Rotherham’s Georgie Kelly: A goal scorer’s life less ordinary

Prolific season at Bohs changed everything for the boy from Donegal GAA roots with a master’s degree

Bohemians were not the making of Georgie Kelly. Sure, they helped launch his professional career, but the man was already living a life less ordinary.

More later on a centre forward in possession of an MSc in Renewable Energy and Environmental Science from UCD Smurfit Business School. The same Gaelic footballer hailing from Tooban on the Inishowen peninsula, just a stone’s throw from Stephen Kenny’s house in Fahan.

Sport and education went hand in hand, until 37 goals in 68 games for UCD prompted Kenny to introduce the 21-year-old student to European nights.

“He did bring me to Dundalk and then left after six months!”

In 2018 Kenny accepted the last of John Delaney’s managerial manoeuvres, becoming Republic of Ireland under-21 manager with a signed guarantee of promotion to the senior gig within two years.

“I would know Stephen over the years, even when he was at Derry, his kids went to the same school. He’s a nice man, great family as well.”

Dundalk went as well as eight goals in two seasons can be explained away as the club spiralled towards basket case status. A non-footballing life beckoned during a Covid loan to St Patrick’s Athletic before Bohs took an educated punt in December 2020.

“Georgie comes to us at a good age with good experience and a hunger to improve,” was Keith Long’s muted endorsement, but three goals in the first 12 matches lived up to his career average.

Then, without warning, Georgie Kelly caught fire. A hat-trick against Dundalk, stuck four on Drogheda, bagged the winner against Shamrock Rovers, scored two against Stjarnan of Iceland, two more against Dudelange of Luxembourg.

Suddenly, Bohs’ polished gem was blinding goalkeepers. Kelly had Dalymount make believing this moment’s here to stay.

Nothing lasts long in the League of Ireland. And yet, Bohs in the 2021/22 season is already a singular happening in the history of Irish football.

“It is always hard for fans to look back on a year and feel it was a success when you haven’t won a trophy, but the run in Europe was something special for a little club like Bohs.

“My God, it was great to win three European games on the bounce, unheard of really. And we gave PAOK a good go. We had chances.

“On top of that there was the cup final.”

FAI Cup semi-final, Bohs 0 Waterford 0: In the 88th minute Promise Omochere squares for Kelly to nudge his 21st goal of the season — away he gallops towards the Jodi stand, into a sea of fans, grabbing a tinny from one man’s hand amid the delirium and taking a theatrical swig.

“There are some great memories. I’m from the top end of Donegal so my mum and dad don’t get down to many games. Their first was that cup semi-final, so to see them and score that goal is my best memory at Bohs. There is a picture of us on the pitch after.

“I didn’t realise just what it meant for the club to get to the final. A big day out. A lot of new fans, kids were able to go to the game. The crowds were massive. That was a special day.”

Good old Chris Forrester left his pal Keith Buckley for dust before Robbie Benson’s decisive strike.

“To lose on penalties is ... I would have loved to have won that cup for Bucko. And for Keith [Long] and Trevor [Croly]. For all they put in, it was a cruel way to lose a final. But looking back, it was an exceptional year. Just sad the way it ended.”

The 2021 cup final is another moment frozen in time, mainly due to its aftermath. St Pat’s lost manager Stephen O’Donnell and a heap of players to Dundalk, prompting legal action, as only Forrester remained from the starting XI come the reward of European football.

Bohs’ young tyros, Dawson Devoy, Ross Tierney, Andy Lyons and Omochere all departed, as did Buckley and Kelly, whose 26 goals in 40 appearances was like a rare bird landing in rewilded Phibsboro, nesting for summer and disappearing come winter.

An eye for goal, the 6′2″ height and his maturity drew the attention of Paul Warne, seeking a bargain as Rotherham battled to remain afloat in the English second tier.

The great Irish migration, year upon year, is a fact of League of Ireland life, unsolvable by Georgie Kelly.

“It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?”

Can clubs like Bohs and Pats ever settle on a plane of consistency if their shrewd recruitment is constantly punished?

“It will take time but there is a path. Like, the gap isn’t that far apart from the League of Ireland to League One. Even the finances, that gap could be closed if a load of work is done, like investing in stadiums and facilities; the move to League One in England could be a much more difficult decision in a couple of years.

“I know Dan Lambert [Bohs’ chief operating officer] was tweeting about clubs coming together to stop the clause that allows English clubs take Irish players really cheaply. That is one step in the right direction.

“There are a lot of things that can be done and have been done already. If Shamrock Rovers can keep the European run going and get into the group stages ... They are definitely good enough.”

Rovers’ success comes with a health warning. See their recent conquerors Ludogorets sweeping to 11 straight league titles in Bulgaria as European prize money (and a billionaire owner) crushes the domestic competition.

“Even what Rovers received for Gavin Bazunu could possibly lead to other clubs pumping unsustainable levels of money into their squad, just to compete, and that is how things go sideways and clubs go bust.

“It is a threat and anyone who says it is not would probably be lying but I don’t know how we tackle that. We can’t punish Rovers for being successful. They have done it, basically, organically. Dermot Desmond has invested but I don’t think he is pumping an unsustainable amounts into the club.

“Derry have definitely tried to kick on this year but Rovers are that step above everyone else in terms of finances.”

St Pat’s repatriated striker Eoin Doyle recently branded professional football as the true Church of England. Stadiums are cathedrals, the ref’s whistle an altar bell to signal the epiclesis.

Kelly was an instant convert. Rotherham and Chiedozie Ogbene had been rapping on the Championship door all last season but Kelly, having arrived in January, did not touch the grass until a 10-minute cameo in April that etched his name into The Millers folklore alongside Alan Lee.

“Alan Lee, they told me about him.”

Two Irish men have scored the goal that has promoted Rotherham United. Lee swivelled and delivered against Brentford in 2001 and almost 21 years to the day, Kelly on debut sent them up and Gillingham down to League Two.

Lee retired with 10 caps for Ireland, 81 Championship goals in 369 appearances, 32 assists and a whopping 67 bookings, having taken the war to the grizzled centre halves Kelly must now overcome.

“The physicality is a serious step up. I am sure it will be a bit of a shock.”

There are plenty of familiar faces, from John Egan to Andrew Omobamidele, Dara O’Shea to Richard Keogh; Luke McNally, Mark McGuinness, Ciaran Clark, Jimmy Dunne and Darragh Lenihan, all lining up to elbow him out of the way.

“I think John Egan is as good a centre half as there is around. He could play in the top half of the Premier League, easily.”

So far, Kelly has experienced two competitive games at Rotherham, planting a goal that will never be forgotten.

“I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t know if I’d be on the bench as we have such a big squad and everyone was fit. I didn’t even have time to warm up, was just thrown into a tense, nervy game.

“Gillingham needed a draw to stay up and we needed a win to be promoted. We went one-nil up, so they were pressing and pressing. Those last 10 minutes had everyone on edge. The goal, it just fell for me and I hit it.”

Dan Barlaser put a speculative ball behind Gillingham defender Jack Tucker, who miscued a clearance straight to Ogbene, who turned and rolled the assist.

Georgie Kelly just hit it. “It was incredible. The scenes were mad.”

The goal sets ridiculously high expectations among Rotherham fans but this is Kelly’s first full season as a professional.

“The management are not idiots, they understand that I have a lot of progressing to do, technically and physically, but they are willing to take the time to get me to a certain level.

“They have not bought me to hit the ground running and score 25 goals. I am a bit of a project. I know I have to get sharper if I want to make the step. I have the time now, finally finished the master’s, so I can give it a right good go.”

Rotherham return to the Championship without the budget of clubs aiming for promotion to the Premier League, which forces Warne to double down on a particular style, not dissimilar to Kenny’s Ireland.

“Pre-season has absolutely shocked me. I’ve done tough preseasons at Dundalk but I’ve never done anything like this. The last few weeks have been chaos with regards training load. We are a team that presses high, we try to get after teams, which is even more demanding so we have to keep up the high intensity, get it wide, get it in the box, counter press.

“It ends up being sore on the body and the squad feels it, we have injuries already, so it is going to be a tough, long year.”

The penny dropped about Ogbene after a League One campaign when the Cork sprinter terrorised wing backs and disconnected centre halves. Last Saturday he opened his account with an instinctive header in the 1-1 draw with Swansea. Up the other end, Michael Obafemi looked dangerous despite missing an open goal.

“[Obafemi’s] a serious talent who could score goals for Ireland for the next 10 years. I’m sure Stephen Kenny will get the best out of him.”

Warne and Kenny are different managers with a similar reliance on character.

“Paul is unique. He was a teacher.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so welcoming. I expected English football to be dogged and cut throat. I didn’t think it would suit my personality. But it has. A lot of that is down to the gaffer and the players that he signs — genuine, honest, hard-working people.

“Our style reflects that. We have no stars. Even Cheo, he was at Brentford and Paul made him into an international. There are no egos. That’s what sold me to come here. I felt I could give him what he wanted. I could work for him.”

Against Swansea last weekend, Kelly had one chance after relieving Northern Ireland’s Conor Washington for the last 24 minutes. Coventry on Sunday, Port Vale Wednesday, the July to May schedule is relentless and unforgiving.

For obvious reasons, Kenny will make regular trips to the New York stadium and while Kelly is some way down the international pecking order, goals can change everything. He must be eyeing up the trip to Preston on August 16th to face Alan Browne, Robbie Brady and Troy Parrott.

“I’ve heard nothing from Kenny. Nothing concrete, not yet, but he will have eyes on Rotherham and so many other clubs in the Championship.”

Kelly sums up the club’s ambitions for this season in a single word.

“Survival. I know that might sound a bit minimalistic, but it is the truth. If we can push on to become a mid-table team that would be fantastic but with the budget we have we are looking to survive.

“For me, this is my first year in English football, and I feel like I am good enough to contribute; chip in with some goals and I would be happy enough.”

Did the goals glut at Bohs need to happen or did he always believe this life was possible when dropping off the Donegal minor panel that reached the 2014 All-Ireland final? “Did you see Pat Spillane after the All-Ireland talking about his father? I’d normally be irritated by him but I was cracking up. That’s why I love the GAA.”

How good were you? “I was all right. Declan Bonner managed me from under 14, right up to minor, but I dropped out just before championship. Eoghán Bán Gallagher was the main man. I had to decide between Derry City and Donegal and I wasn’t as good a GAA player as I was at soccer.”

How good? “Even after Bohs, when I first came over to England, I wasn’t sure I could compete. Last season was important, I put on a bit of size, got stronger and fitter. At Bohs I realised I could play senior football but I started my master’s simply because if that year didn’t go well I was going to pack it in.”

Done with sport at 24, Kelly would have achieved more than most, but his goals changed everything.

“If I stay fit I am confident I can score at this level.”

‘I’ve been brought up in rural Donegal surrounded by farmers’

Football will end for Georgie Kelly. His next career path is clear yet “tricky” for a man raised among Donegal’s farming community. A master’s degree in Renewable Energy and Environmental Science opens a conversation that flies high over the usual footballer’s head.

“Did you see the protest of the Dutch farmers? They just completely rebelled after the Government introduced fertiliser taxes to reduce emissions. It got a little rough, so we need to be careful about how quickly we move.

“Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue is a local TD of mine up on Inishowen. It is very tricky and with my education I would be fully absorbed by climate change being a huge disaster and we have to do everything we can.

“We have to reduce emissions but I see two sides of this, having been brought up in rural Donegal, surrounded by farmers, which gives me more encouragement to debate.

“We have to compromise. A lot of farmers I would speak to are finding it hard to grasp why Ireland is aiming so high. We understand why we need to reduce emissions and move away from large herds of cattle, but they can’t grasp why we are pushing it to such an extreme.

“We are aiming for 51 per cent reduction from 2019 levels. Which is massive. My friends can’t grasp why Ireland has to be front runners when agriculture is so central to the Irish identity. It is going to be so difficult to reach such huge ambitions.”

The Irish Government and various representative bodies have recently agreed on an emissions ceiling of 25 per cent for the agriculture sector.

“Now, we do need to be seen to be a global leader when it comes to emissions. So it is complicated.

“These are interesting times. Even with the renewable policy, this Government has done reasonably well. I know there is a lot of work to be done with the strength of the national grid and we need to push more policy to encourage more offshore wind. But in 10, 15 years I think Ireland could be a real hub for renewables, like wind energy and hydrogen.”

The conversation veers to how the landscape will look in 2040.

“It is going to cost a lot of money. The Government knows now at this stage that they are going to have to supplement and help these farmers transition away from cattle, which is all they have know for decades. So much of rural Ireland is dependent on farming so we must tread carefully.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent