Kelly Hugh Image 1 Fulham 1949

Kelly Hugh Image 1 Fulham 1949


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Lurgan, County Armagh born goalkeeper Hugh Kelly originally played Gaelic football with Clan na Gael and began his association football career after he was invited for a trial for Glenavon by manager Andy Wylie, who had been impressed with Kelly’s ball handling skills. He started his career with Glenavon as an inside forward, but first played as goalkeeper when the regular custodian failed to arrive for a match. He became established as the first choice ‘keeper for Glenavon from early in 1937, and soon became recognised as one of the best goalkeepers in Northern Ireland, being selected to represent The Irish League against The Scottish League in a defeat at Ibrox in September 1938. But due to the Second World War he had to wait nearly another nine years to win his second League cap, when he played in a 4-0 win over The League of Ireland at Windsor Park Belfast in March 1948. With Glenavon he reached the Irish Cup Final in 1940 before losing 2-0 to Ballymena United in the Final. In January 1941 Glenavon suffered a nightmare defeat at the hands of Belfast Celtic, losing 13-0 with Celtic’s Peter O’Connor scoring eleven, an individual British Isles record.

Despite the embarrassing result, Celtic manager Elisha Scott stepped in to claim Kelly’s signature in the summer of 1941 as replacement for Tommy Breen. At Paradise Kelly claimed two Irish Cup winner’s medals in victories over Glentoran and Linfield in 1943 and 1944, and won the Irish League with them in 1947-48. He may have claimed more honours had a contractual dispute not left him side-lined for some time. Never afraid to stand-up to authority, when he was reprimanded by Scott with the words, “My grandmother could have played better out there”, Kelly adjusted the following week’s teamsheet, putting a line through his own name and replacing it with “Lish’s granny”. Kelly made his final appearances for the club during their Spring 1949 tour of the United States; during that tour, Belfast Celtic defeated Scotland 2-0 with Kelly in goal, but despite this the club was embroiled in financial problems.

Kelly was transferred to First Division club Fulham with three other team mates for a combined fee of £25,000 in March 1949, as Belfast Celtic began to cash in on their players before leaving The Irish League after the violence in the infamous match at Linfield the previous December. Kelly made his Football League debut against Chelsea the following September. He became noted as one of the heaviest ‘keepers in the Football League, weighing in at up to 14 stone.

At Craven Cottage he displaced Ireland international Ted Hinton between the posts, and was capped himself by Ireland for the first time in November 1949. That game was in a World Cup qualifier against England, and followed on quickly from an 8-2 defeat by Scotland that had seen Pat Kelly dropped from the number one shirt. Kelly fared even worse than his namesake, conceding nine! Unlike Pat, Hugh was given further chances by the Irish selectors, taking his cap total to four, keeping a clean sheet in his next cap, also a World Cup qualifier, in a 0-0 draw with Wales at The Racecourse Ground, Wrexham in March 1950, his final two caps coming in defeats to England and Scotland the following autumn.

In August 1950 Kelly moved down to the Second Division to play for Southampton after 27 appearances for Fulham. He played a season as The Saints’ regular ‘keeper, making 30 appearances, and then spent a season on the sidelines before again dropping down to Division Three (South) club Exeter City in June 1952. He had three seasons at St James’ Park, making 103 appearances for The Grecians before joining non league club Weymouth in in July 1956, although it didn’t prove to be happy time for him and he asked for his contract to be cancelled the following December as he couldn’t stand the crowds barracking him. It proved to be his final club before his retirement.

NB in the photograph, taken during the match with Newcastle United at Craven Cottage on 24th September 1949, his second appearance for The Cottagers, Kelly catches the ball with Newcastle striker Jackie “Wor Jackie” Milburn in attendance. Fulham won the match 2-1.


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