Ray Kennedy: Walk Tall Big Man

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 1, 2004, 11:53:31 AM

Ray Kennedy, to my mind at least, is a mythical footballer; he represents what all significant players do to a young child discovering the game: the footballer as Superhero. They are football. It's as if there have never been players beforehand, and none will follow: in your mind, as a kid, they exist without historical context.

My introduction to the glamorous world of football was as an eight-year-old collecting Panini stickers. There were two Kennedys on the Liverpool page, and they seemed special for that reason (things like that seem interesting to a young kid; Alan was not in Ray's class as a player, I'd later discover). But there's another surname synonymous with Ray, and that is Parkinson. It is the name of the disease with which he was diagnosed in 1984, and which has seen his health diminish over the following years. But first, I'm writing this about a footballer, not simply a man who is now very unwell.

I was asked to write a few words about Ray a couple of weeks back, and at first I declined - he is not someone I felt I was well-enough qualified to comment on, and subsequently do justice to; I was watching (but barely understanding) football at the time he took his talents from Liverpool to Swansea in 1981. But I have come to realise that I may be capable of passing comment even if I didn't see him play in the flesh, or see him play at all beyond the television screen (and subsequently, in various Liverpool videos and DVDs). I may not be an expert in all Ray Kennedy did as a player, but I decided I could provide my subjective take on the man.

Born with a surname synonymous with twentieth century history, he was a key component in writing Liverpool's own staggering headlines. The way he controlled the ball and struck home the crucial goal away to Bayern Munich in the 1981 European Cup semi-final - having been forced up front after Kenny Dalglish's early injury - highlighted the contradictions of the big man: good body strength in shaping to control the ball on his chest, before rifling a shot with his "weaker" right foot. High pressure, entrance to the ultimate game at stake, and he's cool, calm and collected. It was a colossus striking with nimble skills.

It was only in later years that I learned he'd led a double life; he'd been an Arsenal player, and a bruising centre forward at that (how weird to me that these Liverpool players had played for other teams beforehand). He was a key component of Arsenal's double-winning side of 1971, scoring 19 league goals that season - although it would have been nice if they'd fallen at the final hurdle in the FA Cup that year (I'm not going to make myself bitter over a football match which took place when I was merely one-month old). When he arrived at Liverpool, centre forward was the role in which he was intended to play; things didn't exactly go as planned, and he failed to make a spot in the side his own, and found himself in the reserves.

The transformation under Bob Paisley from a big and burly centre forward to an artful left-sided midfielder in 1975 is still seen as the greatest-ever manager's masterstroke. To put it into modern parlance, it would have been the same as Gerard Houllier playing Emile Heskey at left midfield and miraculously ending up with Robert Pires (alas, that never transpired). Of course, the main credit should go to Kennedy, as he was the man who took to the field and adapted so wonderfully. There was none of this tosh about being played out of position; good players are versatile. Each will have his best position, of course, but if you can control, pass, shoot, head - then you can do a job anywhere. From midfield, Kennedy managed to ghost in and score crucial goals, hitting ten, nine and eight in three successive league seasons from 1978 to 1980. But he wasn't a David Platt type, who offered little else other than goals. Kennedy was a proper player.

In later years, via plenty of video evidence, I got to see - and understand for myself - what people said about Kennedy: that he had an especially sweet left foot. That is the adjective people use: Sweet. It is used for other players too, although almost exclusively left-footed players, as if those who prefer to use that foot possess greater perception and vision.

He was a tall, upright kind of player - not compact and dynamic like Keegan, the real Superstar player of the mid-70s (before KK took to spectacularly falling off of bikes as a television "Superstar"). Watch Ray Kennedy run, and there was no way he was a footballer; he was in the same club as Patrick Vieira and Chris Waddle in that he simply didn't look the part. Put a ball at Ray's feet, and suddenly it was the most natural sight in the world. It stayed close to his side like an obedient sheepdog. He was suddenly a master, in control, calling the shots. Some players are busy, but busy themselves in going nowhere; Ray took his time, but always got there, always arrived. In being upright, it meant he also played with his head up - the sign of a good player. You need time on the ball to be able to lift your head, and only good players get time on the ball. You also need to know your control is perfect to take your eyes from the ball and survey the field.

In many ways his decline was swift. In his final years at Liverpool he knew something was physically wrong when he played, and found himself increasingly struggling to get into the pace of games. He'd had physical problems for many years, but his great fitness masked their seriousness and kept any real concerns at bay.     

My main connection to Ray Kennedy - and what made me think I could write this piece - is that I can relate to this physical decline, having gone - in a matter of a couple of years - from being a (very average) semi-pro to being comprehensively tackled by a woman in a work's five-a-side (before any accusations of sexism are placed, I've played against female England internationals and been fairly impressed; this woman, however, was clinically obese and, by the looks of it, had never kicked a ball before in her life. I tried to lie to myself and say it was merely down to her imposing upper-body strength and preponderate twin "blockers", but I knew I was a beaten man). It's a strange feeling, experiencing your body failing you (before its time) but not understanding why. Once we pass our teenage years, we a programmed to expect an inevitable decline; no longer invincible, we know we will weaken as the years pass. We just don't expect it to happen suddenly, whilst in our prime.

Ray was in his early thirties and he probably felt about twice that age at times. Being beaten by far inferior players - so soon after being a European champion - must have shocked Ray; it must have felt like he was being tackled by a fat woman who had two left feet, neither of which was in any way sweet. I have a different illness to Ray, and I am not as unwell, but I can empathise with his plight.

I don't sense Ray Kennedy to be the self-pitying type, nor do I think that on balance he will look back and think he has had a bad life; he got to experience things us mere mortals only ever dreamed of, and in a way had not one but two football careers. It is perhaps best to approach the end of this piece with the amazing fact that here was a player who did the hallowed double (League title, FA Cup) in 1971 at one club in one particular role; he then topped that in 1977 with a more remarkable double: Champions of England, and Champions of Europe in the same season (and a fraction from the treble) playing in a totally different position. The "treble" he did attain was winning the European Cup three times.

So there's Kennedy. And there's Parkinson. But maybe it's his Christian name I should conclude with: Ray. The rays of sunshine he provided football fans everywhere; the rays of hope (and inspiration) he gives as an "ambassador" for his condition. Ray Kennedy: walk tall, big man.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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