Written by Sid_lambert
“HAMMERS NAIL HITMAN KELLY” screamed the headline in the Friday edition of the Daily Mirror. I remember it vividly, not least because it would spend nearly two years pinned to the notice board in my bedroom that served as a homage to all things West Ham United.
There’d been a gaping hole in my heart all summer created by the departure of Tony Cottee to Everton. Images of the talismanic striker adorned all four walls. I’d cut out every image, quote and interview. I’d memorised every statistic, every word. I could tell you his favourite telly, his favourite food and his favourite singer. For that fact alone, I was slightly jealous of Luther Vandross.
But now my hero was gone. The man whose partnership with Frank McAvennie had taken us so close to the league title in 1986, had given up on Upton Park.
And who could blame him? John Lyall’s team had gone from heroes to zeroes in the space of two seasons. From championship chasers to basement battlers. McAvennie had gone to Celtic and not been replaced. Key players had lost form and fitness. A threadbare squad – the Cearns family kept their hands in their pockets in spite of the desperate need for investment – had clung to their top tier status in 87-88. Cottee could see the writing on the wall. At least his £2.2m fee, a British record, gave us plenty of cash to rebuild the ailing Hammers.
There were rumours about Kerry Dixon from Chelsea, or even Big Bastard Mick Harford from Luton, though neither materialised. Then word spread about a player at Third Division Walsall who was a target for all the big clubs. Kenny Dalglish had even been spotted at the Bescot Stadium back in May. Christ, if King Kenny was interested, then he must be good. It would have taken the Liverpool boss hours to get down the motorway at rush hour for 7.30pm kick-off. The last people to make that commitment to visit the Midlands were the Luftwaffe.
This hot property in question was David ‘Ned’ Kelly, a golden-haired young Irishman who apparently would have his pick of the top clubs. As the summer went by, Arsenal and Liverpool kept their guns holstered. West Ham that took their shot. A £600,000 fee was enough to secure the services of one of the football league’s top talents.
No matter your age, nothing quite gets the pulse racing like a newspaper headline announcing a star signing. Your mind races. Your heart beats so fast it wants to burst out of your skin. The possibilities are endless.
I can still see my ten-year-old self marvelling at that back page now. Kelly, his blond mane whistling in the wind, in action for Walsall. I pictured him in claret, blue and AVCO and laughed at Liverpool’s misfortune. How had they let him slip? The best striker in the league, or maybe even THE WORLD, was on his way to West Ham and he only cost six hundred grand. Wait until the other signings get here. We’ll never be in relegation trouble again.
Or so I thought.
With the cash burning a hole in the boardroom pockets, the summer didn’t deliver the transfer frenzy I’d hoped for. The only other summer signing was Allen McKnight, a Northern Irish goalkeeper from Celtic. But there were still problems all over the park that needed addressing. Alan Devonshire, Liam Brady, Stewart Robson and Alvin Martin were stricken by injuries and things had got so bad that Billy Bonds had packed away his claret and blue zimmerframe to shuffle back into action at the grand old age of 41.
Even with my relatively poor grasp of maths – we hadn’t even started long division at school – the sums didn’t quite add up. Where were the rest of the signings?
Never mind, at least we had David Kelly.
The Irish striker isn’t a man who divides opinion amongst the West Ham fans. Try it sometime. Mention his name and you’ll see many a middle-aged man drift into the abyss of despair that was following West Ham in the late eighties. God, it was awful.
The opening match of the 1988-9 season dealt West Ham a trip to fellow strugglers Southampton. The team was much the same as the crap that barely avoided being flushed out of the First Division the previous year. Brady and Devonshire, whose joints were held together by chewing gum, were injured. Steve Potts and Julian Dicks were the league’s most inexperienced full-backs, whilst in midfield Georgie Parris and Kevin Keen tried to do the running for the slow-motion limbs of Stewart Robson, a shadow of the player he’d been before injuries took their toll.
Allen McKnight wasn’t ready for his debut so Tom McAllister started in goal. And up front, David Kelly made his much-anticipated debut.
First impressions of Kelly were mixed. To call him skinny would do him a grave injustice. He was one missed meal away from Bob Geldof getting the band back together. To call him a soft touch was an understatement. He looked like he’d lose a fight with a bus ticket. Starved of service and up against seasoned hard men Russell Osman and Kevin Moore, he was bullied from start to finish.
As were the rest of his team-mates. West Ham lost 4-0 in a scoreline that flattered them. A 3-1 defeat at home to perennial relegation fodder Charlton suggested that Lyall’s side were in for another dismal season.
Kelly got off the mark in his fourth league start, a 2-2 home draw with Villa, and scored in both legs of the League Cup tie with Sunderland, including a brace at Roker Park. The Irons were reserving their best form for the cup competitions, despatching Derby 5-0 and then humbling mighty Liverpool 4-1 in a match that announced two-goal Paul Ince as an outstanding talent.
Unfortunately, league performances remained terrible. The home form was particularly galling. Fortress Upton Park was breached at regular intervals and we would win a pathetic three home games all season. On the road, goals were flying past Allen McKnight who was offered scant protection by the defenders in front of him. Arsenal and Luton stuck four past us and by December we were mired in 18th place.
To his credit, Kelly had actually scored 9 goals (5 league, 4 cup) by this point of the season and there were tentative signs that a partnership with Leroy Rosenior might be starting to blossom. Unfortunately, both men went goalless during a disastrous December when we picked up three points from five games and fell to the bottom of the league.
Fingers were being pointed. Blame was being shifted, both inside and outside of the dressing room. The remnants of the Boys of ’86 were protected by their reputation and the new signings became convenient scapegoats. The goalkeeper had already been christened “McKnightmare” after a series of gaffes and game-by-game his confidence cracked further. It’s worth noting that after leaving Upton Park he barely played football again. It’s a sign that the club’s transfer policy was hopelessly misguided and that the East End can be a tough place to play football if you don’t have a thick skin.
Meanwhile Kelly, who was clearly too raw to fill Cottee’s shoes, became another terrace target. No one questioned his effort, which eclipsed many of his under-performing peers, but his quality wasn’t enough for the highest level. In the corridors of Anfield, Kenny Dalglish was applauding his own judgement.
Despite that, the Irishman played his part in a midwinter mini-revival. Arsenal were toppled in an FA Cup replay at Highbury and Kelly scored in a precious 2-1 win at Derby that lifted us to the giddy heights of 19th position.
His most meaningful contribution of the season came in a League Cup quarter-final win over Aston Villa. Over 30,000 packed into the Boleyn Ground to enjoy a welcome release from the drudgery of Barclays Division One. After a tepid penalty miss by Liam Brady, Paul Ince put the hosts in front from long range. Then Kelly took centre stage. Tony Gale flicked on a Brady free-kick, Kelly spun his marker and in one explosive moment, lashed a left-footer into the top corner. It was technique worthy of any top-flight striker. If only we’d seen more of it.
He played a bit-part in the rest of the season after Lyall pulled what seemed to be a masterstroke in re-signing Frank McAvennie from under the noses of Arsenal. The hero had returned and Kelly was shoved to the sidelines.
In the event, McAvennie would make 9 uneventful appearances without scoring and it was Leroy Rosenior’s late-season form that nearly provided the greatest of escapes. Unfortunately, relegation was confirmed in a 5-1 battering at Liverpool.
Kelly finished the season with 11 goals in 39 league and cup appearances, bettered only by Rosenior’s stat of 15 in 39. The season prior Cottee had scored 15 in 44. Set against that context, it’s hard to justify Kelly’s unwanted place in West Ham folklore.
Though he made a handful of substitute appearances in the madness of Lou Macari’s brief reign, for many Irons fans he is remembered for that miserable final season under Lyall. His name resurfaces occasionally. When anyone talks about Worst Ever West Ham Strikers, a list that has lengthened substantially longer under the current ownership, David Kelly always gets plenty of mentions.
But was he really that bad?
The Irishman, who went on to have a respectable second-tier career at Leicester, Newcastle, Wolves and Tranmere, once described his time at Upton Park as joining a “bad team at a bad time.” With the benefit of hindsight, there’s evidence to support that. Ray Stewart, Liam Brady and Alan Devonshire were all sliding towards retirement. Tony Gale, Mark Ward, Alvin Martin and Frank McAvennie would never again the scale the same heights as they did in ‘86. Meanwhile, George Parris and Kevin Keen, both fine servants for the club, struggled to establish themselves at the top level.
Football fandom is a world of absolutes these days. You can go from legend to liability in a matter of weeks (just ask Romelu Lukaku). When you’ve got the likes of Merson and Stelling spewing out soundbite after clueless soundbite, there’s no space for clear thinking.
It’s not fashionable to say it, but some players are just at the wrong level. Maybe the ten-year-old me still feels sorry for him. Or maybe David Kelly just gets a raw deal.
I think of the likes of McCarthy and Mido, appalling, overweight and unprofessional, and find it hard to lob him in with those lumps of lard.
Ultimately, he tried hard and wasn’t good enough, in a team that wasn’t good enough, for top-flight football. But worst ever? Not even close.
Which reminds me, has anyone heard from Emmanuel Emenike?
About the author: Sid Lambert is a football writer who recently published his new 5* rated book Cashing In. It tells the story of Ray Cash, a 19-year-old footballer making his way through the murky world of the Premier League back in the 1990s, when football changed forever. You can buy it here.