Why legendary Sheffield United goalkeeper Alan Kelly still has a buzz for the Blades, all these years on

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No matter how long the Premier League continues in its present form, with constant talk about breakaway leagues and the rest, clashes between Sheffield United and their namesakes from Manchester will always conjure up memories of one goal in particular.

August 15, 1992, 3.05pm and the first day of the Premier League as we know it. A long throw from Carl Bradshaw was flicked on, Peter Schmeichel was caught in no man's land and Brian Deane headed home a goal that will be remembered forever.

"I might be wrong, the memory might be playing tricks with me, but we always seemed to win our first game in that era," says Alan Kelly, who had just signed for United and watched on that day as United beat the visitors 2-1.

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"I remember the first day of the Premier League era, all the optimism and belief, and then we beat Man United, with the team they had ... it was a fantastic start and a brilliant occasion.

"I still speak to Deano quite a lot and I said to him, if he had copyright on that moment he'd never have to work again!

"I remember, for the want of a better word, all the razzamatazz. There was colour and streamers and balloons and flags, and there always seemed to be something happening in the crowd.

"I went back [before lockdown] and there was a light show before the game, and it really brought it all back for me.

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"On the day it was like watching Football Italia at Bramall Lane! United was one of the first, as a fanbase, to do stuff like that and I remember it well to this day."

Kelly had recently completed a move to United from his boyhood club Preston North End, where his dad, Alan Sr, was an iconic figure. Preston were in the Third Division at the time, and Kelly made his Premier League debut in September of that first season when Simon Tracey was sent off against Spurs.

Manager Dave Bassett described Tracey as having "the brains of a rocket horse" after picking up his second booking for rugby tackling a Spurs forward looking to take a quick throw-in, and it was the start of a healthy rivalry between the two goalkeepers - and a testament to both Kelly's ability and patience that he managed to play over 250 times for the Blades, despite having a rival of the quality of Tracey.

That victory over Manchester United was inspired by a Christmas party in August, which saw Bramall Lane transformed into something more resembling Santa’s grotto with tinsel, crackers and Father Christmas suits everywhere.

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Alan Kelly celebrates against CoventryAlan Kelly celebrates against Coventry
Alan Kelly celebrates against Coventry

The idea came from Derek French, United's physio and a long-time right hand man of Bassett. United, he reasoned, seemed to start seasons slowly before picking up after Christmas. “We thought we might as well get [Christmas] out of the way right at the beginning and then go from there,” French said. “And it worked.”

United comfortably retained their place in the Premier League, and went on to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup that season for good measure – beating Manchester United along the way. That remained the Blades’ last victory over their namesakes from over the Pennines, until their 2-1 win at Old Trafford back in January 2021.

In the semi-final at Wembley, packed full of Sheffielders, United lost to city rivals Wednesday after extra time. But an inspired performance from Kelly in goal cemented his legendary status at Bramall Lane, which remains to this day.

Stoke City v Sheffield Utd: Alan KellyStoke City v Sheffield Utd: Alan Kelly
Stoke City v Sheffield Utd: Alan Kelly

"The Premier League had just come about and I just wanted a chance," Kelly said about his move to Bramall Lane

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"Harry left a message on my answerphone, so I rang him back and he said he'd like to sign me for Sheffield United.

"I said yes, and he asked me what I wanted. I said: 'Whatever you think, Mr Bassett" and he offered me £25 more than I was getting at Preston, who were in the third division!

"I accepted it, because I wanted to play in the Premier League, and I bet he couldn't believe his luck. So I put the phone down and said to my wife: 'Right love, we're off to Sheffield'.

"Then the phone went again, and it was Harry ringing back.

"'I hear you've just got married?' he asked me. I told him that I had, so he offered me another £25 on top.

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Alan Kelly, goalkeeper for the Blades pictured with Paul BeesleyAlan Kelly, goalkeeper for the Blades pictured with Paul Beesley
Alan Kelly, goalkeeper for the Blades pictured with Paul Beesley

"That was Harry. He knew he'd got me for a steal anyway, but he got me on side instantly.

"His players had to have a certain character, and there had to be a togetherness.

"We could fall out, don't get me wrong, but it was almost like an army. You had to believe in the cause and push forward on the front foot, and deal with disappointment.

"That was the make-up of a player and a person that he wanted, especially in a goalkeeper."

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Before lockdown, Kelly returned to his old stomping ground with his son and belted out the Greasy Chip Butty song along with thousands of fans who once worshipped him.

"I was retired by the time he was born, but it was nice to take him back," Kelly said.

"Kids learn off their parents' actions, their views and passions, and he's only heard me and my wife say good things about Sheffield and Sheffield United.

"A fan was looking at me singing and was surprised that I knew the words!

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"I still remember that feeling of walking down Cherry Street for the first time to sign, coming into the main entrance and seeing those concrete pillars.

"Even going back years later, I still get the buzz that I felt then to this day."

This article was first published in January 2021 and is reproduced as part of The Star Sport’s ‘Best of 2021 series’

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