Book Review: Over the Bar - Jack Kelsey

OverthebarSuch legends are obviously famous for playing in or managing some great Arsenal teams but that's not true of Jack Kelsey. Jack was most certainly an Arsenal legend but these days is probably only recognised as such by those who had the pleasure of watching him play.

Jack, or rather Brian Glanville, wrote the title in 1958 towards the end of Kelsey's career. It was a time when fans watched Arsenal sides that quite often appeared in the bottom half of the table, conceded shed loads of goals and included defenders who would even make Squillaci, Stepanovs or Senderos look good. All goalkeepers are allegedly mad and the Jack Kelsey lived up to this billing admirably. His head first bravery often verged on the lunatic. Away from football Kelsey was a calm, mild mannered, softly spoken Welshman who just happened to have hands the size of dinner plates. With hands so huge I always found it strange that one of his hobbies was the delicate task of making musical boxes.

In the late 50's Arsenal were regarded as a moderate side burdened with a glorious history that they were unable to match. The marble halls still impressed but failed to intimidate the visitors to Highbury  because in the late 50's and early 60's Arsenal fielded a series of fairly weak teams quite capable of netting over 70 goals a season but equally likely to donate over 80 to the opposition. The principle reason we were not closer to the relegation zone was that we had Kelsey between the posts.

Arsenal fans were not alone in recognising his ability because in 1955 he represented Great Britain against the Rest of Europe and played alongside such all time greats as John Charles, Danny Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy, Billy Liddell and Stanley Matthews. Jack Kelsey was our only world class player for years and managed to accumulate 41 Welsh caps which included the 1958 World Cup Finals where Wales were beaten at the quarter final stage by a solitary goal from a teenage upstart named Pele.

Jack coped with our defensive weaknesses by quite simply bossing the entire penalty area. He was the bravest keeper I've ever seen. In the days when men were men and boots were lethal weapons a head first dive into a melee of flying feet anywhere in our box was one of Kelsey's party pieces. Kelsey didn't even wear gloves. Keepers were either a tougher breed back then or more probably sports wear manufacturers had yet to develop a deluxe super-grip, all weather, all singing, all dancing, over-priced turbo powered advertising space for hands. Our Jack just used chewing gum. He simply spat the gum into his palms and rubbed it in to improve his grip. Yes I realise that sounds as unlikely as it sounds revolting but when you saw him catch the ball one handed in the pre-match kick about you had to believe it worked.

A disastrous debut saw Jack concede five goals but he was always really good keeper becoming a truly great one as he matured and improved with age. This well written biography predates the time his career was cut short by a serious back injury. But typically this injury was sustained diving at the feet of a player, this time a Brazilian forward Vava, whilst playing for Wales in Brazil (May 1962). Jack was unable to overcome the injury despite a series of attempted comebacks. He was however retained by the club initially to run the club's lotteries and later to launch the club shops. Jack retired as Commercial Manager in 1989 after 40 years at Highbury.

Jack Kelsey was a tremendous player of enormous importance to Arsenal Football Club. A brave man with outstanding skill and agility who didn't benefit from a stable and consistently brilliant defence playing in front of him. In my opinion one of Arsenal's top three keepers. An individual worthy of a biography and fortunate perhaps that it was written by one such as Brian Glanville. The added importance of this title to Arsenal fans and students of Arsenal's history is that it covers a period that is not well covered elsewhere and will introduce many new characters to the those who are far better known in other decades.


Over the Bar
Jack Kelsey and Brian Glanville
Paperback £12.95
Available from any good book store if you quote them the following reference: ISBN 978 0 9559211 6 2 Or direct from the publisher www.gcrbooks.co.uk or of course all the usual online stores.