To those of us of a certain age, the very mention of Kevin Keelan conjures up images of a figure clad in green who was athleticism, bravery and heroism personified.
And the canary on his chest made him our hero.
He was unique. An enigmatic figure who, in his own way, managed to epitomise the Swinging Sixties and who brought hope and glamour to the Canary Nation in the not-do-swinging Seventies.
The Tim Krul of his day. The same but different. Very different.
Where their qualities fell into the same Venn circle was if we’re talking about attitude and mental strength. Tim doesn’t wilt and neither did Kevin. Those around them, friends and foes, know and knew where they stood.
If Grant Hanley makes a rick and needs telling, Krul will tell him. Keelan did the same with Big Dunc who, while the original tower of strength, wasn’t averse to the occasional faux pas if the ball was on the grass. But someone had to tell him. Kevin was the man.
Neither Krul nor Keelan are lovers of indecisive officialdom and make it known, and both enjoy a place in the hearts of City supporters reserved for the greats. But there the similarities end.
Tim is the pragmatist. Kevin was the showman. The greatest showman.
MyFootballWriter’s Ed Couzens-Lake captured him perfectly:
“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.”
Kevin was my first Norwich City hero – everything Ed described and more – so imagine my delight when the great man agreed to talk with MyFootballWriter on the eve of his 80th birthday.
Having played a record-breaking 673 times for City, it was tricky to know where to start, but we kicked off with how and why Florida is now home for Kevin and his wife Debbie.
“I have been in the US for 42 years now. It was football that brought me here. It started off in 1978 with a loan agreement between Norwich City and the Tea Men, in Boston. Originally, I had spoken to George Best – a long-time friend – who had contacted me and offered me a position on behalf of the Los Angeles Aztecs.
“In the end, I took the position with the Tea Men after meeting with Noel Cantwell in Norwich. It just seemed like a better move for me at that time. In 1980-81, I moved to Tampa to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“After my playing days were over, I became assistant manager to Gordon Jago, who was the manager of the Rowdies at that time. I stayed in that position until the NASL folded. By then I had met Debbie, my wife, and after we married and had our daughter, Kelly, I decided to make Tampa my home. The weather was the deciding factor!”
The Keelan/Norwich City love affair actually began in 1963, when then City manager Ron Ashman decided that he needed someone to compete with Sandy Kennon for the number 1 jersey. His first stop was Wales. Wrexham to be precise.
“At the end of the 1962-63 season (with Wrexham), there were inquiries from both Newcastle United and Norwich City. Norwich offered them £6,500 for my services. I met with Ron Ashman in Norwich and he offered me £20 a week plus I would be able to live in a club house. And that was it.
“After completing my medical exam, I signed. Norwich is a beautiful city and I still consider it my home. I have family and friends there that I have had for many years. Every time I come home, we get together and it’s as if I’ve never been away.
“Sandy Kennon was the starting keeper when I first started for City. My first game was against Cardiff at Ninian Park at the beginning of the 1963-64 season. Sandy and I shared the goal keeping duties that year. In the 1970s the back-up keepers were Mervyn Cawston and, later, Roger Hansbury.”
In 673 games there were obviously highlights aplenty, which we’ll come to in a bit, as well as some top-class team-mates along the way, including a World Cup winner in the form of the late Martin Peters, but there were two blokes in particular who bled Norwich City in the same way Kevin did.
“Dave Stringer was one of our most consistent players, as competitive as they come and also a great club man. You could always count on him and he has to be one of the best professionals that I played with. Duncan Forbes, a big centre-half, had a huge presence on the field. He was very aggressive and the opposition always feared his presence. These two always gave 110%. They played a very crucial part in our first promotion and both made my job easier.”
The 1970s footballer was a very different animal to the 21st-century version and so I was intrigued to find out who enjoyed a party most of all.
“In the 1970s and 80s, it was probably Graham Paddon and Ted MacDougall. We mainly would talk about the game over a drink while unwinding afterwards. I usually went to the Woolpack, LaRouen, or the Pig and Whistle.”
In terms of career highlights…
“The League Cup Finals [1973 and 1975] were very special to me and the rest of the team, although it was obviously a shame we lost both. I was pleased to have saved Ray Graydon’s penalty in 1975 – I got my hand on the ball but, unfortunately, it hit the post and went straight back to Ray. It was a devastating way to lose.”
As a 9-year-old on his first ever trip to Wembley, I can vouch for that feeling of devastation but there was nothing more thrilling than seeing your hero save a pen in a Wembley final. And I’ve never forgiven the other ten for not reacting quick enough as that ball pinged back off the post.
Kevin was signed by Ashman, played in the 1960s under Lol Morgan, in the late-60s and 70s under Ron Saunders and from the mid-70s until the end of his time at Carrow Road under John Bond. But who was the best?
“Ron Saunders was by far the toughest manager but, for me, John Bond was the best. He had flair and his knowledge of the game was incredible. He also had Ken Brown as his assistant and together they were a great coaching team.”
I asked Kevin if he knew much about the now-famous tale of the late Tommy Docherty, then manager of Manchester United, enquiring of his availability only for John Bond to conveniently forgot to mention it to him!
“Bondy did tell me about it much later on. Looking back, it might have been a tremendous opportunity for me but, at the end of the day, I have no regrets at all. Norwich has always been good to me.”
Manchester United’s loss was very much Norwich City’s gain and it says a lot about the man that he has such a relaxed view on what could have been a career-changing moment.
We moved on to other memorable career moments beyond those achieved while wearing the green and yellow.
“I played in an England XI at Ipswich for Bobby Robson’s Testimonial, which was a huge honour and there was also the testimonial that Norwich City gave me [against Ipswich in May 1974] was very special, as well as the second testimonial against an All-Star XI in 1980. These are moments that you never forget.
“Also, another massive thing for me was getting an MBE for services to football and Norwich City. I received it on June 14, 1980 – one of the most memorable days of my life”
Football has clearly changed massively since the 1970s, sometimes for the better and sometimes less so, but what’s changed most for keepers (other than they all now wear gloves!)?
“The game has changed a lot since my playing days. The most significant change is that a keeper is now almost an additional man on the pitch. They need outfield skills now, which was never a big requirement back then.”
So, how closely does Kevin follow the fortunes of the modern-day Canaries from Florida?
“I do follow City. It was easier last year when they were in the Premier League, as I could watch the games, but now they are back in the Championship, I still get updates from friends frequently. I met Daniel Farke last year when the team came to Tampa and got to spend a little time with the keepers as well. It was a pleasure to be able to meet with them. I was also able to attend a game last December when I went home to Norwich.”
We ended on a topical note. What is life like in the Sunshine State as Covid continues to do its worst?
“Life in Florida is about as good as it can be right now. Our state has not shut down, so we are able to play golf and are staying active as much as we can within reason.”
And that was it. Time to leave Kevin and Debbie to celebrate his 80th birthday Florida-style. Back in the day, the great man would have celebrated with a glass of something and I’d love to think the spirit of the Pig and Whistle lives on across the Pond, at the very least on birthdays that end in a zero.
So let’s all raise a glass to one of our greats.
Football in the 1970s was bursting full of characters, like George, Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson, and, of course, Frank Worthington but we had one of our own.
And, for me, he was and still is the best of the lot.
Happy 80th old friend.
On the Ball City
Chris S says
Thank you, my first real hero as a school kid, when we played as kids I was always the Cat but I was no keeper more a Theoklitos , but nobody wanted to be in goal so I got my way. While others were Law, ,Best Charlton etc
John Asher says
Wonderful. He was my first NCFC hero, too.
Jim Davies says
Ed Couzens-Lake missed one other possible occupation – “gymnast, trapeze artist, free-fall parachutist, boxer!”
Ed C-L. says
Man, icon, legend. Thankyou for that Gary. The Cat is the King.
martin penney says
I think the phrase *NCFC legend* was created for KK.
He was our version of Besty – all the girls loved him back in the day and that’s for sure 🙂
Kevin and Ron Davies are my all time City heroes.
Characters don’t come any bigger than Kevin.
I’ll never forget his amazing performances when we were first promoted to the top division.
Tim Sell says
Not only did he have the ability to make world class saves on a consistent basis, he also had the ability to, make, what would have been very ordinary saves required to look world class aswell. Looking back these over dramatics were used purely for entertaining the crowd. A far cry from today, where generally, over dramatics are used to gain an unfair advantage as in cheating to win a free kick. What a showman, legend, icon, loyal servant he was to the club. Definitely wore his heart on his sleeve and who could forget his sending off for shoving the ball in the face of an opponent as he came came to close for comfort, I never did quite understand what possessed him to do that ( maybe it was something he said ), next time you speak with him please ask. Happy 80th to ‘ The Cat ‘ OTBC 🙂
Herr Cutz says
What a keeper! Amazing agility and aggressive with it. Remember his sending off for decking an opposition player and the the posh people in the City stand throwing their seat cushions onto the pitch amid the boos of protest.
martin penney says
That was against Northampton and I think the geezer’s name was Robson who had been fighting him, one way or another, all game.
KK didn’t wait for the ref – he walked straight down the tunnel!
Andrew Delf says
I was at that match, as I remember it was at the Barclay end I think that was the day Keelan became my hero. Big Dunc, Stringer, Foggo, Paddon, Sylvester, Jimmy Neighbour, Ted and Phil. Played on mud by real men, happy days.
was at that game was in the Barclay TBH the guy had it coming. may have been the only time I applauded and sang a name for being sent off
. also Hull’s Wagstaff and their other centre forward Chilton Always went out if their way to rile KK up.
The original King Kevin. Should have made the England squad if not the team but the single carriageway A11 seemed impassable the international managers of the day.
Happy birthday KK
Bob W. says
Norwich has been blessed with many fine keepers but KK has never been bettered IMO. Yes he could be (and was) accused of making straightforward saves look dramatic but you always thought he would make that save. Even when facing a one-on-one you thought he could make that save. Not every keeper since KK has given me that confidence. In terms of what he gave the club over so many games, possibly the greatest signing ever.
Colin M says
673 games for City, please, just take time to consider what KK means in the history of NCFC.
What is it with our keepers and games played………..
and Tim Krul approaching 100
Trevor B says
Not forgetting Ken Nethercott (416) and Sandy Kennon (255)…
Colin M says
I never saw either play but nonetheless take their rightful place in the club’s history.
General Norwich says
Great memories of Kevin Keelan as a young fan from the seventies. Always remember leaving one match and walking back through the City only to see Kevin at the bar of the Murderers it could have only been 15-20 minutes after the game! Superb character and a fantastic goalkeeper.
Gordon Tate says
I remember one game against Leeds when Kevin took offence at a challenge from I think it was Ray Hankin, so he dropped the ball to chase Hankin up the pitch to ‘sort him out’. Meanwhile John Hawley gratefully accepted the ball Keelan had left behind in the penalty area and tapped it into an empty net.
Only ‘the Cat’ could get away with doing something like that and still be a hero to the fans.
Gary Gowers says
Great shout, Gordon! Been trying to describe this one for years and thought I was going slightly mad as no-one else could recall it. I had in my head it was Tony Currie that KK chased but you’re probably right. I should have asked about that one!
So many memories of not only our greatest keeper, but also one of England’s best.
Had he played for a more fashionable club, he would without any doubt now be a global household name…with numerous England caps.
Yes, he was a showman, but to an impressionable teenager he was pure genius!
Happy Birthday KK.
O T B C
And a very modest man. I used to go to Trowse to watch training and he always had time to speak to the kids there and to sign autographs
Still in my all time MCFC team and a true legend
Rosemary Baugh says
Wishing you a very Happy 80th birthday Kevin ( I celebrated mine in April !) Great memories of great saves back in the day. Enjoy your celebrations, so glad you’re able to keep updated of City results. They’re doing really well, so long may it continue. Best wishes Rosemary
Dennis Smith says
Many happy returns to one of the truly Carrow Road greats.
Has brought back happy memories of many Saturday afternoons spent standing behind the Barclay end goal.
“Keelan is better than Yashin” anyone?
Lovely to read that Mr K still seems to be enjoying life at 80.
John Grey says
Oi oi oi oi
Keelan is better than Yashin
…………. is better than Eusebio
And (team we were playing) are in for a thrashing
(I can never remember the name of the forward we would sing)
Keenan is better than Yashin
Bryce land is better than Eusebio
And ………are in for a thrash in’
Barclay stand chant. I loved it!
@Martin Penney – Yes, the bloke he decked was Tommy Robson a Geordie who later played for Peterborough United for some years. Living in Cambridgeshire I used to see him out and about but never at a convenient moment to ask him about it.
Sadly he passed away with MND last year. He was a legend for Posh and there was a big turnout for his funeral procession which made it’s way past the London Rd ground.
martin penney says
Thanks Graham – appreciated.
Tony Butcher says
I was at Kevin@ first game for Norwich reserves.Sat in the City stand with 200 others. Kevin picked up the ball in the penalty area and threw it over the half way line. Every jaw dropped open.We were not used to that at Carrow Rd.
Stephen Pattin says
Kevin was my first football goalkeeping hero. I’m from Middlesbrough!!. My first Boro match was v’s Norwich city 9/10/76 and Kevin was in goal. My other hero was our own Jim Platt in goal for Boro. A Souness goal settled the match. I was the only kid in Middlesbrough who wanted…and got the Norwich admiral kit…all green like Kevin. I got stick for that. Kevin was a great goalie and serve you so well he should have a statue outside Carrow Rd!!!. Great to read he’s still going strong. My hero. Never forgotten.