|This is an extract from Martin’s first book “Touching Distance”. His latest book “Rafa’s Way” is published on June 5th 2017 – pre-order author-signed copies now here for £19.99 including UK delivery.|
Newcastle United v. Portsmouth 25 April 1992
The 85th minute of newcastle’s final home game of the 1991/92 season had passed and the club was in a relegation place. They were drawing 0–0 against Portsmouth. The last game was away at Leicester, a week later.
Leicester were pushing for automatic promotion. They had lost just four of the 22 league games that had been played at Filbert Street. They had won their last five games there.
Oxford were drawing with Ipswich. That had moved them ahead of Newcastle on goal difference. Plymouth were losing at Swindon but were still a point clear. It was that tight.
St James’ Park has rarely been that raw. Tension was palpable. Sir John Hall had painted an apocalyptic picture of what relegation to the third tier of English football would mean for the club. In his view it would be all over.
In the 86th minute Tommy Wright, the Newcastle goalkeeper, at the Leazes End of the ground, threw the ball to his right to Ray Ranson. Ranson hoisted a long, angled pass to David Kelly, who flicked the ball to Micky Quinn.
Quinn somehow hooked the ball back to Kelly. Kelly was less than fifteen yards from goal, at the Gallowgate End, his position strikingly similar to when Keegan had scored on his debut. The future of Newcastle United Football Club was now in his hands.
David Kelly was five when he was diagnosed with Perthes’ Disease. He fell out of a tree and broke his leg, and the reason he broke his leg was that the bone in his hip had not grown. That only became apparent when his leg would not set.
‘I was in plaster and on crutches and in a wheelchair,’ says Kelly. ‘It’s a disease that is still here today. There is no cure for it, you just grow out of it. The jumping out the tree and breaking my leg happened because I had no strength there.
‘They’d have found out, it just happened quicker. That was that, it never held me back. I remember I had a double plaster cast to the end of my foot. I had a metal bar across the middle and my dad used to carry me up the stairs when I was little. I was on crutches for years. I used to hobble around with my three legs.
‘That’s just what it was. It wasn’t anything different for me. Them are the cards and you just get on with it, don’t you? I still played football.’
He played for Bartley Green Boys from when he was nine, then he went to West Bromwich Albion – his and half of his family’s team – and was released. ‘They said I wasn’t good enough,’ he adds. ‘I was devastated.’ He got a job at Cadbury’s as a trolley porter in the factory and played in non-league Alvechurch’s youth team.
‘I used to work in the returns department,’ he says. ‘When pallets of chocolate break they get sent back to the factory, they unwrap everything and put all the different bits in the bins and it gets recycled.
‘All the blokes who had had heart attacks and industrial accidents were there, it was low maintenance. You were just opening packets of chocolate. It was a really big department and I was the joey who looked after everybody and moved everything and made sure we had all the recruitment we needed.
‘It was great, I really enjoyed it. It was a management course and you changed the areas you worked in. You went all round the factory.
‘There was lots of older people in the offices who had loads of stories and I like listening to people’s stories. I fitted in great. I was there for eighteen months. Did working there put me off chocolate? Oh God, no. Cadbury’s chocolate is the best chocolate in the world. I’m very loyal, me.’
Kelly then had a trial at Walsall and got in. He was on £75 a week at Cadbury’s. Walsall gave him £50 a week and a bus pass.
‘There was a guy at Cadbury’s called Arthur Hoey and when I told him I was signing he went, “You’ve got a career here for the rest of your life, son, it’s a secure company. That football thing will never catch on.” ‘I said, “No, I’ve got to give it a go.”’
That was in 1983. By the time he left five years later, to go to West Ham, he had scored 63 goals in 147 games, Walsall had been promoted and he had become an Irish international, for which he qualified through his dad’s side of the family.
‘We’d played away at Rotherham and Tom Coakley, who was Walsall manager, said, “There’s someone who wants to have a chat.” I said, “What’s that about?” He said, “It’s Jackie Charlton.” I said, “What the fuck does he want?”
‘I went upstairs and he’s at the bar. It was the old Millmoor and it was rammed. Maurice Setters and Jack are stood there and Jack is smoking a cigar, he turned around and said, “Do you want to come and play for me then, son?” I went, “Yeah, first team or under-21s?” He said, “First team.” I said, “Yeah, I’m in,” and I put my hand out.
‘He said, “We’ll write to you,” and he put his back to me. That was my international call-up.’
He played in a European Championship and two World Cups for the Republic of Ireland. West Ham was less successful. ‘I got slaughtered because I didn’t play very well,’ he adds. ‘I found the dressing room difficult and we got relegated in my first season.
‘I found it really hard, but I would still go back there if I had my time again. It’s what gave me a really good career. It hardened me up.’
He was doing better at Leicester – although in the middle of a dry spell – when the new manager Brian Little suggested dropping to the reserves for a game.
‘I went, “I ain’t happy,” and, as I did everywhere, I said, “I ain’t playing reserve team football.” I just wanted to play first-team football. He said, “I’m only leaving you out for one game.” I said, “That’s not the point, the point is I just want to play first-team football.”
‘That was my attitude, I just wanted to play. He said, “Let’s see how it goes.”
‘A week later I hadn’t played again and I was still on the bench. I said, “Gaffer, I can’t stay here, I’m too old.” He said, “You’re only mid-twenties!” I said, “I might not play for a month, and then another month, I can’t have that. I want to play.”
‘He said, “OK, I’ve had Sunderland in for you.”
‘I went to see Denis Smith at Roker Park. He was saying this and that about the club and I said to Denis, “I need a bit of time to think about it.” He said, “This is the biggest club you’re going to play for.”
‘I said, “I don’t deny it’s a big club, but I want to have a think about it.” I went home. Then Brian Little told me Newcastle were in for me as well.
‘I phoned up my Uncle Ronnie, who, bless him, passed away a few years ago, after I’d spoken to my dad and told him and he said, “You’ve got to go to Newcastle. If you go to Newcastle and become a number nine, that’s it, you’ll have made it.”
‘He was an Irish-born Birmingham man. He said, “The number nine at Newcastle is something special. Take the chance.” It was purely and simply to do with Malcolm Macdonald, and the history of the shirt, and the importance of the number nine.
‘I signed for Newcastle because of my Uncle Ronnie’s words. “If you can do it at Newcastle and become their number nine,” he said, “they’ll never forget you.”’
Kelly met Ossie Ardiles and his assistant Tony Galvin at the Holiday Inn at Scotch Corner. He signed the same deal that Sunderland had offered.
‘What was the club like when I joined? Oh, it was a shambles,’ he says. ‘The training ground was up on that hill at Benwell. It was minus a million degrees and it was blowing a gale and the pitches were all boggy and the changing facilities were all scruffy and dirty.’
Still, he was overwhelmed by the passion for the club within the city.
‘Newcastle has always had this thing throughout ever, really, that the support is different,’ he adds. ‘Until you have the time of living there or spending plenty of time there, you don’t realise. People across the UK don’t realise how big they are. I still think that sits today. Until you go there and turn up, then you don’t realise. It’s just a religion.
‘Going and filling your car up on a Sunday morning, everyone wants to talk about the match. It was quite a shock. I remember my wife saying to me, “Can we not just go out and have a bit of food on our own?”
‘It doesn’t happen. “I’m sorry for coming over but, what do you think of suchand-such?” That was every time you went out.
‘I embraced it. It was brilliant for me. I’m light-hearted and I see the positives in everything. They reminded me of me. They’re all mad! I just fitted in and I fitted into the club straight away. Unfortunately, Ossie got the sack.’
Then Hall called a meeting with all playing staff at St James’ Park.
‘He came and spoke to everybody,’ adds Kelly. ‘He pulled us all in and said big changes were going to be made. He said, “We can’t afford to drop and let this club go down, it’s too big to go out of the league because it could be curtains.”
‘He said, “I’m not prepared to lose the money I’ve already put in. I want to give us a spark and a boost.” I remember coming out of the meeting and thinking, “What a top bloke you are.” I didn’t know much about him.
‘He said, “I will bring somebody in to rejuvenate everything.” Then King Kev comes back in, it was like, woah, brilliant.
‘Kevin came in and said, “This is all getting sorted, it’s a dump. I’m going to make changes really quickly.”
‘He improved the training kit, he improved silly things like getting the boots cleaned. He improved little things that were being overlooked. He painted the dresing room. He tidied everything up. You walked into the club and thought, this is nice.
‘The gaffer had a purpose. He changed it really quickly. That’s why he was good. He saw the place was in the doldrums.
‘The Bristol City game was one of the best games I’ve played in. It was all about him. There was a full house. The ground was jumping. You think, it could be like this every week.’
By the time Newcastle went to Derby for the third-last game of the season, on 20 April, it was anything but brilliant. Newcastle had lost four games on the trot.
In the first half, Kevin Brock was sent off for handball. Then Kevin Scott was sent off for a second bookable offence, after flattening Marco Gabbiadini. The second half was still to start. Derby were 2–0 up.
The nine men of Newcastle rallied. A Kelly header was parried to Gavin Peacock, who scored from close range. There was a moment, a rare moment, of hope and against-the-odds delight for the travelling support.
There would, however, be no heroic comeback. Derby added a third before Liam O’Brien was sent off for kicking out at Tommy Johnson. A fourth followed. Terry McDermott was dismissed from the dugout too. Four thousand Newcastle fans refused to stop backing their team. David Kelly, who had run himself into the ground, threw his shirt into the away end at full-time.
‘I remember the support that day,’ he says. ‘It was unforgettable. It was just relentless. The fans wouldn’t let go.’
The Newcastle support kept singing, and shouting, and urging more. It was a call to arms in an apparently futile situation. It told people that Newcastle had eight men, and had conceded four goals, but that they were not defeated, at least not yet, anyway.
If nothing else, there was genuine defiance on the terraces.
‘We were in the shit,’ adds Kelly. ‘I thought, we have to have a chase around, we can’t give it up. I was really fit. Kevin said that if a crisp packet flew across St James’ Ned would catch it. I’d always been called Ned. That’s what he said and it came from that game.
‘There were some bad decisions. The gaffer came on to the pitch afterwards with Terry Mac. The fans just kept singing. You never forget that. It was one man and his dog on the pitch. We had no players left, but we had the fans.’
That defeat, however destructive it might have seemed – three players sent off, four goals conceded – was a rallying call. That call came from the terraces. Newcastle had two tiers of the Osmaston End of the Baseball Ground, and those there were not giving up.
None of them knew what was happening behind the scenes. Keegan was desperately trying to breathe life into their club. Nobody was sure if it would be enough.
‘The change behind the scenes had to be seen,’ adds Kelly. ‘It changed completely when Kevin came in. Where there was no hope Kevin gave them hope, he gave everyone hope. He was positive in everything. He was always good in the press, and he was always doing things to include the community.
‘Everything had quickened up in training. Derek Fazackerley is one of the best coaches I’ve worked for. I think he’s really good. He knows his stuff but he’s a miserable fart.
‘That changed because Kevin came in and Terry Mac was the joker and even Faz was laughing with everyone. He was really good in his role then. Training was happier. Even though the results picked up and went back down, the stuff we were doing was really good.’
Keegan, McDermott and Fazackerley. They were the three men fighting to save a football club.
Finally, the dressing room at last understood quite how high the stakes of the game they were playing against Portsmouth that day, 25 April 1992, actually were: it was to rescue Newcastle United.
In the 86th minute, the man in the Newcastle number nine shirt, there because his Uncle Ronnie from Ireland knew what it meant, steadied himself and hit a right-footed shot.
He shot to give a club a future and he struck a ball that flew past Alan Knight and into the net at the Gallowgate End and into the hearts of the club’s supporters around the world.
The ground roared with relief. It was a different sound. It came from a different place. It was not ecstasy, or delirium. It was more primitive. When St James’ let forth its emotion that day it was a deeper, more base emotion that rose from the people on the terraces that still surrounded the ground. The atmosphere had been febrile.
There was still chaos when the goal went in, but the celebration was as much for relief as it was for joy.
‘The air changed,’ says Kelly. ‘It was as if, “We’re safe.” I played that goal in my head for an awful long time. You remember big goals. What happened after? Massive hugs. Relief. That’s what you felt. You sit down in the dressing room afterwards and you’re like, Yes! Thank fuck I scored!
‘The feeling of relief was incredible. Of course you remember it. Your memories become fonder the older you get.
‘You can’t underestimate the value of Quinny there. In my head I was fifteen yards outside the penalty box! I struck it and it felt good. Then it was in. Just the noise. The feeling of relief was incredible. I didn’t leave Leicester to get relegated. Newcastle United couldn’t get relegated.’
History and the record books will show that Newcastle went to Leicester on the final day of the season and that they needed a victory to guarantee survival, but the significance of that goal from Kelly has never been lost.
At Leicester there was carnage and pitch invasions and fighting and in the bedlam of that ugly afternoon, a Newcastle supporter lost the sight in one of his eyes when a coin was hurled from the home end, into the section in which those from Tyneside were housed.
The home mood had become ever darker as the afternoon had progressed. Gavin Peacock had popped promotion balloons with a goal deep in first-half injury-time. By the time Steve Walsh headed an equaliser past Wright it was the last minute of the game and Leicester could not go up and Newcastle could not go down.
Everywhere around the side of the pitch were Leicester fans. Newcastle had a pocket in the corner of the ground, with gaps in the fencing to allow people to spill on to the pitch.
In injury-time, Wright cleared long, Walsh missed his header and tried to make amends with a left-footed back-pass that went into his own goal. For those travelling fans in the East Stand, it felt like the end of the road to hell, but as they celebrated and rejoiced that their greatest fears were unfounded, that their club had survived, and some spilled out of their end, Leicester’s fans invaded the pitch for real.
Keegan, pitch-side, called to his staff to grab the players. ‘They’re going to get hurt, get them off,’ he shouted.
By the time Peacock jumped into the arms of the substitute Steve Watson next to the visitors’ dugout, Newcastle and Leicester fans were fighting in front of the away section.
When the referee David Elleray blew his whistle, early, to avoid more trouble, David Kelly was chasing the ball as it headed towards the furthest corner flag from the dugout, right in front of the away support.
‘I saw the Leicester fans and thought, where do I go?’ he remembers. ‘I jumped in the stand and sat down with all these Geordies going mental, celebrating. They were grabbing me and hugging me and going, “Yes, get in!” once they realised it was me.
‘After a bit I’ve gone to get out to get on the pitch and the steward pushed me back in. I said, “Mate, I’m a fucking player!” I showed him my boots. He said, “Ah, Ned, come out,” and he took me across the pitch. Although the fans were scrapping there was no one fighting near me. I wasn’t worried about getting hit.
‘It had all gone crazy in the dressing room before I got there. There was beers and all sorts and champagne bottles getting uncorked. It was bedlam. The gaffer went,
“Where have you been?” ‘I said, “I got stuck on the far side. I was chasing a crisp packet.”
Within minutes of safety, Keegan put down a marker.
‘It’s the chairman and the board’s job now to ensure the club does not get in this situation again,’ he said. ‘It’s their job. I’ve told them what I think I need to turn the club round and they’ve got a meeting next week and if they come up with that I will certainly be Newcastle manager for the next three years.
‘If they don’t, they’re going to have to find a miracle worker.’