WHEN Blackburn Rovers last visited Hillsborough 12 years ago, they secured a semi final victory that paved the way for their famous Worthington Cup triumph over Tottenham. Today, Alan Kelly knows the stakes will be very different.
Kelly was a substitute as back-up to Brad Friedel when Rovers won 2-1 at Sheffield Wednesday in January 2002, thanks to goals from Craig Hignett and Andy Cole.
That first leg away win would be followed by a 4-2 victory at Ewood Park, sending Rovers to the final at the Millennium Stadium.
Victory over Tottenham in Cardiff, the club’s first major cup triumph in 74 years, still remains one of the highlights of Rovers’ recent history.
This afternoon, however, avoiding relegation to League One has become Rovers’ main aim.
Level on points both with the relegation zone and with today’s opponents, this trip to Sheffield could be pivotal for reasons Rovers fans could not have expected just two or three years ago.
Kelly, who spent five years at Ewood between 1999 and 2004, has watched in disbelief as the club have plunged from the Premier League to the foothills of the Championship – a disastrous spell overseen by controversial Indian owners Venky’s.
He is well aware of how important it is for the club to avoid dropping into the third tier for the first time since 1980.
“When I talk to Rovers supporters there’s almost a sense of fear in their voices when they talk about what’s happening,” said Kelly.
“I was a professional footballer for nearly 30 years and when I played at Blackburn it was one of the best run clubs in the country.
“Everything that was done was done sensibly and with a correct vision.
“People were treated with respect and decisions were made carefully by football men like John Williams and Tom Finn.
“What we see now is a club with no direction, completely rudderless. When something does happen it usually means bad publicity and all the wrong headlines.
“The owners must decide what they want for Blackburn Rovers because all you see at the moment is chaos.
“It would be absolutely catastrophic if they went down to League One.”
Caretaker boss Gary Bowyer has the task of keeping Rovers alive after previous manager Michael Appleton was sacked after just 15 games in charge.
“All the people I talk to in football tell me that Michael Appleton is a fine young coach and a guy who was obviously carving out a decent reputation as a manager,” Kelly said.
“He was highly rated by Roy Hodgson at West Brom, did well under very difficult circumstances at Portsmouth and was then head-hunted from Blackpool by Rovers.
“To be given just a couple of months is complete madness.
“How can you operate in an environment like that? Who would want the job now if a manager was only going to get a couple of months before he got the bullet?”
Away from Rovers, Kelly’s own authority about the goalkeeper’s art has grown like a tree during a lifetime of football experience.
His late father, Alan Kelly senior, served Preston and Ireland, where he was recognised as one of the greatest goalkeepers in Irish international football.
Alan junior followed in his Deepdale footsteps, before several seasons at Rovers, retiring in 2004.
Having won 34 caps for Ireland, he has been the national team’s goalkeeping coach for seven years, currently operating under Italian coach Giovanni Trappatoni.
“Howard Kendall, the former Blackburn manager, was the best manager I worked with,” added Kelly, who lives in the Ribble Valley.
“He had that incredible ability to make everybody he came into contact with feel wanted and special .
“That’s quite a rare thing in life, to meet and work for somebody like that.
“If you can engender that feeling in a squad, then you’re on to a winner and Howard Kendall was a winner.
“Trappatoni is one of one of the greatest coaches of all time. He won titles in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Austria and managed Italy.
“I’ve got a photograph of Fabio Capello, the former England manager, Marco Tardelli and Giovanni Trappatoni sat next to me in the Ewood Park stand.
“I’m very proud of that.”
Kelly made his league debut for Preston, a few months after leaving school.
“I played 13 games that season and Preston went through three managers in as many months,” he said. “When we got our weekly cheque we’d rush down to the bank in case it bounced. I got £25 a week.
“As a kid, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut or jumping over a double-decker bus on a motorbike like Evil Knievel.
“A couple of years later I was hit by a motorbike crossing the road in Preston. I landed on my head and broke my leg.
“In my first game back I fractured my leg again. I was out for nearly two years.
“Playing for Blackburn was an incredible honour, but I’d love to see my old club enjoy some better times.”