-0. The relevance of season 1969-70 for many Arsenal fans is that prior to this, Arsenal had not won a trophy for 17 years; since winning the League in 1952-1953.
Arsenal had gone through a plethora of managers, and at this time had former physio, Bertie Mee, as manager. Mee had brought through some exciting home grown young players such as Charlie George, Ray Kennedy and Pat Rice among others as well as buying experienced players such as Bob McNab and George Graham.
In his time as manager from 1966 to Eddie Kelly’s debut, Arsenal had reached two league cup finals against 3rd division Swindon and 1st division Leeds United. They had lost both: embarrassingly against Swindon and violently against a notoriously aggressive Leeds United team. In season 1968-69, Arsenal came 4th, to earn a place in the European Fairs cup, which was only the second time Arsenal had played in Europe. Season 1969-70 would be the year Arsenal would rise from the ashes and become a team that could win things.
A small crowd, lack of character, and a poverty of tactical thought combined to bring a dullness that was only partially broken by the thought that Arsenal may well have discovered a young player who could play an important role in their future. Kelly, not long up from the junior teams, strode the midfield with an authority lacking in his more senior colleagues.
Kelly provided the afternoon’s only adventurous moment when, late in the game and with Arsenal 2-I ahead, he came through on the left looking as if a wall would not stop him. A gap widened before him, he took Graham’s pass, and a glance showed that the traditional shot to the far post was needed. The ball dipped and dropped behind Montgomery like a missile homing on its victim. So, after waiting all afternoon for the vaunted Marinello to raise the depression, the task had fallen to a youngster who had cost but a fraction of the Scotsman’s price.
As the season of 1969-70 came to an end, Arsenal had the first crack at winning a trophy after 17 years. Arsenal made it through a European campaign in which we had beaten a Johan Cruyff led Ajax team (one that would go one to win 3 consecutive European cups) 3-1 on aggregate. And in the final, Arsenal would have to play Anderlecht over two legs.
We lost the first leg away in Belgium 3-1 but another Arsenal youngster, Ray Kennedy, had scored the away goal. For many fans and players, going 17 years without a trophy had meant a lot of disappointment. On the players part, Arsenal captain Frank McLintock certainly felt this. Frank had lost four cup finals (two FA Cup and two League Cup) so by all accounts McLintock really ‘wanted it’. Bob Wilson had said after the defeat in the first leg that Frank:-
Emerged from the shower to urge his team to victory in six days time [for the return leg]. ‘He was like Mel Gibson in Braveheart… By the time we left to go back to the hotel, we were all convinced we could win.’
The return leg at Highbury had a full attendance at the ground, Kelly played in the midfield. Arsenal took a first half lead via Kelly’s first goal when he hit a 20 yard half-volley home. He later said of the goal:-
I didn’t have time to take aim – I just let go and hoped for the best. I could have jumped out of the stadium when i saw it go into the top of the net.’
Goals from John Radford and Jon Sammel made it a 4-3 aggregate victory. It was our first trophy in 17 years and first European trophy. I think for us, as fans, winning that trophy let out a lot of anxiety from the previous years. Lets remember over that period Spurs had become the major team in Middlesex, winning 6 trophies.
Afterwards, McLintock said:-
On the night, as a team, individually and collectively, we couldn’t have played any better. Everyone was on fire and the crowd was really behind us. Winning that cup was so important – the first trophy in 17 years. We were becoming a good team and now we had confidence to go with it.
Kelly’s first season had meant he’d become a regular in the team (playing 24 games and scoring 3 goals) and won a trophy as well as scoring in a European final. Kelly’s importance to the double-winning team the following year can’t be underrated in more ways than one.
The season of 1970-1971 is of course remembered for the Arsenal double, but, although I was only just out of nappies then, it seems the hardest. Hard, in that during that period you were allowed one player as a substitute. Arsenal during this period of 60 games used just 16 players, which included Peter Marinello and Sammy Nelson who played less than 10 games combined. It was also hard in that Arsenal were facing the great Leeds United team under Don Revie, which the previous season nearly won an unprecedented treble. Leeds were a hungry and dirty team who played to win. Arsenal though were a team, with only one outstanding player in Charlie George (who got injured at Everton and was out for a large part of the season). To me this team won for everyone, whilst the 1998 team and 2002 double teams had Bergkamp, Overmars and Henry, players that could change a game, the ‘71 side ground out results, winning 10 league games 1-0.
For Eddie Kelly though it was a rather unusual season, a season of amazing highs and lows. Although a goalscorer against league champions Everton in a 4-0 win early in the season, as a youngster in only his second season, Kelly was not to tuned into the ‘dark arts’ of Leeds United, who Arsenal played in September 1970. In a 0-0 draw at Highbury Kelly got his first red card. Kelly said of the incident:-
[Billy] Bremner went over the top on me and got my knee and thigh. A couple of minutes later I retaliated. Billy knew I was I was a young lad and knew I had been playing well for Arsenal… So at the next throw-in I tried to scissor kick him. It was stupid.
That Arsenal held on for a draw underlined the team spirit at Arsenal. Afterwards the ref was surrounded by Arsenal players and head coach Don Howe calling him a disgrace.
When Kelly went before the F.A, The Times said:-
Eddie Kelly, Arsenal’s 19-year-old Scottish wing half, received a four weeks’ suspended sentence and was fined £50 by an F.A. disciplinary committee in London yesterday. Kelly, who had asked for a personal hearing, was sent off in the first division match against Leeds United on September I when he was involved in a clash with the Leeds captain. Billy Bremner. After the hearing a spokesman for the disciplinary committee said: “The case was found to be proved, but in fixing sentence it was taken into consideration that the player was provoked.”
Other examples of the team’s spirit often featured Kelly in many instances. For example, in Rome after the Lazio match in the Fair cup, the fight was stopped when the police arrived and pulled a gun on Kelly.
Kelly’s second season at Arsenal consisted of him playing 44 games, scoring 5 goals, and winning the Double. The most important of his five goals that season was firstly at home to Stoke in which Kelly scored in a 1-0 win — the previous match away had ended in a humiliating 5-0 defeat. The other was obviously his equaliser in the 1971 FA Cup final in which he became the first substitute to score in a cup final. Of the goal:-
I never thought it had been me who scored, but Bob McNab, who was doing some work for ITV, told me the next day I had got the last touch. So that was more celebrating I had to do! But there was no haggling about it, we weren’t that type of team.
In his first two seasons Kelly had won the double and a European trophy. From the outside it looked like it could only get better but it certainly didn’t.
Frank McLintock and Bob McNab felt Eddie wasted his talent on booze and chips. Kelly agreed to some extent when he said the reason he never played for Scotland was that he partied with some team-mates after a Scotland under 23 match (bit like Willie Young, 5 years later).
Over the next few years Kelly was a regular in a team that Bertie Mee tried to rebuild too quickly after the double side. Selling McLintock to QPR and George Graham to United signaled Arsenal’s decline into a pretty poor team in the early and mid 70’s. Mee had signed Alan Ball, but he couldn’t stop the rot. By 1975-76 Ball’s transfer request was accepted and Kelly became team captain at 23 (the youngest captain at the time, only surpassed by Tony Adams 12 years later). Unfortunately, Kelly missed the first 5 matches and Ball was reinstated as captain. Kelly said of this:-
The biggest thing for me was being captain of Arsenal. The only thing I was ever upset about at Arsenal was the way they took the captaincy from me. I still don’t know why they did it. No one ever told me. Bert told me at about quarter to three.
By season 1977-78 Kelly joined QPR for a season, played for Leicester, Notts County and Bournemouth. Kelly ended his professional career at Torquay where he now sells double glazing. I really can’t see any of our last double winning team doing that now can you?
So why Eddie Kelly? I suppose its because, for me, the first double team were that, a team. They’d fight together, play together, and drink together and that team did all this to the ultimate level. When I think of that team, Kelly was like a few of those players, uncapped (Peter Simpson, Jon Sammels and George Armstrong being the others, whilst Bob Wilson won 2 caps and Charlie George 1 cap). It was a great team that in so many ways wasn’t given the admiration it deserved. Especially Eddie Kelly.
*a team which included Kenny Dalglish