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.
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.
The Horseshoe Bar. Corner of Glasgow Road at Auchinraith Road. Also known as Kelly’s Corner Bar, after James Kelly of Glasgow Celtic fame, a former owner. The legendary James Kelly was blessed with the honour of being the first ever captain of Celtic. He acquired the tenancies of pubs in Blantyre, Hamilton and Motherwell within a decade of joining the club as an amateur and an apprentice joiner. The success he enjoyed with running these 3 businesses ultimately smoothed his path into public life as a Justice of the Peace, County Councillor and School Board Trustee. He was Capped 6 times and was Captain of Scotland. At the end of his playing career he became Director and Chairman of Celtic. He started and ran what was known locally as Kelly’s Engineering but was actually called Blantyre Engineering in Forrest Street.
He lived at Thornhill Villa, Thornhill Avenue, down the entrance to the Dandy. The former 30 roomed mansion later became a Nunnery of the Poor Clare Order. I don’t know the circumstances of how the Poor Clare Order started using it as a Monastery. If anyone knows, please share it with us.
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