THIS was how it was. In childhood, fantasy was Stephen Kelly’s primary reality, the street his playground. He’d use the gates of his parents’ home as goals and faced no objections. Mick, his dad, dutifully agreed to be spectator, referee, goalkeeper, traffic warden or player, depending on the circumstances. It was when rush hour came that compromise was forced.
“The bus drivers would go mad,” Mick says. “That’s when I had to become a parent again and intervene, rush Stephen and the lads up to Johnstown Park where I would troop along behind, organise teams and amuse myself with their innocent arguing over who was going to be Maradona, Bergkamp, Gullit or Romario.”
“I never got involved in those fights,” says Stephen. “I was always Paul McGrath.”
The year was 1994 and it started and ended for the Kellys in July. The World Cup was on and Ireland were there. A country held its breath. Heroes were formed. Italy were beaten. Anything was possible. And, in Kelly’s imagination, there were no boundaries to what could be achieved.
And then an amazing thing happened. The fantasy came true. The kid who began his football life on his parents’ driveway moved to a bigger playing field, beyond the safe environs of his local park where his father acted as the ranger, and onto Belvedere Boys, the prominent Dublin schoolboy team of the time.
The games got slightly serious but not as intense as his dream. He’d not only play for Ireland but do so in a World Cup or European Championships.
And by his 17th year he’d done so, albeit in an underage competition, the European Under 16 Championships in 2000, the year I first met father and son.
Covering the event as a young reporter, I spent that week travelling around Israel with Mick to watch the games, sharing a beer and a laugh with him in the evenings.
The pride he had in Stephen was evident yet so was his reluctance to become a father who lived his fantasies through his son. “He’s not my only child,” he told me. “I love him to bits but no more than the others.”
The others, however, were still at home. By now, Stephen was in London, earning £100,000 a year at Tottenham after Mick had gone from playground organiser to agent. “It was mad,” says Stephen. “One day I was cycling from home down to Fairview Park with a fiver in my pocket for my subs to play for Belvo and the next week I was handed a cheque to play for Spurs. As a 17-year-old, how do you get your head round that?”
The answer was pretty easily. Mick the agent was back being Mick the mentor. “If you are homesick, come home,” he told Stephen. “There’s no pressure on you.”
The maturity of Mick’s attitude struck home that week in Israel. After the initial Group game, a defeat to Portugal, Brian Kerr dropped Kelly for the second qualifier against Russia. The press found this out before the parent and awkwardly broke the news. Visibly Mick was disappointed but verbally his thoughts immediately turned to the player who had displaced his son. “Patrick deserves a chance too,” he said.
And by the time we next met, in Norway for the Under 19 European championships two years later, it was clear Stephen’s head was equally well adjusted. “That year was the turning point of my career,” he recalls. “I gained confidence. I became assertive.”
He also became a full-back. Centre-half was no longer his position and the rewards were immediate. In the course of 2002, he played in all four divisions in the English football league, his education completed with loan spells at Southend, QPR and Watford. All of a sudden that childhood fantasy was being lived out.
Yet fairytales have their stings too. Tottenham eventually sold him. And fans who initially warmed to a young player coming through the ranks gradually got to learn of Kelly’s faults as well as his strengths.
Terrace abuse has followed his career, from Spurs to Birmingham to Stoke to Fulham. Yet he’s hardened to it, insisting it goes with the territory, pointing out how lucky he is to be enjoying the life he and his wife, Helga, have in Richmond.
“We have a lovely time. We can be anonymous and go to town, go to galleries, go and visit friends, eat out, have our families from Ireland over,” says Stephen. “It couldn’t be better.”
And while it could be better at Craven Cottage – Martin Jol could be playing rather than benching him – the prominent role he played in qualification has lifted his spirits.
“To qualify is just amazing. To know we are going to a major finals and to be involved in something I dreamt of as a kid is just unbelievable.”
It’s such a big deal that not just one parent will make the trip this time but two. Mick, having worked out the logistics of flying into Germany and hiring a camper van with five of his friends to drive into Poland has had his lads plans vetoed by his wife. Instead, they will both travel.
And so, barring injury, will their 27-year-old son. He’s been a regular in Ireland squads for six years now and has a fighting chance of remaining in Giovanni Trapattoni’s starting XI for the opening Group game against Croatia. Of course there are rivals for that full back slot but he isn’t panicking.
“You know the way it is. When you break into the first team as a kid there is always going to be a hullaballoo about you. Everyone talks about whether you are going to be the next big thing.
“The immediate hype is huge. Then it dies away. Someone else comes along. But for me there has been a lot of steady progress, from Spurs to Birmingham to Stoke and now Fulham.
“I have played a lot of Premier League football over the years and there has been a huge progression. I’d be disappointed in myself if that wasn’t the case.
“With Ireland I have been waiting for my chance for a long time and am glad to have it. Other players are excellent. Seamus Coleman will get his chance too but I don’t spend time thinking or worrying about other players. I’m not that type of person. I’m delighted when they do well but am just happy to be doing well myself at the moment.”
How well he does between now and next June at club level will probably determine how much he will enjoy the Euros. The frustration of not playing for Fulham is clear. Even that, though, hasn’t stopped a dream come true.