The mere mention of the word ‘Keelan’ provokes a warm fuzzy feeling for City supporters of a certain age, and right now we all need as much warm fuzziness as we can get.
So, with Ed’s permission, here again is his homage to one of the greats.
Here’s a question for you. Answer in your own time.
Name a Norwich City goalkeeper. Preferably your favourite one. Ever.
The names roll off the tongue like freshly laid summer turf, don’t they? The great and the good, as well as the very good. A yellow and green roll call of goalkeeping excellence.
Kevin Keelan. Chris Woods. Robert Green. Bryan Gunn. Not forgetting Angus, of course. Plus, of course, the current man in the number one shirt, Tim Krul, the first-ever goalkeeper to be used in a match solely for the purposes of a penalty shoot-out.
For many people, myself included, Keelan, is one of their earliest and most vivid Canary memories. Sadly, for me, I never got to see him play in ‘real-life’ – my memories of the man were exclusively furnished by television, Anglia TV’s groundbreaking Match of the Week programme the prime source.
Whenever Norwich appeared on the show, Keelan would, invariably, do something that would cause the crowd to gasp and for Gerry Harrison, marooned in the commentary box to contain his excitement at the scale of Cat’s latest impossible act.
Truly, the man could have been a gymnast, a trapeze artist, a free-fall parachutist. For Keelan, mid-air was somewhere he was as familiar with as you or I are with our living rooms. The shapes he took on, the forms, the near ability to fly. He was a living sculpture. Watching him on the small screen was always a treat. Seeing him for real must have been something else. I do envy those of you who saw him at his best.
My fellow MyFootballWriter scribe Mick Dennis was certainly familiar with Kevin – man and majestic sportsman. I’m sure he won’t mind me repeating the essence of what he told me about Kevin when I asked him for some thoughts and memories of him a short while ago.
This little tale centres on Norwich having just appointed Bournemouth’s John Bond as manager in December 1973. By then Kevin was Norwich’s best known and, in all likelihood, their best-paid player. And, even if he was then 32, he would still have had a substantial sell-on value should Bond have chosen to cash in on him for team-building purposes, especially with ex-Cherries keeper Fred Davies set to follow his old boss to Norwich.
Keelan had just endured a tough first season with the club in Division One in the 1972/73 season, the bruised and somewhat battered Canaries ending it by avoiding an immediate return to Division Two by just two points. Yet things weren’t to immediately improve the following campaign.
When Bond arrived, City were bottom of the league, having won just two of their opening seventeen fixtures. If truth be told, the Canaries were in freefall, with many of the players who had contributed to their rise and rise to the upper echelons having been ‘found out’ by better and more wily teams and opponents.
Bond, a renowned buyer and seller of players, knew his new team needed immediate and radical surgery if it was to have any chance of surviving, introducing a host of new players into the Canary ranks in the months that followed his appointment.
Given that he was rather fond of bringing in players from former club Bournemouth, there were those who suspected that Davies would provide immediate competition for Keelan, but this never materialised, although he did eventually end up at Carrow Road as a coach. But no. Keelan was the established goalkeeper at Norwich and Bond was very aware of that fact.
Kevin was the established goalkeeper when Bondy arrived and, despite his Redknapp’esque approach to buying and selling, Bond never sought a replacement nor questioned Kevin’s right to the number one shirt. That was its own testament to him because Bond was always looking to improve his team and squad.
Roger Hansbury, who was his long-term understudy, wasn’t a bad keeper, but Kevin was definitely number one. But the rest of the team certainly changed under Bond. Colin Sullivan was brought in at left-back whilst Forbes and Stringer eventually gave way to Jones and Powell.
But through all of those and the other changes, Keelan remained a consistent presence behind the defence, capable of great athleticism yet a master of the goalkeeping basics. The ‘big players’ at the club – Duncan Forbes, Martin Peters, Ted MacDougall and their ilk – all treated Kevin with the respect that is obvious between the top players; recognising someone who could do the job.
The ultimate respect that one professional offers another is often as simple as that: acknowledging that they can do the job needed. For Keelan, to have it from someone as well versed and respected in the game as Bond was one thing, but for him to also have it from strong characters like Peters and MacDougall was something else, something special. And, like any true professional, Keelan hated to lose.
Mick was a regular on the coach to and from games at the time and recalls that, on the way home after defeats, Keelan was very quiet: no ranting or moaning, just an unhappy professional processing his personal disappointment. But after a win or a decent draw, he was a ‘noisy sod’.
He wasn’t one of the card players, and there were no personal TVs or anything, so he would end up wandering up and down the coach and engaging in banter. He was good company, accepting the young reporter on the coach as just another one of the lads. There were no noticeable cliques, although some players were better friends with each other than with the rest.
But Kevin was clearly well-liked by everyone. He often frequented a late-night club/bar called El Piano. He also did the seventies ‘thing’ of opening a boutique, which was in Anglia Square.
Far from wanting Keelan out, Bond doted on his ‘new’ keeper, immediately identifying him as one of the key members of his squad. He was so keen to retain his services, no matter what, that he even engaged in a bit of footballing skulduggery to ensure that Keelan’s services were retained where they were, had been, and would continue to be so highly valued.
The club that showed more than a passing interest in Keelan was Manchester United, then managed by Tommy Docherty. It would have been in around 1975 when the approach came.
Both Norwich and the Red Devils had been promoted back to the First Division after a season away, Docherty spending that time fashioning an exquisitely youthful and talented team at Old Trafford that included young tyros like Jimmy Nicholl (19); Gordon Hill (21); Steve Coppell (20) and Sammy McIlroy (21).
However, Docherty still had doubts about his goalkeeper. Alex Stepney was nearing his mid-30s and had been at the club since 1966 and was, in essence, part of the ‘old guard’ who the Doc was looking to ship out. Stepney’s number two, Paddy Roche, had joined the club from Shelbourne two years previously but had never really convinced – indeed, in his near-decade of service at Old Trafford, Roche only played 46 league games.
He was decent. But a number two goalkeeper at best, especially at a club as big as Manchester United. Docherty knew he needed a big man, a character, a personality in his number one shirt, someone who would come in and thrive on the expectancy of playing for a club who, after all, had been European Champions only six years previously. That and the prospect of appearing in front of 50,000 plus fans every other week.
The answer to his problems seemed clear cut and obvious. That man would be Kevin Keelan.
Thus, more in expectation than hope, Docherty put in a call to Carrow Road and asked to speak to Bond. And, after exchanging pleasantries, Docherty delivered the reason for his call.
“The boy Keelan, John. I’m thinking he’d love it here. New challenge and opportunity, playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world. I know he wouldn’t come that cheap – but it would give you some funds to get your own keeper in – he is a Saunders man, after all. What might you be looking for – I’m sure he’d be interested”.
If Bond was shocked at the question, then he hid it well. And he gave his opposite number an honest reply.
“No problem Tom, I’ll have a word with the lad and get back to you”.
A few days passed, then a week. Eventually, Docherty was on the phone again. Had Bond mentioned their interest to Keelan and what had been the response?
“Sorry Tom,” said Bond, “I had a word with Kevin, told him about your offer. He’s had a think about it, but I’ll be straight with you, he says he’s not interested, he’s settled here and wants to see out his career with us”.
Non-plussed but accepting, Docherty hung up and went about his business. Bond, meanwhile, afforded himself one of his trademark smiles. He had no intention of selling Keelan and had not even mentioned Docherty’s call or Manchester United’s interest in his player.
Players came and went with Bond who usually, perhaps one costly exception, got it right when he spent the Canaries’ hard earnt money. But Keelan stayed put, a rock, virtually immovable.
Even when, at 37, Keelan seemed set to finally call it a day in the English game by joining NASL side, New England Tea Men, on loan, he still came back for a farewell tour of English football, playing in 26 consecutive matches for Norwich at the start of the 1979/80 season, seven of which were clean sheets.
He played his last Norwich game, at the age of 39, against Liverpool at Carrow Road on February 9th 1980 – the 673rd of his Norwich career, and seventeen years after the first, a 3-1 defeat to Cardiff City at Ninian Park on August 24th 1963.
His latter-day City teammate, Justin Fashanu, the man who seized the day during Keelan’s final game with that remarkable volleyed goal, was just two years old on that day, yet here they were now, brothers in Canary arms.
Longevity that will almost certainly never be matched, at Norwich City or any other English club. Or, put another way, for him to equal that length of Canary service and excellence, a keeper making his debut for City this weekend would need to retain his position as our number one until 2036.
That puts Keelan’s endurance as a Norwich City player into perspective if anything does.
The Cat returned to the US where he played a further 29 games for the Tea Men before finally calling a halt to his senior career at the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he also had a spell in charge of as assistant coach from 1982/83 as well as, over a decade later, taking on a similar role as the goalkeeping coach of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and as assistant coach at the University of Tampa.
Resident to this day in Tampa, he still finds time to day to coach young goalkeepers, ever busy, ever in demand, and as popular as he ever was.
It was his first-ever manager (of just four in 17 years – managerial ‘hot seats’ seemed a lot less, well, hot back then) at Carrow Road, Ron Ashman who later went onto call Keelan the “bargain of the century” at just £6,500 from Wrexham.
And, despite the fact he has strong competition for that tribute from fellow Canary transfer ‘steals’ like Martin Peters (£50,000), Kevin Reeves (£50,000) Duncan Forbes (£10,000) and Teemu Pukki (free), it’s as hard to argue against Ashman’s claim now as it was when he first declared it.
Kevin Keelan. Legend. And one thoroughly deserving of the title.
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Times are tough for us all, but we like to think we’ve played our tiny part in keeping the #NCFC flag flying in these trying times, and so if, for the cost of a pint a month, you could help us, we’d be ever ever so grateful.
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Thanks again, without you we’d literally be nothing.
Andy W says
I was lucky enough to see him play many times in the 70s Ed, and even though I am clearly biased, I think he was one of the best of his era. If he had been at a bigger club, he would have been talked about in the same breath as Shilton, Corrigan and the recently deceased Ray Clemence. He was fearless and one of the best catches of crosses I have ever seen. We were lucky to have him for so long.
Gary Gowers says
Spot on Andy. I too was lucky enough to see him play live many times and he every bit the showman that Ed described. We were indeed lucky to have him and, as you say, had he been playing somewhere more glamourous than ‘little Norwich’, he’d have been spoken of in the same breath as the greats you list.
Don Harold says
Kevin Keelan was the first Norwich player I remember that had some ‘stardust’ about him. It was always a thrill to see him. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the best goalkeeper never to play for England, perhaps the best player in any position.
Even his alliterative name put him on a pedestal-he was, of course KK before that little bloke who played for Liverpool came along. Without being too much of a snob, the idea he could have been replaced by someone called Fred Davies (a name that sounds like a mate of George who Mildred would not have approved of) is unfathomable. OK, I am a snob!
martin penney says
Wasn’t Fred Davies a snooker pro in the old days, kind of a poor man’s Joe?
Don Harold says
Fred Davis, the great Joe Davis’ younger brother. There are people who will explain how an ‘e’ changes the context of things
martin penney says
I didn’t realise they were brothers tbh. That’s what nostalgia does of course, your memories lose accuracy over time. Dad [a pretty damn good amateur cueman himself] always told me how good Joe was but I think Joe must have packed up before Barry Hearn monopolised the game and got it on mainstream TV.
And yes, I know, Steve Davis wasn’t related to either of them 🙂
Alex B says
Fred Davis comically in the 70’s or 80’s was still playing in the top games on TV and he had lost the game and climbed up on to the table as he couldn’t reach his final shot never as good as his older brother but still a good player
I was lucky enough to have seen Kevin Keelan play. He was outstanding and as good as Krul and Woods have been Keelan will always top them in my mind.
I know time can play tricks on the memory but I remember when we were first promoted to the first division under Ron Saunders. At times it appeared that Kevin had taken on the top teams on his own with an incredible string of saves game after game. His athleticism was remarkable. His supreme confidence fed through to the rest of the team.
Had he played for one of the big teams there is no doubt in my mind he would have played for England.
On top of all this he was a remarkable character.
martin penney says
I remember that KK had a female following akin to that of a Best or a Beckham [on a more regional scale of course]. The ladies absolutely adored him and probably quite a few still do to this very day.
Mrs P has certainly always rated him, if you see what I mean 🙂
I remember him being popular at the local nightclubs.
Inside Right says
I may need to put my tin hat on here, as I only saw Keelen towards the very end of his Norwich City career and subsequently all too few t.v games from years gone by, so it is difficult to give a career based view on somebody who is without doubt a Canary legend. Many fans somewhat older than me are almost universal in their praise of him, so he must have been pretty good!
I was a goalkeeper for years, though not at a professional level and it was a different art to what it is now. For example catching the ball has gone completely out of fashion, though there are some migrating circumstances for that, but I digress.
From memory, Keelan was not exactly orthodox. This may be in part that he never had a top class defence on front of him, so bearing that in mind you start to do things ‘your way’ to compensate. Then it becomes so ingrained you can’t dial it out. That’s how you play.
The ’70’s had some great keepers. Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton’s positioning, my personal favourite now sadly departed Ray Clemence, who played in a much more progressive manner and arguably the best of all, the criminally overlooked Pat Jennings. How would Keelan have fared if he had got the big move in ’75?
I think he may have struggled. His tendency to lean back and lack that big, commanding presence in the box could have been his undoing, though with a stronger side – which knows? But as I said, I only caught him at the very end of his career.
We’ve been very lucky with keepers as we’ve had some damn good ones, but for me, Chris Woods is the standout. I recall he was initially on loan from QPR and thinking, ‘Why are they loaning him out to us?’ The guy had already been a winner with Forest. Unassuming, understated, agile, we were lucky to have him and it was sad to see him go. It was unfortunate that Peter Shilton outstayed his welcome by at least 4 years for England, as Woods is often remembered in a declining side under Graham Taylor.
Now, whatever happened to Roger Hansbury…?
Gary Gowers says
Fair comment, mate and we’re all guilty of getting a little misty-eyed when recalling our first Norwich City heroes and stars of yesteryear. Keelan indeed had his foibles, one of which was a hair-trigger temperament, which saw him get into scrapes aplenty. Remember us conceding a goal against Leeds (I think) when he threw the ball down and chased down Tony Currie (I think) who had deliberately niggled him – the loose ball was tapped in!
And, yes, he was unconventional and relied on athleticism rather than sound technique and positioning, but my god he was entertaining. He also wasn’t, at least by today’s standards, very big!
Alex B says
Wasn’t Fred Davies a snooker player lol
Being old enough I remember Sandie Kennon and Nethercott great pre KK days but city have always recruited good keepers
Excellent read as always Ed
Onwards and upwards
Stay safe and stay healthy
Tim Ball says
Lovely piece Edward.
To the younger supporter it is hard to explain how good Kevin Keelan was.
Had he gone to Manchester United he could well have played for England, sadly we have always been a bit unfashionable.
Today without a doubt he would be England’s no 1 keeper.
He is The Grand Canyon to Jordan Pickford’s Taverham Pits, yes he was that good.
To me he was better than Banks, Shilton, Bonetti and the sadly departed Ray Clemence all who I really rated as masters of their craft. As for the latter keepers Seaman, James etc they were not even close.
Jim Davies says
How can you have an article on The Cat and not mention that famous right hook? He was walking off before the ref got the whistle to his mouth! Not a man to trifle with!
One of my all time favourite City players, though any article on goalkeepers for me should also include Ken Nethercott and his successor in that fabulous cup season, Sandy Kennon. I can even go back to having seen Ken Oxford, but Kevin tops the lot for me. We’ve been very blessed with some greats between the sticks, not least the current incumbent.
KK was THE keeper for NCFC.
Yes, maybe a bit showy at times, but overall??
GENIUS – the best we’ve ever had (or are likely to), (and there have been any number of very good’uns)
O T B C
Nostalgia may cloud the memory but I still rate him as the best keeper ever at Carrow Road. Mention of his temperament brings to mind his sending off against Northampton when he dropped his man with an uppercut. He also took a mean penalty – not subtle but what seemed similar to his goal kicks, only the net intervening.
Ed C-L says
One of my favourite memories of him, albeit one witnessed via the Anglia cameras was the thin pair of green gloves he occasionally wore-they looked like the sort of things you’d put 0n today if you were about to prune your roses.
Not that KK always wore gloves-prior to a corner or free kick against us for example, he’d spit on his hands and quickly rub them together. That was considered enough and at a time when the balls were a lot denser and heavier than they are now-if you caught or palmed away a shot from Peter Lorimer or one of his peers, the sting & impact would be a memorable one-not that he’d have shown he felt it!
I read a while ago that he was picked to play for an England XI in a testimonial match,for Trevor Brooking and that, when he got home later that same night, he put his whole England strip back on in his bedroom and just stood and admired his reflection in the mirror, so proud he was to have been selected and worn, albeit in an unofficial match, the England shirt.
Some lovely comments, thankyou all.
philip webster says
Enjoying all these comments after seeing Claudine’s Twitter mention. I had the privilege of writing Kevin’s biography which we published after he became the club’s record holder in terms of games played. Will it ever be beaten? Doubt it. I used to come u p from London early Friday evenings, go to Kevin’s house in Hevingham, and do another chapter together. It was great fun. In those days I was play ing two games every weekend myself and did not watch him in as many games as I would have liked. But he really was the best of a brilliant bunch of keepers at Norwich. Tim Krul comes in a very fine tradition. OTBC
Avid reader of this page from a Norwich boy who’s home is now Dublin – had to venture into print to applaud this tribute to KK – he presented me with a medal for Cub football around the mid-60’s – I’ve never forgotten the thrill – he was the business!