FROM schoolboy days at New Oak to League of Ireland with Wexford to Leinster Senior League with Newbridge Town, it’s safe to say that DEAN KELLY has lived a soccer life richer than most at just 25 years of age. As the one they call the best to ever grace the Carlow League departs for ventures new in Canada, our reporter, HARRY SHORTHOSE caught up with him to discuss his life in football so far.
SPEAKING after New Oak’s remarkable comeback against St. Pat’s last month on Dean Kelly’s final weekend at the club before he departed for Canada, New Oak assistant manager Eddie Shaw said he’s never seen a player like him in his time in the Carlow League. So many refer to him as one of the best, if not the best, the Carlow League has ever seen. New Oak often get regarded as a one man team because of his impact. His ability from a set piece is second to none, the way he can weave in and out of defences and dance into the box is incredible, his ability to pick out other players for goal is mind-blowing. So many have questioned how New Oak will cope without him. So often, he’s the difference maker in games. That’s the ability that Dean Kelly possesses. Where did it all start out for the talented 25 year old though and how did he become the player he is today?
Dean grew up as a Liverpool fan in Carlow with mum Sharon and dad Sean, a football legend in Carlow of his own right. With a dad like Sean Kelly there was no way that his kid wouldn’t grow up soccer mad and that’s what happened. His school days were spent playing football with New Oak Boys as he progressed through the ranks there. It was through going and watching his dad that first ignited his love for football. “I suppose going up to New Oak with my dad. As far back as I can remember, he was playing with New Oak himself at the time and I’d go up and watch him every Sunday morning. Playing in New Oak with legends of the club like Pa Kavanagh, Shamie Doran, Gavin Dowling, just watching all them lads as far back as I can remember. New Oak was the first club I was with, the only club I was with in Carlow. I’ve been with them ever since other than just clubs outside the town trying other stuff.”
“Growing up, I was always in a New Oak team that was beaten by St. Pat’s, they had such a better team than us, they had a lot of players involved in Kennedy Cup. There were lads in that team who were always better than me, I was never this star man as people would say about me now. That was never the case back then. I’d say I even had a couple of issues back then. I guess playing for Carlow in the Kennedy Cup, you’d have an idea that you’re decent. From a young age I knew I just loved playing. I never played because I thought that I was better than anybody else, it was for the pure love of the game. I’d probably have to say my dad in fairness [helped me a lot], he pushed me a lot growing up and he was the manager for as long as I can remember in underage football so I give him the credit.”
After a dream season in 2016/17 when he scored 41 goals for the Paupish and picked up the Carlow League’s Young Player of the Year award, it was off to pastures new as his form unsurprisingly received national attention and he got picked up by Wexford and given a National League contract where he scored two goals in ten matches.
However, Kelly says it was short lived and it didn’t quite go to plan.
“I went to Wexford in 2017 I think it was, after the 2017 season ended at New Oak so it would have been halfway through the League of Ireland season and I stayed with them for about a year and a half, two years. I ended up at Newbridge then. Damien Locke was the manager at Wexford at the time, he got a job in Newbridge and I followed him there and stayed for two or three months. I didn’t really enjoy it though and came back to New Oak. It was pretty big [the jump to League of Ireland soccer from Carlow League] in fairness. It was a great experience though and I really enjoyed my time down there because of that experience but it didn’t work out for me, I suppose.
“You have to give things a try I guess but unfortunately it didn’t work out for me. The club wasn’t in the best state at the time, they were finishing bottom/second bottom in the Airtricity League both seasons I was there. I never really got a move away I guess and fell out of love with the game with all the travelling playing a part in it too. Coming back to New Oak, I fell in love with it again. Playing with your mates is all you want to do when you get to a certain age. I suppose things can always go better but a lot of that’s down to myself too. I wouldn’t say I have any regrets, I really enjoyed the experience of playing in the League of Ireland, I played in some great stadiums and stuff. I never got a big move but I really enjoyed it.”
His arrival back at New Oak came at the same time as they started their unbeaten run at the start of the 2018/2019 season. He says that there’s a great bond in the team which helped. “It was the start of the unbeaten run in the league and the dominance we’ve had in Carlow especially over the last two seasons. That was down to the lads who were already there, that was nothing to do with me. I was just coming into the club that I have great love for and all my mates are there. I know it’s such a cliche but it’s not something we really think about going into league games. You see we’ve lost games in outside competitions this season but it’s about enjoying football and momentum is such a great thing in sport, it’s so hard to stop. Momentum and confidence are key. The team is so close that it’s a close knit group of lads that it makes it so easy for us. We go into training loving it and go into a Sunday full of confidence.”
Dean does have a younger brother, Jayden and he says that he’s been able to help with his development through the years, putting him through his paces and teaching him a thing or two.
“I’d like to think so anyway, ever since he was born, he’s been kicking a football, either out of habit or me having it around the house or whatever. We’ve always been fairly close growing up. There is a bit of an age gap so there’s always a few tears but I’d like to think I’ve helped him and shown him a thing or two.”
Having grown up playing football all his life, he says that he will miss not playing as he embarks on his travels.
“Yeah definitely. Definitely one of the hardest things about leaving was leaving New Oak and the lads that are there, I love them. In fairness, I have such a close bond with all of them so I’ll really miss it but I have the boots in the suitcase there so hopefully I can find a team over there. However long I’m away, I’m sure there’ll always be a place for me when I’m back.”
What is it that makes Dean Kelly so special though? What is it that sets him apart from others? New Oak assistant manager Eddie Shaw says his work ethic and his attitude is his biggest strength.
“I’ve been in the Carlow League a long time, since ‘87, I’ve played with some unbelievable players and Dean I have to say is the best I’ve seen in the Carlow League. He just oozes with class. He’ll win games for us, he does things on the ball I’ve not seen other players do. He’s different class. He’s a joy to look at. It’s great, the Carlow League needs players like that and unfortunately we’re going to lose one of the best players the Carlow League has ever seen. Dean Kelly trains the very same way as he plays. That’s why the boys admire him so much, he absolutely gives it socks.”