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'No Kelly, No Keltic!'

PersonalJames Kelly - Kerrydale Street

Fullname: James Kelly
Born: 15 Oct 1865
Died: 20 Feb 1932
Birthplace: Renton, West Dunbartonshire
Signed: 28 May 1888
Left: 13 Apr 1897 (move to directorship, and end of playing)
Position: Centre-half
Debut: Celtic 5-2 Rangers XI, 28 May 1888
Internationals: Scotland
International Caps: 8 caps
International Goals: 1
Director: 1897-1909, 1914-1932
Celtic Chairman: 1909-1914


Kelly, James - Pic

The legendary James Kelly is the man blessed with the honour of being the first ever captain of Celtic.

The fledging club’s capture of this renowned and accomplished centre-half from Renton was a massive coup for the Bhoys as James Kelly was one of the best known and highly regarded players of his era, as well as a very respected person. Appears that Renton took it so bad that they with "leading" Scottish football clubs began sectarian signing policies in their response!

The importance of his capture cannot be understated. It was probably the most significant move that John Glass (former Celtic President & director) made in persuading James Kelly to come to Celtic. He was a star signing that the club could not miss out on. There was a lot of work done to entice him to choose Celtic above Hibernian (the other main challengers for his services), and John Glass was the man who more than made the difference.

Under the command of John Glass, he made the committee make paramount that the most important aspect was the team on the pitch, and as it was said that if Celtic had not obtained James Kelly then it could have ended up a case of "No Kelly, No Keltic!". James Kelly was a major capture that was part of the building of Celtic, and likely was another reason for the decline and demise of the original Hibs club, as the attraction to watch James Kelly at Celtic was greater for supporters than to watch Hibernian (although Hibs demise was due to more than just this). Another point to his choice of Celtic is possibly as Francis McErlean (a founding father of Celtic) was also his father in law.

His name was elevated after being amongst the lauded Renton side that beaten both West Bromwich Albion (FA Cup holders) and Preston North End (FA Cup runners up) in 1888. Additionally, Renton were recent winners of the Scottish Cup.

The presence of James Kelly in the Celtic ranks was a catalyst in attracting other top players who would only be too happy to sign up to play in Glasgow’s east end alongside him.

However, there was controversy with James Kelly's transfer, and only the most naive would try to claim that there were no financial inducements involved. (Sh)amateurism was the real way the game was run in those days with the SFA publicly espousing the supposed Corinthian spirit of amateurism as enacted by the establishment run middle-class Queen's Park. This was not practical for players from a working class background as they required broken time payments to enable them to make up for loss wages to play (many people in those days worked 6 days a week).

Celtic are likely to have funded James Kelly to move to Celtic, which assisted him in gaining both shares in Celtic when the club became a Limited Company and a few pubs in Lanarkshire. He was able to buy a pub for £650 (a huge sum in those days), but the amateur rules were always a sham and hindering payments to players was hypocrisy by the authorities. It was very widespread and the block on payments to players was itself selfish and immoral when others were gaining financially on their efforts. It's possibly more likely that the business link-up for Kelly with the pub was more of a business benefit for certain of the directors than actually wanting him to play for Celtic. Put simply, the pub was where the real money likely was initially, and so playing for Celtic was an incentive to come on board to take the pub rather than the belief that he was given the pub to get him to Celtic.

Later Kelly's business success and respect in the community helped to propel him to other high ranked positions in society as a Justice of the Peace, a county councillor and a School Board trustee. Maybe some of these positions were nominal, but they do illustrate just how much some wanted his name just to be connected to them and how increasingly football was becoming an important part of everyday Scottish life.

On the pitch, he was to be our first club captain and scored in our first ever game as Celtic defeated a Rangers XI reserve side (dubbed "the Swifts") by 5-1. He was very much a no frills player who was content to ensure that the basics were done well. His efficient approach to the game made him a most effective, dependable and consistent talent. His pace and ability allowed him to be able to switch between attacking and defending as and when need be, and his commanding presence meant he was an early icon for people to look up to in those early days.

Kelly was in the Celtic team which claimed the Scottish Cup for the first time in 1892 and the League Championship in 1893. A pivotal player who helped set the foundations for Celtic's success.

He retired from playing having made 139 league & Scottish Cup appearances for Celtic and scored 11 goals.

Scotland international
He was a Scottish International (a big achievement for a man of both catholic and Irish heritage in Scotland). In 1893 at Richmond as captain of Scotland, he was invited to shake hands with Princess Mary of Teck who would one day become Queen Mary. It was a stunning example of how football could lift a young Irish boy (whose parents had witnessed landlordism at its worst: degradation, poverty and famine) to being the captain of Scotland and even meeting the Royal Family.

He became a director in 1897 straight after playing, and then he was chairman of the club from 1909 until 1914, before stepping down but retaining a place as a director on the board. His family would have virtual control of the club for most of the following century, with very mixed responses (mostly on the negative side). Despite whatever mistakes his descendants were to make in their running of the club (e.g. Michael Kelly and Kevin Kelly) there is no disputing that James Kelly is a Celtic great and was one of the makers of our great club.

He passed away in February 1932.

Playing Career

1888-97 104 35 N/A N/A 139

Major Honours With Celtic

Scottish League
  • 1892-93, 1893-94, 1895-96
Scottish Cup
  • 1892



Scottish Cup champs Renton rage at newly-formed Celtic in 'tapping-up' row. From The Dundee Courier, July 30 1888.

1888-08-01: Abercorn 1-1 Celtic - Pic

Appears that Renton took it so bad that they with "leading" Scottish football clubs began sectarian signing policies in response to the rise of Celtic!
Kelly, James - Pic


By David Potter (from KeepTheFaith website)

December 15 th 2005 may always be remembered as Roy Keane Day, but there have been other very famous Irishmen who have donned those cherished Hoops. David Potter recalls the career of James Kelly.

David Potter writes

It is curious and unfortunate that the memory of James Kelly is ambivalent. He is sadly tainted by the unfortunate legacy that his son and his grandsons passed down to us.

More than forty years later, the memory remains vivid of the looks on those desperate young men, stones in hand, bent on violence and damage in an anti-Bob Kelly demonstration after a feckless game against Queen of the South at Parkhead in August 1963 (they were fortunately dispersed by the Glasgow mounted police). And most of us can recall the obstinate intransigence of Kevin and in particular Michael Kelly who refused to put money into the Club and watched with infuriating complacency the gradual dismantling of one of Scotland's best known institutions.

History cannot yet forgive these things, but James Kelly must not be judged by the fruits of his loins. He was good enough and distinguished enough as a player and as an administrator to earn his own niche in the Isles of the Celtic Blessed.

No doubt he turned in his grave in 1993, for one hundred years previously, James Kelly had been one of the greatest things that ever happened to the infant Celtic Club.

James Kelly was born in 1865 into a comparatively well off Irish family (i.e. a family who had avoided the hideous slums of the Glasgow metropolis) in the Dumbartonshire town of Renton. Dumbartonshire is often regarded with cause as being the cradle of Scottish football with fine teams like Vale of Leven, Alexandria and Dumbarton springing up in the 1860s and 1870s to provide wholesome entertainment and exercise for a public suffering a cultural and spiritual void.

James played for Renton from the early 1880s and won Scottish Cup medals for the Renton team in 1885 and 1888, an inside forward in 1885 and a commanding and attacking centre half in 1888. When Renton beat West Bromwich Albion, the English Cup Winners, they could justifiably be called the Champions of the World.

Being Catholic and Irish, Kelly was much wooed by Edinburgh Hibernian (and indeed had a few trials for them) but it was the new Glasgow Irish team that attracted him. He played in Celtic's first ever game, and established himself as their centre half, even though he had no great height - something that seemed a sine qua non for a centre half (and often still does).

Professionalism was not technically legalised until 1893, but only the most naive of fools would believe that Kelly did not come to Celtic for reasons other than money. Once there however, he soon realised that the Celtic team was a good going concern, that it could do a great deal of good for football in Scotland and for the Irish community in the Glasgow area, and that in Willie Maley there breathed a kindred spirit. Both men loved the game, loved their fans and loved their Club and the early Celtic (on and later off the field) was built on the friendship and alliance of these two men.

Kelly played 8 times for Scotland. His debut was the appalling 0-5 defeat in 1888 to England, a disaster freely compared to Culloden and Flodden in the Press which used phrases like "mourning", "funeral" and "looking for comfort" to describe the Scottish nation, but Kelly (in his first International) was exempt from blame. He never was on a winning side against England (although he did well against Ireland and Wales) but in 1893 at Richmond as captain of Scotland, he was invited to shake hands with Princess Mary of Teck who would one day become Queen Mary. It was a stunning example of how football could lift a young Irish boy (whose parents had witnessed landlordism at its worst, degradation, poverty and famine) to being the captain of Scotland and even meeting the Royal Family!

For Celtic, Kelly's greatest moment was winning the Scottish Cup in 1892, and he also won the Scottish League Championship in 1893, 1894 and 1896 with his inspiring leadership and gifted play.

He also won four Glasgow Cups and four Glasgow Charity Cups, bringing the sort of success that the downtrodden and embattled Glasgow Irish population craved.

Kelly could jump to perfection and in those days of an attacking centre half, scored quite a few goals, a lot of them with his head. He retired from playing the game in 1897 at the age of 32, but immediately became a Director of the Club, later Chairman from 1909 until 1914, then Director again from 1914 until his death in 1932. He is thus associated with some of the greatest years of Celtic history, although like his descendants in later years, he failed to do enough to stop the rise of Rangers in the 1920s.

Kelly invested wisely his money that he made from football. He owned several public houses in Blantyre, Lanarkshire (the traditional thing for ex-Celtic footballers to do with their money - Sandy McMahon and Patsy Gallacher would do likewise) and was also a Justice of the Peace.

James Kelly died in 1932 a respected member of the community and much loved by Celtic supporters everywhere.

As we have said, history will not be so kind to his descendants.

David Potter

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