Two meetings with Rob Kelly, six days and 82 miles apart. The first one last Saturday at the DW Stadium, then yesterday teatime at the Telford Hotel and Golf Resort.
A third one between us at Shrewsbury today was not possible because of the clash with Brighton’s visit to Molineux but Wigan Athletic will be playing in the Championship next season – and taking our good friend with them.
A week on from Forest Green securing promotion under Rob Edwards, we now send our warmest congratulations to another man who both played and coached at Wolves and who remains in the high-achiever category in these latter years of his long career in the dug-out.
The story of Kelly’s professional life will be some read if ever he decides to write it and dip back into some of the skills picked up during his early-1990s time as an Express & Star news reporter.
Three years ago, he and Uwe Rosler narrowly missed out on the Swedish title when in charge of Malmo, then they were relegated from Germany’s top flight with Fortuna Dusseldorf after going in on a February rescue mission. After a parting of the ways caused largely by the pandemic, Kelly returned to these shores and performed wonders as Barrow’s caretaker manager to ensure that their return to the Football League following a 48-year absence would stretch beyond a solitary season. As work goes, that’s some variety!
Now, he and James Beattie are assistant managers at Wigan to Paul Cook’s long-time former no 2, Leam Richardson, and toasting a quite remarkable turnaround.
Their side have pulled off a stunning 19-place climb in the table in the space of 12 months and shown there is life after administration.
While the other Latics, Oldham, are about to drop out of the Football League, this buoyant lot – built out of the wreckage of having only three senior players under contract last summer, including current second-choice keeper Jamie Jones – have delivered big time in trying circumstances.
Having finished 20th in League One last season, a solitary point above the relegation line, Wigan carried out a massive restocking of a squad for which the word ‘threadbare’ was barely sufficient. And how they have grafted. Today’s game was their 61st of a season that has also taken them through two rounds in the Carabao Cup, three in the FA Cup and into seven games, including one at home to Wolves under-21s in August, in the Papa John’s Trophy.
Leeds-born Richardson, who played in the late-1990s Blackburn surge to the FA Youth Cup final that Kelly oversaw, was named last weekend as League One manager of the season.
He feared any reunion of the two at Wigan last summer would not come about but, unbeknown to him, Kelly was preparing to tell Barrow’s supportive and likeable owners that he did not want to remain as a manager, nor be a no 1 anywhere else.
So, after his fine work in the Cumbrian backwaters in 2020-21 – a midweek win at Forest Green a year ago this week meant survival was ensured with two matches to spare – the 57-year-old headed for this rugby stronghold and found it a perfect base for his career to continue apace.
With their 3-0 last-day victory at Shrewsbury today, Wigan have won the title to boot and condemned MK Dons, who had to effect a six-point and seven-goal swing over them in the space of 90 minutes, lamenting how their 5-0 win at Plymouth nevertheless left them short.
That remarkable result from Devon will have saddened Kelly, whose good friend, Keith Downing, is part of the backroom team at Home Park. The two best pals and former Wolves team-mates faced each other along the touchline last weekend for the first time in senior football, having first known each other while at school and then stepped on to the bigger stage together when in opposition at Filbert Street in a Leicester v Chelsea Southern Junior Floodlit Cup tie.
Downing, who missed out on a professional contract with the Londoners, has boosted his own reputation this season by helping Plymouth win five more games than they have lost since he was appointed in December.
We trust he and his club will come strong again next season but the team of the League One season are 300 miles further north and, in support of the outstanding Richardson, Rob Kelly has played no small part in that success story.