'We weren't as important as the starters but we had a big role'
On the 25th anniversary of Italia 90, team player David Kelly recalls his memories of life on the fringes of Ireland’s greatest sporting story
Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30
The flip-flops. David Kelly leans forward in his chair laughing at an image that he has just plucked from his memory.
It's the feeling of panic getting off the bus for an audience with the Pope and noticing that every other member of Jack Charlton's squad had put on a pair of smart trainers for the occasion. Kelly stared at his exposed feet, cursing his idiocy.
When Italia 90 is the subject matter, the stories flow. In the midst of a long discussion, Kelly heads off in tangents as recollections come to the surface. The 25th anniversary of an event that means so many things to so many Irish people lends itself easily to nostalgia.
The affable Brummie was there for every step of the way, albeit with a front-row seat as opposed to a central role in the action. All the highlights reels that will be replayed this month will be dominated by the iconic images: Sheedy's goal, Packie's save, O'Leary's penalty.
For the fringe members of the panel, who didn't see a minute of action, it was a curious adventure. With sincerity, the 49-year-old Kelly says that he looks back without regret. Sharing the experience from the inner sanctum is an honour he will cherish forever.
"At club level, I was a nightmare," he confesses. "Any manager that didn't pick me, I'd be knocking on their door on Monday morning and moaning.
"With the national team, I felt so fortunate to be involved in the first place and, being honest, there were better players than me. Really good strikers. I was happy to go, I really was."
Earlier that season, 'Ned' (as he is known in the game) feared missing out during an unhappy spell at West Ham, but a move to Leicester perked up his spirits. It was the relief and a hyperactive personality that drove him to savour every moment.
"You know, I don't need much sleep," he says, grinning. "In my younger days, I didn't want to miss anything. In Italy, if anyone was going somewhere, I wanted to go. It could be a walk. Visiting a place. I always afraid I'd miss out on something if I didn't."
It was that busy nature which placed him front and centre on the trip to the Vatican ahead of the quarter final with Italy, even though he wasn't remotely religious.
Despite his footwear, Kelly was towards the front of the queue as the tracksuited squad filed into their seats for the audience with Pope John Paul II. His blonde mop is visible in the archive, right there in the centre of the money shot - standing on the shoulder of kitman Charlie O'Leary as he chatted with His Holiness.
He could hear the grumbles from the mass-goers in the squad. "They're saying 'get back, get back'," he chuckles. "Trying to drag me back. 'You shouldn't be there, you've not even been to one mass' and I just shrugged them off. A few of us got to shake his hand so there I am, little old me, with possibly the most famous person in the planet who is loved by billions. In my flip flops."
Back in the hotel, resentment lingered and Kelly's punishment was to deal with the onerous task of compiling the order from the official photographer. "I got nominated because they wanted to kill me," he explains.
He spent hours going around the rooms with the proofs, jotting down the requests and taking the money. The next day, the snapper came back with the finished work and Kelly gave him back the envelope with the proofs.
But the photographer didn't want them. "He told me I could have them. So all the lads have paid for the photos and I've got the lot and I said 'okay, thanks very much' and put them in my case. They don't call me lucky Neddy for nothing."
Those pictures are in his house along with the framed shirt from his debut hat-trick against Israel, and a selection of other memorabilia. His happiest days were in an Irish jersey, with the bond in the party that made history at Euro 88 breeding a low-maintenance attitude that carried into Italy.
Kelly could put up with the substandard hotels. "It was the World Cup," he says. "We were there to play football, so as long as the bed's comfortable does it really matter that much? I know people get precious but from my point of view it was fine."
Balance was the key. Unwinding with a drink was allowed once the attitude in training was good. Charlton did ban sunbathing, fearing a negative impact. "We knew when to work," says Kelly. "We worked our rocks off.
"As the supporting cast, we weren't as important as the starters but we had a big role to play. We couldn't allow our heads to drop because it would have affected the spirit. You had to be spot on because if you've got a face on sticks then what's the point? Go home. You shouldn't be there."
During matches, the reserves crammed together on the bench. Kelly sat next to reserve keeper Gerry Peyton. "The best No 2 ever," he enthuses, "He'd speak about everything Packie was doing. There was this telepathic thing going on. Packie made all the saves but in Gerry's head he'd talked him into them."
Kelly was also in reserve at USA 94, a tournament which he doesn't recall with similar affection despite getting a run as sub against Norway. The game had changed and the supporting cast too. It was exciting, but the older heads longed for the way it used to be.
"It was a different group," he says. "Phil Babb had come in, Trigger (Jason McAteer), Kels (Gary Kelly). The press had changed, it was the start of rolling news and instant access. Everything was starting to be on Sky and there was a different way of putting sports news out.
"I remember Kevin Moran saying that in Germany in '88, we were just happy to be there. In Italia 90, we deserved be there and thought we could do something. And, obviously, 1994 was a different level of expectation."
The following year, Kelly made arguably his most famous contribution in an Irish shirt, the goal against England that was struck from the records when the game was abandoned thanks to the actions of mindless hooligans.
Yesterday's meeting in Lansdowne had symbolic importance as the Three Lions returned to Dublin for the first time since that night of shame. Kelly has spoken numerous times about the sense of bewilderment and sadness that was felt in the Irish camp when the abandonment was confirmed
That may be the trigger that reminds fans of his name, but it's well down the list in his personal memory bank. His 10-year spell in the fold, which yielded 26 caps, facilitated regular gatherings between the emigrants in his family and their relations in Castleknock, and that means a lot as elder members of the clan have since passed away.
In 2002, he kicked his last ball on Dublin soil, when a brief stint with Derry City culminated with FAI Cup joy in the final against Shamrock Rovers at Tolka Park.
"I went to Derry with a gentleman's agreement that if I got a job in England, they'd let me go," he recalls. "I got an offer to go to Tranmere under Ray Mathias so the cup final was my last game.
"I was flying in for matches and my flight in the morning was delayed by fog. I made it but I had to fly back later because I was in work the next day!"
That was the start of a new vocation as an assistant manager, teaming up with Billy Davies for spells at Sheffield United, Preston, Derby and Nottingham Forest. With the Scot out of work, he accepted an invitation from Mark Robins to join him at Scunthorpe last October.
"I thought I'd end up working in an academy," he says. "But at the end I realised I liked being around a dressing-room. And I suppose one of my strengths is that I'm good with people."
There is pride at surviving in a small market where some of his old Irish pals have struggled although the majority took the media route.
He bumps into Chris Hughton and Mick McCarthy regularly on the circuit, and keeps in touch with his neighbour Steve Staunton amongst others. They will always have something in common.
A peripheral part in Ireland's greatest sporting story didn't diminish Kelly's enjoyment. He could have sulked, but he made sure he lived to tell the tale.