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Theo Kelly - Everton Manager : 1939 - 1948


  • Managed: 100

  • Won: 38

  • Drawn: 19

  • Lost: 43

Cliff Britton meets Theo Kelly and Harry Cooke in 1948

Theo Kelly - Everton Manager : 1939 - 1948

Theo Kelly was born Louis Alford Theodore Kelly in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, on 17 January 1896. His father, Louis Theophilus Kelly, was Manx. His mother, Lilian Mabel May, was Cornish. Theo Kelly married Emily Gladys Wilson at Walton Methodist Chapel, County Road, Liverpool in 1925. He joined Everton F.C. as a coach in 1929. He is best known for being the first manager of Everton F.C.

Everton were one of the last league teams to appoint a manager. Before this, the team selection was made by coaches and boardroom members. Theo Kelly had been club secretary before his appointment as manager in May 1939 and had been closely involved in team matters, so there is some dispute when he actually took over.

Kelly was ambitious and a self-publicist, manoeuvring himself into the position after the untimely death of his successful predecessor, Thomas H. McIntosh. While he was club secretary Theo Kelly devised the club badge and motto.

The Football League First Division of 1938-39 had already been won by Everton by the time that Kelly was appointed as full-time manager. The League was then suspended for seven seasons during the war though some matches were played with Kelly in charge.

After the war Kelly disagreed with Joe Mercer. Kelly accused Mercer of not trying in an international against Scotland, but in reality Mercer had sustained a severe cartilage injury. Even after consulting an orthopaedic specialist, Kelly refused to believe him and Mercer had to pay for the surgery himself (after 14 years with the club).

Understandably upset, Mercer moved in 1946 for £9,000 to Arsenal, although he commuted from Liverpool. Theo Kelly brought Mercer's boots to the transfer negotiations to prevent Mercer having a reason to go back to say goodbye to the other players at Everton.

Kelly was also unable to persuade Tommy Lawton to stay and he attempted to sell T. G. Jones to A.S. Roma to raise £15,000, but exchange control prevented the transfer. Many players saw Kelly as a remote, autocratic and petty figure. Dixie Dean said that the main reason for leaving Everton in 1937 was Theo Kelly. Kelly distrusted players bought on the transfer market and so the playing resources were quickly depleted.

After two poor seasons (finishing 10th and 14th) and a poor start to the 1948-49 season in which Everton finished 18th, Kelly resigned as manager in September 1948 and reverted to being club secretary. Cliff Britton replaced him as manager, though relegation in 1950/51 can be partly traced back to Kelly's period as manager. Kelly was better known for his administrative skills and to his credit he left the club in a better financial state.

Source : Wikipedia

Theo Kelly (top left) with the Everton team in 1947 - Credit ToffeeWeb

Theo Kelly : The Rise and Fall of Everton’s Secretary-Manager

Ask an Evertonian about Theo Kelly and he or she, if familiar with the Club’s history, might respond: “He was Everton’s first manager who fell out with leading players but created the club crest in 1938”. This statement has much truth in it but fails to do justice to Kelly’s influence over a 21-year period at Everton.

Football was in the blood for Theo: his father, Louis Kelly, penned sporting articles for the Liverpool Echo for over 20 years under the byline "Stud Marks". Louis was a Manxman, born in February 1870 into an Onchan farming family. His earliest childhood recollections were of his father sharpening and wielding a scythe. The family relocated to Liverpool in 1876 in search of a more prosperous life. At the age of 7, Louis embarked on school education which would point him towards Everton, as he recounted in his newspaper column:

"My first school was Great Homer Street Wesleyan where the Headmaster was Mr S.M. Crosbie – long qualified as the "Father of Everton FC Shareholders". Strange too that the church organist there was none other than George Mahon – famed as Everton’s Chairman of Directors. My next school was Walton Lane Council and my third and final school venture was to Brunswick Wesleyan.”

With his father dying when he was 10, young Louis took up a part-time job as a butcher’s boy before giving up his education two years later to assist his "rather delicate" brother in the bread and flour trade. His portrait photo suggests that he could have become a Groucho Marx impersonator. Louis died on 2 February 1942; he was living at 84 Newby Street – just round the corner from Goodison Park.

Louis’s first son entered the world in 1896; he was christened with a grand name: Louis Alford Theodore Kelly. To avoid confusion with his father, the son would come to be known simply as “Theo”. It is reasonable to assume that he was reared as an Evertonian.

In 1911, the 15-year-old was living with the family in Westminster Road, Kirkdale. Louis Senior must have prospered in business and he was listed as a Baker and Confectioner. During the First World War, the young man served at sea before returning home, presumably, to a role in the family business; in 1925, he married Emily Wilson.

Kelly first came onto the Everton scene in 1929 when he applied, successfully, for an A-Team coaching position. Within 7 years, he had been promoted to Company Secretary, upon the death of Tom McIntosh, in recognition of his organisational skills – indeed Harry Catterick credited Kelly with teaching him the ropes of football administration in the 1940s.

Kelly was impatient for Everton to adopt the team manager model applied so successfully by Arsenal with Herbert Chapman in the hot seat. Will Cuff, “Mr Everton”, was reluctant to adopt such changes, leading Kelly to reputedly label him an “old tyrant”. Cuff would not easily forget what he felt was “treachery” by Kelly.

In 1939, Everton moved to ditch the outdated system of the Board and Secretary selecting teams and promoted Kelly to the Secretary-Manager position of the newly-crowned Football League Champions. In fact, the unheralded team captain, Jock Thomson, made team selections with Harry Cooke continuing in post as the Trainer.

Despite his undoubted abilities, Kelly proved a divisive figure: ambitious and talented but perhaps lacking in the "soft skills" to manage the stars of the day. Dixie Dean’s relationship with the Secretary turned, in Dean’s word, “sour”. The striker found himself demoted to the Reserves before being dispatched to Notts County in March 1938 – just one short of 400 league appearances. In mitigation, it could be argued that Dean, by the late-30s, was not the player he once was and had a strong personality that was not easy to manage.

During wartime, Kelly appeared to engineer a club-versus-country impasse with Joe Mercer the pawn in the middle – this led to sanctions being taken against the Club by the FA. On the other hand, it was a herculean effort by Kelly, aided by a few others, to keep the club functioning – something not widely recognised. Goodison was bombed whilst the footballing programme and attendances were decimated. Both T G Jones and Gordon Watson, who also played important roles in wartime, claimed that the club would have closed during the War without Kelly’s talent and dedication. Indeed Kelly, Watson, Jackie Grant, and the landlord of The Winslow pub staffed the nightly fire-watch to ensure that the stadium did not succumb to incendiary bombs. If any dropped in or near the ground, they put them out with sand.

Having guided The Toffees through the difficult war years, he found himself managing a depleted squad – albeit partly of his own making. By late 1945, Tommy Lawton was desperate to escape the area due to marital problems – Kelly dismissed a transfer request out of hand, telling Lawton “We’ve been trying to give you away for months and nobody wants you”. This was clearly hokum as West Bromwich Albion, Millwall and others made enquiries before Kelly agreed to sell the want-away striker to Chelsea in November for £11,150 – a compromise to keep the era’s best striker at Goodison should have been found.

The loss of Joe Mercer a year later is harder to excuse, as his subsequent impact on Arsenal illustrated. Kelly and the Everton hierarchy failed to appreciate the severity of a leg injury that Mercer was struggling with and even questioned the integrity of “Gentleman Joe”. As Mercer told John Roberts:

“It was a terrible blow for me to go, because I was so crazy about Everton. Mind you I wasn’t easy to handle. I was Captain of England at the time and had been a Sgt Major, running my own show. Theo Kelly and I had one or two ups and downs. The funny thing was, he wanted me to play centre-half – Me, a wing-half who used to go diving into the action, when the club had T G Jones, the best centre-half of all in my opinion! Things became so bad between Theo and me that one day I went to see the directors at the Exchange Hotel, where they held Board Meetings, and said ‘Transfer me, or I turn it in’. The directors said they wanted to me to stay but I was determined and Arsenal paid £9,000 for me.”

The immediate post-war period also saw tensions between Kelly and Cuff re-surface with a bitter battle ensuing over shareholders’ voting rights – a battle that Cuff would ultimately lose. Kelly was reputed by some players to have a “wandering eye” which, on one occasion, led to a punch from an incensed T G Jones at a Club picnic. There were also suggestions from contemporaries of a fondness for drink.

Whoever was at fault, the seeds of decline and eventual relegation had been sown. Some blamed Kelly for failing to seal a deal to bring Albert Stubbins to Everton from Newcastle – the striker instead moved to Anfield and became a title winner. By September 1948, the Board felt compelled to take action. Former Everton star Cliff Britton had led Burnley to an FA Cup Final in 1947 and was selected as the man to bring success back to Goodison Park. Britton would become Everton’s first manager in the modern sense. Kelly reverted to a purely administrative role as Secretary – the snub must have been felt badly.

The exact reasons for Kelly’s departure from Goodison, just over two years later, are shrouded in mystery but the Everton minute books give some clues. Kelly was granted a three-month leave of absence on full pay effective from 1 December 1950; Bill Dickinson covered in his absence. It later transpired that Kelly had spent this period in a Manchester hospital on unspecified health grounds. In a surreal twist, the following month the Board resolved to send Kelly 50 cigarettes per week. Finally, in February, Kelly’s letter of resignation, citing poor health, was accepted and a £500 farewell payment was awarded (swiftly amended to a £20 per month payment – up to a maximum of £500). In May the Board agreed that Kelly qualified for a Football League Long-Service Medal.

After leaving Everton, Kelly fell off the Goodison radar. In his later years, he lived at 222 Wallasey Village before passing away on 22 April 1964 at Walton Hospital, aged 68. In his Will he left £1,081 to his daughter, Audrey McMurty.

To conclude, Louis Alford “Theo” Kelly excelled at football administration, created our crest, and made enemies too easily; however, he should also be remembered, with eternal gratitude, as the man who saved Everton during the Second World War.

Special thanks to ToffeeWeb & EFC Heritage Society for allowing us to share this article & various images

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