Denis Kelleher: An ‘Unpredictable Irishman’

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Below the professonal ranks, Denis Kelleher was regarded as one of the finest footballers in Britain. In a remarkable life, the Irishman, capped eight times at amateur level, escaped from Nazi Germany, played for Great Britain at the Olympic Games, and became a folk hero at Barnet. Cian Manning tells his story.

Denis Kelleher was born in Dungarvan, County Waterford on 20 November 1918 however his childhood in Ireland was brief as his family left these shores for England in 1921. And it was across the Irish Sea where Kelleher becomes a star of amateur soccer and considered ‘without doubt the finest inside forward of his era’. A piece by David Williams in 1948 profiling Kelleher as part of a series on notable amateur footballers noted that he always ‘maintained the facility for the unique’.

While at St. Joseph’s College in Croydon, he excelled at various sports such as cricket and tennis, but it was the game of soccer were he really caught people’s attention. In three seasons with the school he scored the remarkable total of 333 goals. During these displays of his prodigious talent, he was spotted by former Barnet goalkeeper Harry Andrews (not to be confused with his namesake the actor in The Hill with Sean Connery, The Agony and the Ecstacy or of Man of La Mancha fame), who recommended the Dungarvan boy to the Bees.

At 16-years-old, Kelleher arrived at Underhill (the club’s ground until its redevelopment as the Hive in 2013) in 1936 for his first game for Barnet only to be refused entrance by the club’s gateman who thought this young schoolboy was merely chancing his arm. From this early blip in his sporting career, success followed rapidly. At 17 he earned his first international cap for the Irish amateur team and twelve months later played an integral part in Barnet’s London Senior Cup success over Leyton Orient at Highbury. He scored two of the goals in a 4-0 victory in front of 20,000 spectators.

His goal-scoring feats also brought him to the attention of the Middlesex Wanderers who invited Kelleher to join them on their tour of Turkey in 1939. Its raison d’etre as a touring side was precipitated due to financial matters. Their journey to Turkey was historic as they were the first British side to visit the country and played Fenerbache in the process.

Sadly, throughout Europe such sporting endeavours were put on hold with the commencement of the Second World War. Kelleher joined the Royal Navy becoming a lieutenant of a motor torpedo boat.

“During the war, he was captured at Tobruk by the Germans and held as a prisoner, first in Italy and subsequently Germany. Yet he managed to escape from the camp in March 1944 by cutting through a wire fence.”

Accompanied by an RAF pilot named Stuart Campbell, the two men evaded capture by disguising themselves as Dutch workers (with only blue overcoats to cover their military uniforms) reaching Lubeck.

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Even in such circumstances Campbell and Kelleher had time to enjoy the local hostelries. From there they managed to reach Sweden by cargo ship. And twenty-two days after their initial escape, the pair reached England. Apparently after arriving back at his parent’s home after the ordeal he greeted them merely by saying ‘Hi all, how’s the war?’ He was awarded an MBE for his escape.

Not only that, but only two days after his arrival in England, Kelleher played for Barnet in a game against Grays Athletic scoring two goals.

In 1946 his playing career almost came to an abrupt end after sustaining a nasty head injury, but he was able to play a part in Barnet’s greatest success. That year he scored what was to be the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Bishop Auckland in the FA Amateur Cup at Stamford Bridge with an attendance of 53,832. The unusually named opposition were deemed the Arsenal of this guise of the FA Cup, being the most successful club in the history of the tournament. They won it ten times as well as being runner up on eight occasions.

The competition was set up in response to the legalisation of professionalism within football with England’s oldest club Sheffield F.C. suggesting that a separate competition be created for amateur clubs in 1892. It lasted until 1974 when it was surpassed by the FA Trophy. While with Barnet, Kelleher reached another final with the club in 1948 but lost out 1-0 to a Leystone side. That 1946 success still remains Barnet’s only major piece of silverware in an otherwise golden age that encompassed two Athenian League titles, three London Senior Cups and a London Charity Cup. In a time of ‘Wine and Roses’ in the history of the club, Kelleher played in 358 games for the Bees and scored an impressive 286 goals.

“He was the only Irishman from the southern state of the island (which became the Republic of Ireland in the same year) to make the Great Britain Olympic soccer team in 1948.”

Not only was his sporting talents recognised but his ‘resonant tenor notes’ were admired by many including Dutch FA officials at a dinner in Amsterdam. In the same bio piece by David Williams he described Kelleher’s character as ‘There is something of the leprechaun in the impish twinkle of his eye.’ This would appear to be an illustration of the meaning of the name Kelleher, an Anglicization of O Ceileachair meaning ‘lover of company’.

Unlike the hullabaloo that surrounded the selection of the 2012 Great Britain team, in 1948 a trial game was held on the 8th May under the gaze of Matt Busby (who subsequently led Manchester United to European Cup victory in 1968) in Blackpool. A special correspondent of the Observer was unimpressed by the players on display but did record that ‘D. Kelleher (Ireland) was the only player to put any real life into his play in the first half and played like a tired man afterwards.’ In making the squad he played in the first three games scoring his only goal of the tournament in a 4-3 defeat of the Netherlands. That Great Britain side lost 3-1 in the semi-final to Yugoslavia.

Though Kelleher was only raised in Ireland for a few brief years, he did manage to play soccer on the island. He lined out for Cliftonville in the Irish League in 1950, his only game for them. Much of the attention surrounded Kelleher in the opening fixture of the season against Crusaders and he duly obliged with two goals in a 3-2 victory at Solitude. Around this time, he had been contacted by Bohemians of Dublin to play with them in the League of Ireland but Cliftonville did not wish to release him to fulfil this offer.

His international exploits included eight caps for the Ireland Amateur side. As already mentioned his debut came at 17 against Scotland, in which he scored in a 2-1 win. Perhaps his greatest moment in the green of Ireland came when he scored the winner against England in 1949 at Carrow Road where he also captained the side. In the same year, he orchestrated a 5-2 defeat of Scotland in Aberdeen’s Pittodrie coming from two goals behind at half-time. In total he scored four goals for his country.

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In March 1951, Kelleher was invited to join a touring Hendon side in Hong Kong and the Philippines for that May, however there was doubt over his participation due to his medical studies.  Kelleher qualified in 1952 from St. Mary’s (while there he met his future wife Anne with whom he had six children) and became a General Practioner at Harold Wood. He continued as a GP until 1989 retiring aged 71. Unfortunately, the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease were further cruel tests of a remarkable man. In his obituary, it is remarked that ‘He will be remembered by all who knew him for his humility, kindness, compassion, and, above all, his smile, which never left him, even in the later stages of his illness’ dying in 2004.

In conversation with Barnet club archivist and fan, John Adkins (who also kindly provided the photographs which illustrate this piece) outlined the esteem in which Kelleher is held in the folklore of the north London club and that his career coincided with the pinnacle era of the amateur game in England. It’s unfortunate to think that such a man whose life and sporting career were as equally interesting is not further known or acknowledged in his own birthplace and in the country he represented with such distinction.

Probably the only time you’ll read the words of Cecelia Ahern in relation to soccer (other than in reference to her Old Trafford season ticket holding father) is that Kelleher should be more than ‘a vague face and a distant memory.’ His story transcends, whether in relation to issues such as emigration, the Irish in Britain, war, or Irish sporting history which is as relevant to the people of Waterford today as it was weekly news to the Barnet faithful over sixty years ago.

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