The triumph and tragedy of Ray Kennedy

The triumph and tragedy of Ray Kennedy

Momentarily paralysed, the familiar looking man in his mid-30s had to rely on the help of strangers to get home. This wasn’t a one-off occurrence. In extreme instances, an ambulance had to be called. Five years earlier the same man had produced a masterclass of a performance at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, during the second leg of the European Cup semi-final. A decade prior to that game, he had headed a title-clinching goal, in the North London derby at White Hart Lane, securing the first part of the 1970-71 League and FA Cup double.

Ray Kennedy scaled the heights of English and European football with both Arsenal and Liverpool. The owner of one of the most decorated honours lists in the game, he won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the season before becoming one of the biggest driving forces in Arsenal’s double-winning campaign. Upon his switch to Liverpool in 1974, he went on to win five further league winners medals, three European Cups, one UEFA Cup and one League Cup. He also won 17 England caps.

Neither Arsenal nor Liverpool’s successes of that period would have been quite so pronounced without the impact Kennedy made.

Kennedy did all of this while slowly being enveloped within the unforgiving shroud of Parkinson’s disease. A sportsman with high levels of fitness; a sportsman that achieved the greatest victories his given sport can offer.

In the mid to late-1970s Kennedy was interviewed by a football magazine – 0ne of those pen-picture pages where a star player is asked their likes and dislikes. Kennedy is asked the question: which person would you most like to meet? His answer is Muhammed Ali.

Ray Kennedy and Muhammed Ali were two sports stars with the world at their feet and fists respectively, both within the escalating grip of Parkinson’s, yet neither of them knowing so. Given the era that the question was posed, it was an innocent and perhaps predictable answer to offer. With four decades of detachment, it now seems a premonition of sorts.

Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological condition and it is one which doesn’t indiscriminate in who it chooses to attack. An estimated 127,000 people in the UK suffer from it. That is one person in every 500.

It took a long time for society to see Parkinson’s as a random lottery. While, in the late Muhammed Ali, Parkinson’s couldn’t have had a more prominent global ambassador, it was all too often side-tracked as being the end-product of a career in boxing.

Kennedy, with his feet as the predominant tools of his trade, couldn’t be compartmentalised in the same manner. This is a man who showed the earliest signs of a problem in his formative days at Arsenal, when he would encounter unexpected difficulties in buttoning up his shirt. Subtle tremors and a stiffening of posture in his right arm and leg, feelings of fatigue, unexpected sweats and general overheating would all occur from time-to-time.

There are two styles of photograph of Ray Kennedy from the peak of his powers. On one side, there is the version of him with a broad and welcoming smile, eyes that shine as bright as day, a man who looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world; a picture of happiness personified. On the other side, there is the version of him which appears brooding and angry, a frown cut across his forehead that helps hide his eyes, which seem to retract away from view;  a picture of a man who seems unapproachable. In hindsight, these are photographs that were perhaps caught on good and bad days, neurologically and physically.

It was under these wildly fluctuating circumstances that Kennedy consistently achieved at the top-table of the domestic and continental game.

Read  |  From cult hero to legend: the life and times of Alan Kennedy

Personally pursued, then carelessly jettisoned by the then Port Vale manager Sir Stanley Matthews, Kennedy found his way to Highbury via a free-scoring year back in his native north-east with New Hartley Juniors, where he was spotted by the Arsenal scouts, when they’d actually come to watch his strike partner instead.

From being cast aside by Port Vale, Kennedy’s second coming with Arsenal was meteoric, with a professional contract gained within six months of his arrival in north London and a first-team debut aged just 18.

In April 1970, with only four professional appearances to his name, Kennedy climbed from the bench at Constant Vanden Stock Stadium against Anderlecht in the first leg of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final. Trailing 3-0 and completely outplayed, Bertie Mee turned to Kennedy as a last resort in an attempt to claw something from the tie. It took Kennedy eight minutes to give his manager the desired lifeline for the second leg ahead. What appeared to be no more than a consolation goal would prove to be the springboard for an unlikely comeback.

Despite only watching on from the sidelines during the return game at Highbury, the 3-0 victory his teammates procured brought Kennedy his first senior winners medal.

On the opening day of the following season, Kennedy was again on the outside looking in. A long-haul wait for a chance in the starting line-up seemingly his. A broken ankle for Charlie George at Goodison Park in that opening day game against the reigning champions Everton changed everything, however. Kennedy, fending off the challenge of the precociously talented but often unreliable Peter Marinello, in his bid to be George’s replacement, would go on to play every single minute of the double winning campaign from there onward.

Even upon George returning to fitness, Kennedy’s impact up-front had been so impressive that it was George Graham who initially made way to re-accommodate George in the side, with Jon Sammels eventually being the long-term odd man out.

As Arsenal somewhat unexpectedly clicked through the gears, Kennedy scored 26 goals in a 47-goal partnership with the experienced John Radford. Radford, while only 24 himself, had made his own first team debut at the age of 17 and was perfectly placed to help the teenage Kennedy through his first full season in the side. An understanding was soon struck between the two and the goals flowed. Radford even set Kennedy up to score the winning goal in the FA Cup semi-final replay against Stoke City. Kennedy’s knack of being the man for the semi-finals was born there and then.

Five glory-filled days in early May brought Arsenal and Kennedy the League and FA Cup double, the title clinched at White Hart Lane thanks to Kennedy’s header, followed by an extra-time turn around at Wembley against his future employers, Liverpool. As first full seasons go, it was word-perfect.

Within a year, frustrations had begun to arise. Kennedy had been an automatic choice until early April, when his form dipped and fatigue set in. Not yet 21, it was a then-unexplainable trailing off in fitness. The signing of Alan Ball in December 1971 had also added to the competition for places. When Arsenal returned to Wembley as holders for the 1972 FA Cup final, Kennedy had to make do with a place on the bench. Despite a 17-minute cameo appearance, he could do nothing to stop a dominant Leeds United lifting the cup.

Two more seasons at Highbury followed, but the trophy-winning days dried up and Kennedy’s goals return gradually diminished. Twenty-four goals scored over the course of those last two years with Arsenal were in stark comparison with the 26 he scored in 1970-71 alone. Those dips in his energy levels became more and more noticeable to Bertie Mee. In the summer of 1974, despite some better form during the closing months of the season, the Arsenal manager readily accepted Liverpool’s offer of £200,000. Brian Kidd was brought in as Kennedy’s replacement at Highbury.

Kennedy’s arrival at Anfield was, however, caught beneath the avalanche of Bill Shankly’s shock resignation. Both Kennedy’s signing and Shankly’s departure were simultaneously announced. In what was a city-wide reverence, befitting the abdication of a king, Kennedy’s arrival was shunted to the small print of what was monumental news about Shankly.


Read  |  Bill Shankly: it’s not you arrive, it’s how you leave

Shankly had been a long-time admirer of Kennedy but he wouldn’t be the man to manage him. That, instead, would be Bob Paisley.

Made to wait for his debut, Kennedy had to wait until the fifth game of the season to make his bow, eventually coming into the side to replace John Toshack, a scenario that almost saw Toshack leave the club for Leicester City during the autumn, a move which Toshack put pen-to-paper over, only to see the deal fall through due to a failed medical.

Kennedy started his Anfield career with a bang, with a goal scored in each of his first three games in Liverpool red. That early momentum would ebb away, however, with just seven more goals scored throughout the rest of the campaign. When Toshack returned to the side in place of Kennedy in mid-December, he did so with his own flurry of goals. With signs of the Keegan-Toshack partnership clicking back into gear, Kennedy dipped in and out of the first team picture for the remainder of the season.

Very much on the outside looking in, as the 1975-76 season began Kennedy had become disillusioned at Anfield. An early-season cameo role in place of the injured Toshack came with a couple of goals, inclusive of a winner at home to Sheffield United. It wasn’t enough to win an extended run in the side, however.

When Kennedy finally returned in early November it was in a surprise position, but one which came with a permanent place in the team and one with which he made an everlasting impression.

With the talented midfielder Peter Cormack ruled out for the rest of the season, Paisley solved two pressing problems with one act of genius. Kennedy was asked to play on the left-hand side of the Liverpool midfield.

Combined with the emergence of Jimmy Case on the right, Liverpool gradually moved away from the concept of the out-and-out winger, instead implementing wide midfielders who would cut-in, rather than stay wide. Up to this point, Paisley had struggled to find the perfect formula for his own version of Liverpool, in succession to Shankly. Kennedy’s switch to the number 5 shirt would be the watershed moment.

By May 1976, Kennedy was again a league champion, scoring the title validating goal in a 3-1 win at Wolves, a win which clinched Liverpool their ninth league title. It was also a game that was situated between the two-legs of the UEFA Cup final against FC Bruges.

Kennedy had taken to his new role like a natural-born midfielder. He was the scorer of the vital first Liverpool goal during the UEFA Cup final. Trailing 2-0 at half-time during the first leg at Anfield, Kennedy found the top corner to cut the deficit, before seeing another effort bounce back off the post for Case to prod home for the equaliser.

Kennedy was the catalyst for a turn-around that would lead to Liverpool lifting their second UEFA Cup in three years. Kennedy’s personal renaissance was just as startling. His transformation from what could have been described as a borderline bustling striker to an effortlessly classical midfielder of purpose was nothing short of remarkable. It was also a move that was the making of Paisley’s Liverpool. Trophy after trophy would roll into Anfield.

Kennedy’s importance to Paisley’s Liverpool was immeasurable. With a style of play that seemed to unfold in slow motion, he was one of those footballers who instinctively knew what was coming next. He was positionally astute and he was adept at the delayed appearance on the edge of the box to devastating effect. His striker’s eye for goal never left him and it made him incredibly difficult to play against. Paisley had to field more enquiries over Kennedy’s availability for transfer than any other player in his squad.

Kennedy’s new role even took him into the England team. By March 1976 he was in Don Revie’s squad. It would be an unfulfilled international career, however, restricted to just 17 caps. Ron Greenwood’s preference for Trevor Brooking proved too big an obstacle.


Read  |  Bob Paisley: the gentle man who couldn’t stop winning

At club level honour after honour came Kennedy’s way. More league titles followed in 1977, ’79, ’80 and ’82, while the European Cup was won in 1977, ’78 and ’81. In the absence of Phil Thompson, he captained Liverpool at Wembley in the 1981 League Cup final, denied the chance of lifting silverware on a showpiece occasion by a late West Ham United equaliser, which took the game to a replay.

Kennedy remained the man for the semi-final, no more so than against Bayern Munich in 1981. Again as the stand-in captain, and forced up-front early on due to Kenny Dalglish limping out of the game, Kennedy scored the goal that sent Liverpool on to Paris for the final against Real Madrid. It was to be his last great act in a Liverpool shirt.

With an uncharacteristic couple of sending’s off during the early exchanges of the 1981-82 season, his form fluctuated with the effects of Parkinson’s taking a silent vice-like grip, with the young bucks of Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy fighting it out to succeed him. Kennedy eventually found himself overtaken on many levels.

His old Liverpool teammate – and the man he almost sent to Leicester City – John Toshack offered Kennedy an exit route from a world unravelling at Anfield. Swansea City was his destination.

Having left Liverpool in late 1977, Toshack had taken up the player-manager position at the Vetch Field and lifted the club from Division Four to Division One in just four years. With Swansea involved in an unlikely title challenge, Kennedy, it was hoped, would bring the added style to make them true contenders. Indeed, when Kennedy made the switch to South Wales, Swansea seemed a more likely title contender than a stuttering Liverpool did.

Kennedy struggled to find the high gears at Swansea, however, as their title challenge faltered. Liverpool in contrast went from 12th on Boxing Day to champions in May, with Kennedy having made enough appearances for Liverpool before his switch to qualify for a winner’s medal. In a bid to enliven Kennedy, Toshack handed him the club captaincy, but still the lethargy would not lift. Kennedy was accused of not trying and a falling out followed. Swansea sank as quickly as they rose. Relegation came in 1983 and by the mid-1980s they were back in Division Four.

By then, Kennedy had long since left. A spell in his native north-east with Hartlepool United and non-league Ashington was followed by short managerial and coaching stints in Cyprus and Sunderland. Kennedy had, by now, been given his diagnosis of Parkinson’s. He slipped into a new role as a near recluse; a proud man who expected nothing back from a game he had given so much to.

There was a testimonial at Highbury in 1991 between Arsenal and Liverpool, but public appearances became rare beyond then. A group of supporters took it upon themselves to do what they could for him, however. As a result, the Ray of Hope Appeal was born, the brainchild of Liverpool fan and writer Karl Coppack. Kennedy found he was blessed by a new set of team-mates, ones that idolised him from the terraces.

This touching alliance eventually brought Kennedy back to Anfield in 2009, on that incredible night when Liverpool and Arsenal shared eight goals in a stunning 4-4 draw. With no certainty that he would be well enough to make the trip, two mosaics were created, one on the Kop emblazoned with his Liverpool number 5 and one in the away section of the Anfield Road End displaying his Arsenal number 10. To the surprise of his family, the stricken Kennedy even walked out on to the pitch at half-time to applaud the supporters of both clubs. It was an amazing moment for a man who was worried whether anyone would remember him.

No-one who saw him play will ever forget the brilliance of Ray Kennedy. He was a wonderful footballer and a lovely man, and that’s why I’m writing this piece – because his story is one that all the generations should be educated on.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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