Sheffield United: World Cup veterans give Iliman Ndiaye and Adam Davies key advice before Qatar
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Nearly three decades have passed since the former Sheffield United centre-forward was part of the squad which the late Jack Charlton steered into the knockout stages of USA ‘94, eventually bowing out to Holland following a match at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl. But Kelly’s words, about how being part of the greatest show on Planet Football and possibly the entire sporting universe can inspire an athlete to reach new heights, should still resonate at Bramall Lane. Two members of Paul Heckingbottom’s first team squad, Senegal’s Iliman Ndiaye and Adam Davies of Wales, travelled to the Middle East earlier this week for the forthcoming extravaganza in Qatar.
Neither Ndiaye, whose teammates begin their campaign with a match against the Dutch on Monday before Robert Page’s men face the Americans later that evening, have appeared at the tournament before. They are set, Kelly insists, for the experience of their lives. Even if, as happened to him at Italia ‘90, they don’t actually make it onto the pitch.
“It’s the absolute pinnacle, it’s called the World Cup for a reason, because you can’t go any higher,” Kelly tells The Star, from his home near Birmingham. Listen, the Champions League is great. So is the Copa America and the African Cup of Nations. But this above all of that. It’s universal and you’re a part of it. It’s history, as simple as that. And you’re helping, even if you’re only involved in the smallest way, to write that history.”
Kelly made 40 appearances for United towards the end of a career which also included spells at the likes of Walsall, West Ham, Newcastle, Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Now aged 56, he left South Yorkshire in 2001 before returning for a brief spell as then manager Neil Warnock’s assistant.
Kelly had a ringside view of some of the most memorable moments in the Irish game, including the spot-kick from David O’Leary which saw Charlton’s men beat Romania to set up a quarter final against hosts Italy in Rome 32 years ago. As Ndiaye and Davies will soon discover, representing your country while the eyes of the globe are upon you is a life-changing adventure.
“You’re out there with superstars. I was a Championship player, working with Kevin Sheedy, Ray Houghton, Roy Keane and the like. Then there’s the opposition. I couldn’t tell you the best player I saw. I admired the people around me too much.”
Ndiaye, fast becoming one of the most talked about youngsters outside of the Premier League after scoring nine times in 20 appearances for United this term, will be training and maybe featuring alongside Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy after being selected by Senegal. Wales, managed by ex-United defender Robert Page, can call upon the services of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey; previously of Real Madrid and Juventus respectively.
Mick Wadsworth, who until recently advised coaches at United’s Randox Health Academy, was a member of Bobby Robson’s support staff when England reached the semi-finals in 1990. An official match observer, gathering information on potential opponents, he advises Ndiaye and Davies to immerse themselves as much as possible in this year’s competition.
“Soak up everything you can,” Wadsworth says, when asked if he has any advice for the United duo. “Yes, you’re there to do a job. But take on board the different cultures, the different styles. If you don’t do that, then you’re missing out on a wonderful opportunity. It can really open your eyes and improve you.”
“We did realise the magnitude of what we were involved in because of how Jack managed. He trusted us, treated us like adults, and that’s why we often ended up in bars with fans.
“Okay, we had areas where we had to sit. But if you want to go to the toilet, you all end up going to the same place don’t you. Basically we were a gang of lads out having a few beers with the people who were there to back us. You can’t do that anymore. Technology, cameras on phones, has made it so much harder. Players don’t get to meet real fans and real fans don’t get to meet players.”
As well as mixing with members of the Green Army, Kelly also got to press the flesh with Pope John Paul II thanks to O’Leary’s penalty.
“When we beat Romania, we knew we were off to Rome and we had an audience. It was so humbling and we had our picture taken. He was a goalkeeper in his younger days and so he kept asking who was our ‘keeper - the great Packie Bonner of course. He made a real fuss of him.”
“Then, in the US, we were staying in Orlando so we went to Disneyland,” Kelly continues. “That wasn’t quite the same of course but I did manage to get a photo with Mickey Mouse while we were there.”
Both Wales and Senegal, the reigning African champions, will have high hopes of qualifying from their groups despite being placed in tough looking groups. Ndiaye and his colleagues also face Ecuador and the host nation. Page’s men have been paired with England, Iran and of course Gregg Berhalter’s side.
“If you have chemistry, you can go a long way,” Kelly reminds. “It’s eleven versus eleven at the end of the day. And if you’re successful, which everyone goes there hoping to be, then there’s a special bond between you and the supporters. That’s another prize in itself.”