AT 37 Glebe North supremo Liam Kelly is one of the youngest ever Hall of Fame recipients, but the Rush native's award at next weekend's Fingal Independent Sport Star Awards is richly deserved.
Already a long-serving and successful manager with the Balbriggan-based club, it's easy to forget what a big contribution he made to the League of Ireland as a player, when he won major trophies and played in some huge European ties - while being hugely unlucky to miss out on the biggest prize in domestic soccer. It all began with his home-town club Rush Athletic where a brilliant crop of players was developing at underage level. 'I think every youngster who gets into football has aspirations to go on and play professionally and I was lucky enough to do that,' he reflected. 'Myself, Stephen McPhail and David Worrell grew up together at Rush from when we were seven or eight, we all played schoolboy international football, Stephen played at full international level and David for Ireland B. 'I never ended up in England, but played with some great clubs in the League of Ireland and some great players and enjoyed every minute of my career.' Liam ended his schoolboy days with Belvedere before signing for then League club Home Farm, with whom he would go on to win promotion and play in the top flight. The striker was destined for greater things, though, and he made the short journey across north Dublin to Shelbourne who were then emerging as the kings of Irish soccer. 'We lost the league on the last day of the season and lost in the Cup final in my first season, and I remember being in awe to see how professional they were. My training kit was waiting for me in the dressing-room on the first day, and then we all dropped it into a heap on the floor afterwards where it was taken care of.' One of the most memorable games was the Uefa Cup first qualifying round tie with Glasgow Rangers in 1998. 'The first leg was at Prenton Park, we were leading 3-0 and I was playing against Gatuso, Arthur Newman, Lorenzo Amoruso, Porrini, Barry Ferguson and Gordon Durie. Amoruso was actually crying at that stage, but they came back and won 5-3 and we lost the second leg 2-0 in front of 54,000 at Ibrox. ' Nutsy' [Pat Fenlon] decided it was the right thing to do the Celtic huddle before kick-off! 'It was an unbelievable experience playing for Shels with the likes of Tony Sheridan, Fenlon, Stephen Geoghegan, Mick Neville, Mark Rutherford and Pat Scully - and of course Ollie Byrne was the character at the end of it all. 'He was brilliant. If you fell out with him you were finished, but if you did him a turn he would look after you. I remember him handing me someone else's signingon fee in a brown envelope. I knew it wasn't mine from the weight of it and handed it back to him! 'Even in general Shelbourne were really good to me and a lot of people from the club stay in touch with me to this day.' During his time at Tolka Park, Liam enjoyed a short spell with Glentoran in the Irish League. Recalling the circumstances, he said: 'I got glandular fever in my second season at Shels and was out for three to four months and when I came back they had won 14 games in a row. [Manager] Dermot Keely said I could play in the reserves for a while or go on loan to Glentoran. 'I went up and was told I'd never be called 'Liam' up there. They are a Protestant club and my name was always 'Billy Kelly' when it was read out over the Tannoy, but they treated me like royalty. 'It was a massive club and there were 14 or 15,000 there when we played Linfield. That was an experience in itself because the fans really hated each other.' Liam would spend the next four years with St Patrick's, with whom he won a League Cup, Leinster Senior Cup and in 2001 a Premier Division title ..... well, sort of. He takes up the story. 'The level of professionalism had gone up another notch and the preparation for games was phenomenal. We were in six days a week, we were the strongest team and ran away with the league. 'But we were docked nine points and then 15 because Paul Marney wasn't correctly registered, even though he'd been playing with us for a couple of years. It was just an administrative error and it did leave a bitter taste in the mouth. 'Shelbourne were given the title and we were given the title of Champions of Ireland and got gold medals.' Liam subsequently played for Shamrock Rovers and Longford Town (on loan) where he won an FAI Cup, before being forced to hang up his boots at the age of 27 when he suffered complications following a series of groin operations. 'It would have been great to experience playing more for Rovers, particularly as I had a three-year contract, but when I side-footed the ball at training one night I felt a little twinge and it turned out I had bled internally up to my stomach and I knew I couldn't go on. 'Now it's very hard to look at lads saying they're not interested in playing for me. People don't realise what they are missing until they don't have it or can't do it.' After two years sitting on his hands and 'doing my wife's head in', Liam got back into the game as manager of Loughshinny United. He steered them to their first ever cup final at Intermediate level, before assuming the reins at Glebe in 2006 - taking them up to the Senior Division of the Leinster Senior League and then winning the club's first trophy in 19 years. 'At the start we sat down and talked about where we wanted to go, managed to get back to the Senior Division, had a good three years where we finished in the top five and won the Charlie Cahill,' Liam added. 'This year we've been in transition and it's more difficult, but the club has come forward in leaps and bounds and the committee have been fantastic in getting the facilities going forward - dressing-rooms, hall, gym, Uefa-standard floodlights, a new pitch and a stand. 'I've had a couple of opportunities to manage clubs in the League of Ireland, but our oldest player in the back five is 19 and some of the young players we have got can be fantastic in the coming years. They can be challenging for honours for a long time to come.' Describing his action at receiving a Hall of Fame award, Liam added: 'Looking at some of the people who have won it before, it's fantastic to be in the same 'hall' as them. My old neighbour Con Martin snr was a winner a few years ago and I'm absolutely thrilled.'