Tomorrow, when Sheffield United face Preston North End in the FA Cup, Alan Kelly will take a moment to reflect.
Remember the semi-finals he played in after moving to Bramall Lane, reminisce about two decades at Deepdale both as a player and a coach and, perhaps most poignantly of all, consider his late father’s relationship with a trophy he came within a whisker of lifting over half a century ago.
“It’s special,” Kelly admits, “Very, very special. How can it not be for me? There’s too many memories, too much history, for it not to be right up there on the list of football’s greatest things.”
Kelly’s name is synonymous with United, North End and, thanks to Alan snr’s exploits with the latter in 1964, the world’s greatest domestic knockout competition. Like his son, a former Republic of Ireland international goalkeeper, he was a member of the Preston squad which gave West Ham an almighty scare in front of 90,000 people at Wembley before Ronnie Boyce’s last minute winner ensured Ron Greenwood’s side prevailed. Having followed in dad’s footsteps by starting his career with the visitors, Kelly reached the last four twice after joining United at the beginning of the Nineties and, ahead of 1998’s showdown with Newcastle, secured himself a place in the club’s history books by saving three penalties during an epic quarter-final replay shoot-out against Coventry City. Little wonder he has no time for those who denigrate the tournament, claiming it lacks the prestige of the Premier League.
“People always talk about Brian (Clough) and his lad Nigel sitting together on the bench for an FA Cup match at Nottingham Forest,” Kelly, whose father went on to manage North End after hanging-up his gloves, continues. “I remember doing it with dad before that, though, so with those memories how can you not have an affinity with the cup? I very quickly learnt not to repeat some of the words I heard at home but it was brilliant to savour. That’s another reason it’s got a special place in my heart, coupled with the great games I had in it myself.”
Kelly made a combined total of 421 appearance for United and North End before also representing Blackburn Rovers, Stockport County and Birmingham. Having returned to the Lancastrians after retiring as a player, he has worked for Everton since October but still keeps a close eye on events in South Yorkshire.
“Chris Wilder is doing a tremendous job,” Kelly says, “One promotion and now he’s got the team into the Championship play-off positions, you can’t not be impressed. The thing that really strikes me is that he’s got them going about their work in exactly the way the fans want, brought the club back to Sheffield if you like. People in the city like talent but they’re honest, hard-working and they want to see someone giving their all. Chris’ side has got all of those qualities. The fans there will forgive a mistake if they can see you giving 100 per cent.”
Kelly, now aged 49, knows from personal experience. Indeed, he believes some of his own rare slips-ups, or rather his response to them, were responsible for endearing him to United’s support after being signed by Dave Bassett at in 1992.
“I dropped a few in to the net, as every ‘keeper will do from time to time, and I turned round to The Kop and held up my hands. I said ‘sorry about that’ and I think they appreciated it. Being open, not getting ahead of yourself, is really important there.”
Which brings him on to another factor behind United’s resurgence under Wilder, head of sports science Matt Prestridge and assistant manager Alan Knill.
“Chris has not only brought United back to the city but he’s also brought them back to the supporters. There’s no dividing line between the players and the terraces and that link, I reckon, is worth it’s weight in gold. To be honest, maybe it had become a little bit blurred beforehand.”
“I loved the United fans,” Kelly, who also appeared in their 1993 semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, adds. “They helped make it a really memorable time for me and, when you look back, that’s something I really honoured and proud to have.
“Little things, like not walking into the ground through a separate entrance, stopping to meet people and signing autographs, can make a big, big difference. And why shouldn’t you? The fans pay their hard-earned money to come and watch so players should reward them for that. They should show their appreciation.”
Kelly’s love for United remains undiminished despite leaving at the end of the 1998/99 campaign. The same, given his long association with the visitors, goes for North End, who travel to South Yorkshire only four points behind Wilder’s sixth placed squad in the table. With 13 FA Cup finals between them, the fourth round tie appeals on both a personal and professional level.
“It’s two great clubs with real pedigree,” Kelly says. “Obviously it’s a stand-out fixture for me but it should be for others too when you look at the background and way they go about their business. United always have a ‘go’ and Preston are the same; they’re also based on a positive mentality and good coaching. That, for me, is what football is all about.”