Hitting The Heights Across The Sea
Kelly’s Eye On Swedish Honours
Given the state of alert we are currently on with the draw for the 2019-20 Europa League very close, what better time for some travelling to catch up with a Wolves favourite and view a potential opponent? David Instone reflects on four hectic days spent with the Express & Star’s John Lalley in foreign climes……
There is a limit to where on the continent you can head to watch top-flight football at this time of year, so Robert Kelly’s posting in Sweden ticked two handy boxes.
We reported in January how this personable West Midlander had taken the plunge in the overseas job market for the first time – now, the opportunity five months on to observe a mate at work in pastures new was one to be seized.
Our paths first crossed more than 30 years ago when he arrived at Molineux in a £20,000 deal after playing alongside the likes of Gary Lineker, Alan Smith and Gary McAllister in a top-flight Leicester side. And, happily, there have been various arranged get-togethers in the decades since.
I once travelled to interview he and Bobby Downes about Blackburn’s prolific academy, saw him close up as Leicester’s reluctant manager, bumped into him at Nottingham Forest as he gathered the players on the day Kuwaiti owners were unveiled at the City Ground and, most recently, had coffee with him around three years ago near his Lancashire home.
Now, we longed to catch up with him in a country he missed out on travelling to as a Wolves player because of his well-documented back problems but where he toured with Leicester and where he chose to do part of his professional coaching licence at the 2009 European Under-21 Championships.
First, some important insight and confirmation of how they do things differently in Sweden……the league runs from late March until deep into autumn and is therefore now just over a third of the way through.
That’s why, with an eye on the building anticipation at Molineux, it is interesting to report that Kelly and his colleagues at Malmo are about to experience their second taste of Europa League combat in five months.
No sooner had he crossed the North Sea in the new year to take up his work as manager Uwe Rosler’s first-team coach than all eyes were on a two-leg tie against Chelsea.
“I had never known a pre-season like it,” he says. “We had ten days in Marbella, staying just down the road from where Wolves were at the same time, but much of the preparation was done over here in conditions that were very different to what I am used to for getting players fit after their close season.
“We were facing Chelsea when they were in the thick of their season and we were still two months from the start of our league programme. We lost 5-1 on aggregate but did okay and it might have turned out better if we hadn’t had a player sent off when only one down at Stamford Bridge well past three-quarter time.
“We play in the Europa League again later this summer but the club qualified for that eight or nine months ago. We are out of line with most countries by not playing in the winter, even Denmark, which is only a few miles from here.
“It takes some getting used to and my first few weeks in Sweden were an eye-opener. It is hard to find suitable grass pitches over here in the winter and we had the senior Danish national squad at our training ground in March because they didn’t have access to one.
“Obviously I missed home and family, although our lads, Will and George, really supported me and encouraged me to challenge myself. I nevertheless recall feeling sorry for myself when I was dripping wet after watching a junior match. On the walk back, I saw an abandoned bike, rode it to my hotel and returned it next morning to where I had found it. I decided that, if it was there after training that day, I would keep it and pay to do it up.
“It was still there and I found an Azerbaijan guy with a bike shop in the city who assured me he could make it properly roadworthy for £70. So that’s how I get about – I don’t have a car here.”
Within an hour of our arrival in Sweden, it was on these trusty two wheels that the 54-year-old turned up to meet us at a hotel not far from where Danish fans poured in off the ferry to see their side take on Graham Taylor’s England in 1992 at the start of an adventure that ended with them as unlikely European champions.
Kelly’s tan confirmed that the early-summer days are much brighter and warmer and he proved the welcoming, informative host we knew he would be.
We quickly learned that he and his manager both live around the city area, that Malmo’s 22,500-capacity stadium is right next door to the one that staged two turgid draws played out 27 summers ago by an England squad containing Keith Curle, Andy Sinton and Tony Daley and that the Swedish League programme, like ours, is strung out across the week at the whim of TV.
“Already, we have played on every day of the week apart from Friday and my early impressions are that the Swedish way of life is very organised,” he added. “The players like to know what they are doing and when.
“We had a poor start to the League season when we were a bit flat and took only one point out of six but we have been on a much better run since then. We have an experienced squad who also finished last season well.”
Our long weekend in Scandinavia took us first to Gothenburg for a home game against Orebro and, some three hours south, Malmo set off up the coast the following day for their derby against Helsingborg.
There are some long and arduous trips for the top flight’s southernmost club – very long. Malmo’s female coach driver informed us after the 45-minute trip to a port city only three miles from the Danish mainland that Stockholm is an eight-hour drive away.
Matches against the most northerly clubs therefore necessitate two flights there and two back. “We go by plane to most of our away games,” Kelly confirmed, no doubt sensing the change in routine from the central locations of Wolverhampton and Leicester.
We were hugely grateful to him for securing our prized tickets for the fixture at Helsingborg, not least because the game was a 16,000 sell-out. Like the match we dropped in on the previous afternoon at the latter-day Ullevi Stadium, the outcome was a 1-0 away victory but this Sunday teatime live TV clash was in stark contrast to the defence-dominated one in Sweden’s second city and much more entertaining as a result.
Although the two teams are separated by nearly the full length of the table, there were chances and near misses at both ends and Malmo’s players were clearly elated as well as relieved at full-time.
They have much to be optimistic about. They are six points clear at the top of Allsvenskan, from a game more played, with their programme due to resume on June 30 after an international break lengthened in these parts by an extra week or two.
They still play in the Manchester City-like colours made famous when Malmo contested the 1979 European Cup final with Nottingham Forest and that is something that sits very comfortably with Rosler.
He and his Norwegian wife have one son called Colin (named after Colin Bell) and another, Tony (after Tony Book). His stated ambition is to one day manage at the Etihad Stadium after he played for the club with no little success and he attributed his recovery from non-Hodgkin lymphoma a decade and a half ago to the support of City fans.
Kelly, who has been thrilled by Wolves’ huge advances, also worked with his current boss at Leeds and Fleetwood and squeezed in a spell as Bury coach in the early months of their 2018-19 League Two promotion-winning season before answering the call in mid-winter to follow the East German to Scandinavia.
As anticipated, we have only the fondest memories both of our Friday evening catch-up with Rob and the wonderful match-day experience that culminated in the three points we very much wanted for the side at Helsingborg.
If ever Wolves do face Malmo, relish the prospect because their fans are something else. From well before they greeted their heroes for kick-off with a host of flares (YES, the English authorities would have had a fit!), they never stopped singing and the send-off at the end was of a magnitude I had never seen before.
For seven or eight minutes in an emptying stadium, the players lined up across the six-yard box, listening to the packed away end go through their repertoire of anthems and regularly applauding them. Terrific stuff. It’s what makes watching football abroad the fun it is.
Many Wolves fans will soon find this out for themselves and Rob Kelly, having recently flown home for a 25th wedding anniversary celebration and made plans to see more in Sweden of wife Sara and their one-year-old miniature Labrador-doodle Brian in the coming months, is already enjoying the ride.
*Wolves played in Malmo and Gothenburg on their 1946 five-match tour of Sweden and also went back to the latter in both 1972 and 1973.