Sunday 24 September 2017

Driven to be best he can be

A love of learning has made Stephen Kelly a rarity in the game, writes Dion Fanning

THE interview was scheduled for 2pm but Stephen Kelly was early. Footballers aren't on time very often and they're very rarely early. Waiting for them is part of the job. Waiting a few hours or waiting a day can be part of the deal with a footballer. On Friday afternoon, Kelly was already with the photographer standing at the top of Richmond Hill when I arrived.

An hour and a half later when he had told his story and I was trying to figure out what was the most remarkable example of this footballer's unusual dedication, it didn't seem so strange. There were so many images of his application: the teenager in his room doing his homework even though that day he had signed for Tottenham Hotspur; the boy with his coat wrapped tightly round him to shelter from the cold and the strangeness as he walked from White Hart Lane up Seven Sisters Road every week to study A-level biology; the bright-eyed kid in the Maynooth lecture hall who was engrossed by the sociology lecture even though he wasn't taking the course.

But it probably begins with the astonishing story of Michael Kelly. Michael Kelly never knew his birth parents. His birth mother was Irish but that was all he knew. When Michael Kelly was a baby, he was handed to a local priest who was asked to find a home for him. If a man's character is his fate then Michael Kelly's was already revealing itself. The priest knew of a couple whose children had just left home. They took Michael in, adopted him and loved him. Michael was mixed race, "a novelty in Ireland then," his son recalls.

"My dad was very lucky. He was adopted by a really loving family. Everyone knows what happened to a lot of people who went in to the system back then and I think, thank God that his parents took him in. They gave him a great life. His mam doted on him but he lost his dad when he was 13."

But Michael had security at home and he had love so he could deal with anything he encountered in the outside world.

His son isn't sure what his father had to deal with in Dublin in those times with but those who know him in Dublin football circles talk warmly of the imposing man who loved his family.

The baby Michael became an imposing man. Michael liked the security he found with his parents and he wanted that himself. He married his teenage sweetheart Bernadette when they were 17. Stephen Kelly liked the security that had been handed down through the generations too and he married Helga, his girlfriend since they were 16.

When he was growing up, Stephen Kelly absorbed these values. Nothing upsets him, he says, but he has always been driven to do more, not through anxiety but an eagerness to achieve. It might be a family characteristic -- his sisters are a teacher, a pharmacist, an accountant and a TV producer. "We never had pushy parents, they wouldn't force us to do stuff. They could be strict on us, but we always got the message that once we did our best, we'd be okay."

They knew, too, that they were different but sometimes others didn't. "It was never something that was brought to our attention. We kind of blended in, even though we don't look the same as everybody else and my dad stands out a mile. He's 6' 4", he's a big guy, But his name is Michael Kelly, he's from inner-city Dublin, he couldn't be more Irish. Every now and again, kids would say something but there was never anything too controversial. A lot of people don't know I'm mixed race."

A couple of years ago, one newspaper referred to Kelly as "perma-tanned", unaware that he was mixed race. "I've never really been offended by things before and I'm quite a laid-back person but it was sloppy journalism. If you're going to write something about someone you should know about their background."

He thinks racism is more of a problem in Ireland now than when he or his father were growing up. "With a lot more black people in Ireland now, I think there's more animosity."

The Kellys had certain values which they never lost. They liked to work and Stephen liked to learn.

By the time he went to secondary school at St Kevin's in Glasnevin, he was hooked. "People often get stressed out by school but I loved it."

You ask him what subjects he liked in school. He starts off with maths and biology, then remembers a few more, pretty sure he's rattling through the curriculum. "I really enjoyed school, especially when I went to secondary school. Primary school you just try and get through, don't you? But when I went to secondary school I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed being in every day. Funny, I enjoyed learning, I don't know what it is."

This desire for education has never left him. His parents would have liked him to stay in school and finish his Leaving Cert but Tottenham wanted him and Kelly, who had made the rounds of English clubs, wanted to go.

Clubs didn't do much for players who wanted more education in those days, but the Kellys were pretty insistent. That was how he ended up walking up the Seven Sisters Road every Tuesday to the College of North-East London for four hours of one-to-one biology tuition.

Some of his other classes were different. His tuition for business studies took place in a corporate box at White Hart Lane. In the end, he got two A-levels, with an 'A' in biology and another in business studies

Like many, he sometimes regrets not attending university. But while some will regret the lost years of wildness, Kelly would have liked the lectures.

He knows this because he attended a few. When he went to London, Helga stayed in Dublin and then studied in Maynooth. Kelly would visit her every week and attend Wednesday morning lectures.

"I was absolutely sucked in. She had one lecturer who was tremendous, he really sucked me in. I'd be there every Wednesday morning at 9 o'clock. I remember when she was graduating, he said to me, 'There was a time I thought you were one of the students because you were one of the only people there for the 9am lectures'."

The drive that had been with him since childhood pushed him on then. They will tell you Stephen Kelly wasn't the most talented player but nobody who ever saw him work is surprised he made it.

While others were content to wait for their chance at Spurs, Kelly wanted to be tested. The players who come through at a club are, he thinks, often seen as belonging to the club. He can understand the point of view as they have nurtured the players.

"In football, you will always have that point when you are tested and have an adverse situation," he says. At those moments, the attitude that had been spotted in Belvedere sustained him. He played against Southend and they asked him to come on loan. He went, he says, because "it was the opportunity to play against men all the time."

Roots Hall required certain values. Kelly had been raised in the Tottenham tradition and brought these smooth city ways to the Essex coast. In his first game, playing as centre-back, he picked the ball up off the goalkeeper, the Tottenham way, and went to hit a square ball to the other centre-half only to be told forcefully that things were done differently there. "It was rough and tough and I got a few lessons physically."

There were other loan spells, including one at QPR which saw him experience a play-off final at the Millennium Stadium. "Other lads my age at Tottenham were still playing youth team football. Other lads didn't want to make those decisions and were still in their comfort zone."

Kelly never felt comfortable in the comfort zone. He moved from Spurs to Birmingham -- "the best decision I ever made" -- because he wanted to be viewed as a senior player and not just someone who had come through the youth system, a perennial young player.

For Ireland, he went through underage sides with Brian Kerr who also called him into the senior squad. He made his debut under Steve Staunton and kept turning up.

There are other interests. His parents gave him a guitar on the day he left for London so he would have something to do and he has played it ever since. "I've got to a level where if I need to progress, I need to get some lessons." Recently, through his friendship with Damien O'Donohoe at Ikon Talent, which represents him, he's got to know Ben from Mumford & Sons. Ben has been to Fulham a few times and, Kelly says smiling, he might ask him for a gig yet. "Meeting the guys like that is great, though, because I really appreciate what they do."

Dedication, a man once said, is simply the ability to be the last man standing. Kelly has demonstrated this through his career.

At Fulham, he has always fought. Last season, Martin Jol came in with some new ideas and Kelly didn't appear to be among them. By the end of the year, Kelly, once again, was a regular. He hasn't played a minute in the league this season, despite signing a contract extension this year, but his character suggests that might change.

His dedication was tested again in the summer. He started three of Ireland's games in the qualifying campaign as well as the play-off in Estonia. Ireland have never lost when Kelly has played. The night before the play-off in Tallinn, he felt a muscle go.

He feared he had torn his quad, a fear that would be confirmed when he had a scan. But he postponed the scan and first played for Ireland when the unspoken code for many professionals is that you put your club first.

Before the European Championships, he broke his wrist. He knew what Trap could be like with injuries so he wanted to manage the news. "I didn't want the manager to find out I'd broken a bone. If the manager gets something in his head, it's in his head. He can be black and white with certain injuries so I didn't want to release it until I was back playing."

By the time the news was out, Kelly was playing with a cast. Yet, as the European Championships approached, he admits it was tough that Trapattoni knew his first team for months before the tournament began and he wouldn't consider changing it, no matter how bad things got.

"I'd never experienced that before and it's extremely frustrating. Last season, I was playing every week for Fulham and you think you've got a great chance of playing in the tournament. So for the manager to make it clear straight away that you don't was very difficult. I feel like I did enough to warrant a position."

As the tournament went from bad to worse, Kelly felt he had a chance. "I think towards the end people thought there would be changes but he stuck with the team and had no intention of changing it. That was frustrating. If the team had done well, then you could see why but the fact that we'd under-performed, you'd think would give him the opportunity to make changes. But he didn't and that was his decision."

Darron Gibson is one player who has found the disappointment of the summer too much to overcome. Kelly points out that he had more reason than most to be disappointed at not playing a minute in the summer.

He felt more sympathy with Kevin Foley than Darron Gibson. "It was hard what happened to Kevin. Darron didn't play when he was over there, that's the manager's prerogative. But there's a lot of us in that position, I think I'm in it more than anyone. I felt I played a huge part in the game that got us to the Euros in Tallinn. I've given a lot to the team. To be perfectly honest, if anyone is to feel aggrieved at not playing, I think I have the strongest case."

Kelly's approach is different to Gibson's. "It's not through my lack of conviction that I'm not annoyed. Of course I am. But the way I see it is, if you don't turn up, you can't play and the only way I'm going to get to play for my country is if I'm there."

Kelly knows he has a chance of playing against Germany. Trap might decide that Kelly's pace is an asset against the Germans' swift attackers. Even this logic sometimes frustrates him.

"I've had this everywhere in my career. I always get picked for the toughest game and I sometimes think, 'If I'm good enough to play in the hardest games, I can play in the other ones'. It is a compliment but I think it should be an asset in every game."

He admits that he found the constant suggestion that his club-mate Damien Duff might come out of retirement "strange".

"Every interview I do, people keep asking me about it and it's more coming from the fact that the manager's talking about it. As far as I'm concerned, Damien's retired. He's a really good friend of mine and he's made the decision for himself and for his family. I think it's strange that they keep going on about it. Not the media.

"The media keep going on about it because the manager's talking about it. I think it's strange that the manager and staff keep bringing it up. If they have any private conversations with Damien just leave it at that. I think it should be nipped in the bud. The speculation is ridiculous and it's been dragged on for no reason."

None of these incidents distract Stephen Kelly. He will be in Dublin this week, training as hard as he can, ready to take his chance if it comes his way.

He knows no other way. He has enough evidence from his family's history to believe that a man's character can be his fate.

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