Tribute: Tommy ‘Iron Man’ Kelly

Photographed in 2015, Tommy 'Iron Man' Kelly shows off the letter from Brian Clough for his former boss, asking if he can get time off for a second trial.
Photographed in 2015, Tommy 'Iron Man' Kelly shows off the letter from Brian Clough for his former boss, asking if he can get time off for a second trial.

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By John McCallum

Campbeltown’s Tommy Kelly, who passed away on March 8 at the age of 77, was a hugely popular figure in the community, for his warm, friendly nature, and his genuine interest in people.

But it was as a talented football player and long servant to Campbeltown Pupils AFC in the 1960s and early ’70s where Tommy displayed the levels of energy, courage and tenacity that would forge around him the nickname ‘Iron Man’.

Tommy told the Courier in 2015 of his time on trial for English professional side Hartlepool United – who had a young Brian Clough at the helm – back in 1967. With Tommy’s family’s kind permission, the Courier shares his story again.

When Tommy met legend Clough

Campbeltown’s Tommy Kelly could have no idea he was playing before a future football icon when invited to England for professional trials in 1966.

Tommy, something of a football legend in his native Kintyre after a prominent role with Campbeltown Pupils, was known as ‘Iron Man’ for his fearsome playing style and boundless energy.

After shining in the local leagues, he was invited to Hartlepool United, a club starting season 1966/67 in English football’s fourth tier, and managed by Brian Clough – all thanks to an unlikely talent spotter.

Tommy said: ‘As far as I know it was a tanker driver working down here who told Hartlepool about me.

‘The next thing I had a letter through the door inviting me to a trial.’

Clough ran the rule over Tommy, who played mostly as an outside right, who was then in his early 20s and starting out on an eventual 30-year career in Campbeltown with the gas board.

The young Clough, in his first management job after a prolific career was cut short by injury, greeted Tommy by saying: ‘I hope the heather’s not growing out of your ears.’

Tommy said: ‘That threw me a bit. I wondered who this arrogant young manager was.

‘I can still see him now. Although he was just starting out in management, he had total respect among the players. All you heard was “boss, boss, boss” when they addressed him.’

Tommy played at outside right against a local side and scored two goals. Clough was so impressed he wanted the ‘Iron Man’ back down for two more trial matches, and Tommy, having loved the atmosphere, was keen to return.

He said: ‘The crowd at the Victoria Ground was brilliant and it was a great feeling scoring two goals.’

However, the second trip did not turn out quite as planned.

Tommy laughed: ‘Hartlepool paid expenses for my trips but it was hardly enough to get me to Peninver.

‘I returned and brought the late Mike McGougan, a classy winger for the Pupils, down with me. I phoned Mr Clough beforehand and he was ok with it.

‘So when we arrived, I met Clough and introduced him to Mike.

‘Clough said: “Why don’t you bring the whole f****** pipe band down?”

‘We were a bit shocked and Mike got annoyed and spoke back to him. He never played while we were down there.

‘I spent three weeks at Hartlepool between the two trips, but Clough would only sign me as an amateur. He and his assistant Peter Taylor, who was an absolute gentleman, were on a tight budget.

‘By that time, I had a family to think about, so it just didn’t work out. I told him it was professional or nothing.

‘I was just a hard player with a great engine, and the odd goal in me. I felt like I could play for 190 minutes instead of 90.

‘I am not sure I would have made it, but I gave it a try, and can say I played alongside John McGovern, a future two-time European Cup winner. He was only a teenager at the time but he never once gave the ball away, what a player.’

In retrospect, Tommy’s best memory is having had the chance to work – albeit briefly – with a legend of the game.

He added: ‘Knowing you have been in the company of a football genius is something not many can claim.

‘Clough had total control, a vision. It is no surprise he and Taylor brought Nottingham Forest the English title and two European Cup wins.

‘I met the best manager the England team never had.’

Tommy continued to play for Campbeltown Pupils and was even presented with a gold watch in 1974 for his contribution to the club.

Thomas Calderwood Kelly 1944 – 2021.

Brian Clough would go on to European glory but as Hartlepool manager he clearly saw something in the Pupils' Tommy Kelly.
Brian Clough would go on to European glory but as Hartlepool manager he clearly saw something in the Pupils’ Tommy Kelly.