The Jack Kelsey Fan Club Proudly Presents
Jack Kelsey (Arsenal F.C. 1950-62)
Jack Kelsey in Statto's Corner
All goalkeepers are allegedly mad and the late great Jack Kelsey lived up to this billing admirably. His head first bravery often verged on the lunatic. Away from football Kelsey was a calm, mild mannered, softly spoken Welshman who just happened to have hands the size of dinner plates. In goal this colossus played for a number of less than brilliant Arsenal teams yet was one of the most famous players ever to grace Highbury and one of the few regarded as a legend in his own time.
In the late 50's Arsenal were regarded as a moderate side burdened with a glorious history that they were unable to match. The marble halls still impressed but failed to intimidate the visitors to London N5 because in the late 50's and early 60's Arsenal fielded a series of defences on a par with Ardiles's Tottinham or Keegan's Toon of more recent seasons. We were quite capable of netting over 70 goals a season but equally likely to donate over 80 to the opposition. The principle reason we were not closer to the relegation zone was that we had Superman between the posts. Our Superman didn't wear red shorts over blue tights just a very plain dark green jersey, unless we were on telly then of course he wore black and white. During this pre-Technicolor period keepers invariably wore green without so much as a club badge. So universal was this uniform that kids playing football never wore a green top for fear of being banished between the posts due to this potent colour association.
Jack Kelsey was my first football hero. It's pitiful to admit but in the days when the North Bank was festooned with red & white bobble hats mine was dark green with the Arsenal badge embroidered on front. Sad or what? I agree, but I felt Jack needed all the moral support he could muster because he certainly didn't always receive it on the pitch. I wasn't alone in recognising his ability because in 1955 he represented Great Britain against the Rest of Europe and played alongside such all time greats as John Charles, Danny Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy, Billy Liddell and Stanley Matthews (although most gooners would quite understandably omit Blanchflower from this list). Jack Kelsey was our only world class player for years and managed to accumulate 41 Welsh caps which included the 1958 World Cup Finals where Wales were beaten at the quarter final stage by a solitary goal from a teenage upstart named Pele.
Comparisons between eras are probably impossible but that has never stopped people like me making them, because if you're not of my generation it's incredibly difficult for you to argue. Technically goal keeping has changed enormously. Today keepers deal with balls that swerve and dip considerably more in the air, modern lighter balls travel faster and so keepers have less time to set themselves or react. Current keepers face far more blocking at set pieces and have the additional burden of not being able to handle back passes. In Jack's day heavier pitches and balls posed different problems of balance, takeoff and grip. Particularly in extremely wet or muddy conditions bearing in mind that penalty areas were often grass free zones from December onwards even at Highbury. Clattering into keepers was a legitimate weapon frequently used by forwards and few held back because they weren't penalised as they are now. This may account for the seemingly frequent injuries sustained by goalies. Jack on average missed over ten matches per season through injury, the most serious being a broken arm. I was invariably disappointed when our reserve keepers replaced superman. They were all decent players but none were in Jack's class. Not even Jack McClelland who won his first Northern Ireland cap whilst still playing reserve team football.
Jack coped with our defensive weaknesses by quite simply bossing the entire penalty area. He was prepared to venture further than current keepers, further sometimes than even the nomadic Bruce Grobbelaar in loony mode. The principle difference being that Jack got to and caught the ball. Punching was a rarity for Kelsey but he did use this technique when airborne in a ruck of aerial challengers.
Kelsey was the bravest keeper I've ever seen. In the days when men were men and boots were lethal weapons a head first dive into a melee of flying boots anywhere in the box was one of Kelsey's party pieces. I've never witnessed anyone better at dealing with crosses, not even the Pope, if it was high and in the area it was Jack's ball - no question. Unfortunately the defence often assumed that he'd be there even when it was their responsibility. His shot stopping was absolutely superb. If I'd had a pound for every time I saw him dive full length to tip a full blooded drive round the post or over the bar I'd have had even less blood in my alcohol stream than I do now.
Once upon a time younger, smaller North Bankers were ushered down to the front. Where we would sometimes clearly see Jack cupping a roll up (a fag not a spliff) in his huge hand as he left the tunnel before taking a last couple of drags and deftly flicking it into the back of the net. The Welsh giant didn't use gloves - hardly any British keeper did then that I recall. Keepers were either a tougher breed then or more probably sports wear manufacturers had yet to develop a deluxe super-grip, all weather, all singing, all dancing, over-priced turbo powered advertising space for hands. Our Jack simply used chewing gum. He simply spat the gum into his palms and rubbed it in to improve his grip. Yes I realise that sounds as unlikely as it sounds revolting but when you saw him catch the ball one handed in the kick about you had to believe it worked.
Jack Kelsey was always good but matured and improved with age just like a vintage wine unaided by video replay analyses of every goal conceded. Unfortunately for him and us his career was cut short by a serious back injury. Typically this injury was sustained diving at the feet of a player, this time a Brazilian forward Vava, whilst playing for Wales in Brazil (May 1962). Jack was unable to overcome the injury despite a series of attempted comebacks. He was however retained by the club initially to run the club's lotteries and later to launch the club shops. I am reliably informed that although never appointed formally as a scout for the club both Billy Wright and Bertie Mee would seek Kelsey's opinion, of goalkeepers in particular, and Jack was always happy to give his view which not surprisingly was much respected. Jack retired as Commercial Manager in 1989 after 40 years at Highbury.
Jack Kelsey was a tremendous player of enormous importance to the club. A brave man with outstanding skill and agility who didn't benefit from a stable and consistently brilliant defence playing in front him. In my opinion Arsenal's greatest keeper.
© Brian Dawes 2000
Want to know more? Recommended further reading :
His Biography 'Over the Bar - Jack Kelsey' published by Stanley Paul in 1958
Arsenal A Complete Record - Fred Ollier
Arsenal Who's Who - Jeff Harris
Arsenal Player by Player - Ivan Ponting
Jack Kelsey in Statto's Corner
Full name: Alfred John Kelsey
Born in Llansamlet, (Swansea) Wales - 19th November 1929
Died: London 18 March 1992
Joined from the Welsh club Winch Wen
in September 1949
Played for Arsenal FC from 1950-51 to 1961-1962 seasons
Debut: Arsenal v Charlton February 1951 where he conceded 5 goals
Welsh Internationals played 41
Including the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden (41 caps was a record for a British keeper at this time)
|FA Cup played||
|Charity Shield played||
|Arsenal Total played||
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