Dilemma – Then Kelly Opted For Ireland
How Robson Missed Out To Charlton
In these early days of football’s latest international break, we hark back three and a half decades to the unusual start David Kelly made in the game at that elite level.
The young Brummie was still a third-tier player with Walsall and was several moves away from landing at Molineux when not one but two countries went calling for his services in the autumn of 1987.
At 21, Kelly had attracted a mystery £350,000 bid during the previous summer and alerted several First Division clubs with the talents that had seen him score 26 goals in 1986-87.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise when he was named by Bobby Robson in his squad for an England under-21 game against Yugoslavia in Belgrade on November 10.
The veteran manager seemed to have won the race for his services, with the striker twice having turned down invitations to represent the Republic of Ireland’s under-21s.
But, as we have reported on here before, Jack Charlton had the last word by selecting him instead for his senior squad to face Israel in the same week.
And that was an invitation Kelly found impossible to turn down as he threw in a lot with the country closest to the heart of his Dublin-born father.
“It is nice to be wanted and it was a difficult decision to make,” the player was quoted as saying in the Express & Star. “But I feel I shall have more opportunity to make my mark with Eire and I am now very positive about my decision. Even if I win just one cap and am then left out, I shall have no regrets.”
Kelly had started what proved to be a Saddlers promotion season relatively quietly and had only six goals on the board by the time of this international tug o’ war.
And it’s interesting to wonder what his future might have held had he said yes to England instead. He would have had Villa duo Martin Keown and Tony Dorigo as colleagues in Belgrade in the under-21 squad, who also included Paul Davis, Michael Thomas and the two-goal Paul Gascoigne.
All thoughts of the Three Lions were dispelled across the Irish Sea, though, as Kelly became only the fifth Irishman in history to hit a hat-trick.
His stunning debut impact in a 5-0 victory at Dalymount Park was the pre-cursor to a career with the Republic that brought him a total of nine goals from 26 international caps.
He was selected by Charlton in the squads for Euro 88 in West Germany, the Italia 90 World Cup and the same tournament in America four years later, by which time Graham Turner had paid £750,000 to bring him to Wolves from Newcastle.
While still at Molineux, Kelly also scored against England at Landsdowne in 1995 in a game that was abandoned because of rioting.
All the publicity and international interest in 1987 created pound signs in the eyes of those at Walsall, whose manager Tommy Coakley said: “He has been excellent over the last few games and his call-up is good news for him and good news for us.”
Kelly, who turned 22 at the end of the month of his international debut, joined West Ham for £600,000 in the summer of 1988 – a few months after his play-off final hat-trick against Bristol City had lifted Walsall into the Second Division for the first time since the early 1970s.