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Kelly planned for big things early. Not the skyscrapers, the glass and steel of Manhattan, but the bright lights of London for sure. He was in among the stars early, rising up the ranks at the Arsenal academy. Just a young thing, barely a teen, he stepped out on that old Highbury pitch, the grass green as Oz’s Emerald City. That’s Arsene Wenger coming this way. Is that Thierry Henry over there? Robert Pires, too?
(A young Sean Kelly gets some attention from Arsenal legend Steve Bould)
“I think back now and ask myself ‘did it really happen?’ – ‘was that even me?’” Kelly remembered of his years at Arsenal, where he played with teammate Cesc Fabregas and captained a side in the FA Youth Cup alongside Johan Djourou, Fabrice Muamba and Nicklas Bendtner. He rubbed shoulders with the first team. He trained with some of the biggest stars in the game. Kelly – tall, athletic and quick - was being groomed for the biggest stages. “But you couldn’t think of it that way at the time. Yeah sure, you’d sneak a peak at Henry in the halls, but you had to show that you belonged there too. There wasn’t time to be star-struck because you had to show them you’re there for a reason.”Spotted Early by Arsenal
The reasons Kelly landed at Arsenal were simple: He was outstanding. A defender with ability beyond his tender years. With maturity and guile and a brain. He was a center-back who saw things that hadn’t happened yet, and he was destined for the big time. He had the makings of a captain. He had everything you wanted in a player.
But he had injuries too. The pain in his voice is plain when he talks about it – about the slip, the slide and the fall. You don’t talk too loud about the time your dream died. You whisper. And if you’re honest enough to tell the story straight, you’re a bigger man than most. “I started to pick up a few injuries,” he said, his breath going a little faster, punctuated by small sighs. These aren’t easy things to say. “Then you think you’re getting back fit and you pick up another niggle, and then another.”
As quickly as it came, it was gone. Kelly was on a train home to County Kerry in the green, grassy west of Ireland. He remembers text messages coming in from his family. They said how proud they all were of him – out there chasing the big dream. But he was on his way home, the phone’s light winking in his eyes, his bags on the seat beside him.
(Cesc Fabregas 1st row, 2nd from right - Sean Kelly 2nd row, 4th from left)
“I went a bit wild after that,” he admitted. The smile that comes quick to Kelly’s face is gone when he talks about his seasons back home in the League of Ireland, playing with Cork City. “I never used to drink really. But I’d find myself out with my friends, and caught up in the wrong mentality. We’d play on a Saturday and go out after – we were the champions of Ireland at the time. Then you spend a few days getting over it. You’re eating crap. It wasn’t how a professional was supposed to be. I lost my focus. I put on weight.”
Soon Cork City showed Kelly the door. He signed for Pike Rovers in Limerick, his relevance fading. He was barely in his twenties and he was yesterday’s news. He snapped his leg in three places. He fought his way back, got injured again. Then the darkness took over. He’s strong enough to talk about it straight. The fear. Depression. Sadness. Loss. Regret. All the big things we hide from the world, Kelly puts them on the table. “I just said it one day: I’m not playing anymore. I’m fed up with it. Mentally, it’s too much.”
Sean Kelly looks you square in the eyes when he talks about those “deep dark trenches.” He wants to make sure you to know what he’s talking about. What he means.
Down in the “Dark Trenches”
He’d given up. His dream was dead and getting colder every day. His body was battered, his left leg pinned and screwed back together, and he’d lost his spark. He was way down deep in a hole, back in Kerry with nothing but reminders everywhere he looked of how it all went sideways. “I was going down a bad road,” he said. “Playing for Arsenal or not playing for Arsenal, I was going the wrong way in my life. I could have fallen right off. When you have that dream, like, and it’s snatched away, it can be hard to get back up.”
That’s when the phone rang: A call from America. Someone in Yonkers, from the Lansdowne Bhoys. There was work. There was football. There was a second chance
“I’ll never forget it when the call came in,” Kelly remembered, staring out at the island of Manhattan spread out at his feet, on lunch break from one long day among many. “This was a second chance at life and I thought ‘I’m not gonna let it go.’ I always dreamed of coming to America. I’ll never forget what this club did for me. I’ll give everything for the club; everything I have to give.”
(Sean Kelly - right - poses with teammates Craig Purcell (m) & Darryl Kavanagh (l) and the National Amateur Cup)
Tibbets Brook Park in Yonkers rubs up against the Bronx and the affluent suburbs to the north in Westchester County. It’s a long way from Highbury (the Emirates now) and Arsenal, but Kelly’s a captain again. He’s 30-years-old now and swears he’s playing the best he’s ever played. He goes a thousand-miles-an-hour every day, as if making up for lost time, or simply grateful for another chance. Up at 5:00 a.m., off to the gym. He hustles from Yonkers to Manhattan for work that most days goes past 5:00 p.m.. Then it’s back in the gym again – or training, maybe a mid-week game out in Brooklyn or in Morristown, New Jersey. It’s past midnight before he knows it and that alarm clock’s threatening again. Ask Kelly why he does it? “Because I love it.” It’s that simple.
He’s been with the Lansdowne Bhoys for five years now, playing in the famed Cosmopolitan League and helping build the country’s strongest amateur team. He’s gone from a grunt, a bucket man on the construction site, to a project manager. He never knew a thing about the building game, but watch him work up in those high-rises, in that beehive of NYC where every demand is bigger and all the stakes are higher, and you see how he’s good at it. Damned good – a natural. He sees problems before they catch fire. He puts out fires when they catch and he’s firm when he needs to be. It’s the same out on the pitch. If Kelly’s not the best amateur player in America, he’s right up there among them.
Last year, the Lansdowne Bhoys lifted both national amateur titles. He and his teammates packed in vans and airplanes and hustled here and there across a great, big country – and they won all there was to win. “We got closer on those trips,” said Kelly, known by his teammates for his chatter on the field. He’s a noisy one and he wants it done right. “Sure, we argue and we scream out there, but we’re close. We’re friends. We just want to be on top and that’s how it goes.”
A Last Hunt for the Cup
The Bhoys are back in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where they went on an impressive run in their 2016 debut. They drove seven hours (both ways in one day – people have to work after all) and beat the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, pros from the United Soccer League (USL). “We had a really good run,” Kelly remembered, before showing his true colors. “But I think we could have done better. And now’s our chance.”
(Late-night games in NY's Cosmopolitan League are all-too common)
It’s a chance for all the Bhoys – many of them with stories like Kelly’s. They were on their way to the top, but life came calling. It's a far more common story than Fabregas’ World Cups and idol status. For Kelly, now’s the chance to turn back the clock. To test himself against the pros again. “I really thought this was all over – and I’d watch my old teammates from my Arsenal days winning things in TV. There was such depression from that,” he said. “Now I’m here with a chance to feel it all again.”
It’s the reason he lives in the gym. One more chance. The phone ringing. An opportunity calling. It’s why he works harder and shouts louder than the rest. He’s seen it all go wrong and he knows the value of second chances. “We’ve proved it at our level and now we want to go show people we can take that little step up,” he said. “There’s the beauty to this Cup – you catch a team cold and they might not know how to react. We have a group of people who are determined to be the best and it’s hard to stop a force like that.”
There’s no stopping Sean Kelly. He’ll talk all day, about the hard times and the good ones too. The rise and the fall and the rise. “How can you get tired of this, man?” he asks gesturing out at the New York skyline – at a city of dreams and chances. “I’m where I was always meant to be – playing football and doing honest work. Honest everything,” says Kelly, his smile telling the whole story, the big city reflecting back in his wide eyes. “Can’t go wrong if you’re honest.”