Theo Kelly was a controversial and divisive administarator of Everton during the 1930s, rising to the role of secretary in 1936, and, in 1939 becoming secretary- manager, a position he held for a decade. During this period Everton were one of the best run clubs in England off the pitch. His enemies, however, said he was a self-serving autocrat, who cared nothing for either his players or the Everton fans. His presence as Everton boss was ultimately destructive in the extreme. When he left in 1948, Everton were not only bottom of the First Division, but Kelly’s influence had directly led to the departures of Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton and Joe Mercer, and also paved the way for the end of T.G. Jones’s Goodison days.
Kelly arrived at Goodison in August 1929 as A-team trainer- coach on wages of £4.10.0 per week. His duties included scouting opponents and transfer targets, general administration and his A-team duties. In April 1934 he was appointed assistant secretary on wages of £6 per week.
AT THIS TIME, Everton’s long-standing secretary-manager was Tom McIntosh. The role that he occupied was a good deal different to the manager’s role which we know today. The position was part administrator, part selector and middle-man between the coach, captain and team, and members of the board, who retained a say in selection. The role of captain – in Everton’s case Dean – was more like that of a modern-day cricket captain, with some say in team affairs and a responsibility for the daily running of the team, in partnership with the coach, Harry Cooke. McIntosh was most famous for spotting and signing Dean, but beyond that was well respected and liked by both board and players alike. A kind, patient, articulate man, his ‘system of management,’ wrote the Everton historian Thomas Keates in 1928, ‘seems to approach the ideal.’ Yet in October 1935, Everton mourned his death from cancer, aged just 56.
At a special board meeting, convened a fortnight after McIntosh’s death, there was division as to whether Everton should have a team manager, as clubs such as Arsenal had started to adopt, or continue with the system of secretary-manager. It was decided to wait until the full-time appointment of a new secretary. Kelly was appointed acting secretary and, in February 1936, to the position full time on a salary of £500. The appointment of such a fiercely ambitious individual was to alter the course of Everton history.
Kelly was never well liked by Dean, and he later described him as both an autocrat and despot. But over the course of the 1936/37 season, the relationship between the two men deteriorated as Dean saw Kelly’s ambitions begin to surface. ‘This chap Kelly had no time for the older lads,’ he would recall. ‘I just couldn’t get on with him. He was secretary but I didn’t care what he was. I knew what was happening. He wanted to get rid of me and also one or two other people who looked like being in with a chance of becoming manager one day.’
Three games into the 1937/38 season Dean was dropped. He played just twice more for Everton: a 1-2 defeat at Grimsby, and finally on 4 December 1937, against Charlton Athletic at the Valley. Everton lost 3-1 in Dean’s 399th appearance for the club. He continued to play for the reserves, eventually winning a Central League Championship medal, but Kelly had cut off any prospect of his returning back to the first team. Dean recalled: ‘Kelly started telling lies about me and things got worse. He wanted to have that manager’s job and definitely wanted to get rid of me. I could see that. So I had it out with him and decided to move on.’ On 11 March 1938, the unthinkable happened. Dean was sold to Notts County for £3000. The ever-astute Kelly made certain that Everton recouped the money paid out to Tranmere thirteen years earlier. Disgracefully, Everton’s greatest ever player was allowed to leave without a farewell or thanks, and understandably he did not return to Goodison for many years after.
Kelly was enjoying success off the field, however. Everton’s bank balance doubled to around £30,000 and he was enjoying greater control over first-team matters. For the 1939/40 season he was given charge of first-team affairs, although the intervention of war meant this was short-lived.
HOWEVER, his prickliness and ability to make enemies got him and Everton in trouble. Following the outbreak of war Kelly embroiled the club in an unseemly dispute with the FA over the issue of call-ups of Everton players for matches whose purposes were toraise funds for the Red Cross. The amount of Everton players selected was ‘absurdly out of proportion’, he moaned, ignoring the fact that they were reigning champions. When Sagar, Jones and Mercer were called up for an FA XI in April 1940 Kelly wrote to Stanley Rous, secretary of the FA, complaining. Rous offered to substitute Sagar and Jones but said that they would need Mercer. Kelly refused to allow the half back to join up, prompting an FA investigation. The sanctions were harsh: the chairman, Ernest Green, was banned from football for 15 months, the director W.C. Gibbons banned for two months, and they recommended Kelly be ‘censured’ for failing to keep the Everton board properly informed of the FA’s decisions. The whole mess seemed emblematic of his form of management.
WAR ALSO posed challenges to the playing staff and when peace came the squad was significantly changed in terms of readiness for football. Players were older, slower, scarred by war or just wanting away. Dean’s replacement and Everton’s golden boy, Tommy Lawton, sought a move away from Goodison owing to marital problems. A soothing word in his ear may have sorted the problem, but Kelly was no pacifier. Summoning the striker to his office, Kelly looked down his glasses and said: ‘You want a transfer do you, Lawton? Well, let me tell you, we’ve been trying to give you away for four months and nobody wants you.nThere’s the door, go out and get your training done and stop wasting my time.’ It was vintage Kelly. But he could not sustain the façade of the Dickensian factory owner. A second transfer request was subsequently accepted and Lawton was sold to Chelsea for £11,500.
Soon following him out of the Goodison door was Joe Mercer. In an England v. Scotland international in April 1946, Willie Waddell of Rangers inadvertently landed on Mercer’s leg during a challenge. Mercer struggled on gamely, though his injury stunted his efforts. Accusations that he was somehow feigning injury stung the player, but more hurtful was the fact that the Everton management also seemed to believe the allegations. At the heart of the dispute, once more, was Kelly. When the 1946/47 season reopened Mercer was still struggling for fitness and the intimation that he wasn’t trying resurfaced. Everton’s manager offered no support and the relationship between the two men first broke down then became martial. His injury had cost him his fitness and, sapped of his stamina, he had lost the attacking part of his game. Kelly’s unremitting hostility persisted, so Mercer met with the director Cecil Baxter and asked for a transfer, saying that he would quit football altogether if he was not allowed to leave.
Days later Joe Mercer, who six months earlier had captained his country, was serving customers in the grocery wholesalers he co-owned with his father-in-law. The impasse lasted three weeks when Kelly finally summoned him to the Adelphi Hotel, where Arsenal’s manager George Allison met him. A transfer was agreed and within minutes he had joined the Gunners for £8000. ‘It was a terrible blow for me to go,’ Mercer said later, ‘because I was so crazy about Everton.’ In a final snub, Kelly brought his boots to the Adelphi preventing Mercer – as he had Dean – from returning to Goodison to say his farewells.
These defections caused apoplexy in the dressing room. T.G. Jones, the finest player left at the club, was deeply unimpressed. But Kelly refused to play him and over the course of 1947 he made just a dozen appearances. On five occasions that year he asked for a transfer, only to be denied each time by Everton. The spat then broke out into a public argument – something which was then absolutely unprecedented – between Jones and the club.
A reluctance to invest in replacing these lost legends did little to help Everton on the field. They finished 1946/47 in 10th place and plunged to 14th a year later. But worse was to come. The start of the 1948/49 season was disastrous. After a 3-3 opening day draw with Newcastle, Everton’s results read as follows: 0-4, 0-1, 0-5, 0-5, 2-1, 0-6, 0-1. With Everton bottom of the First Division a board meeting was called in mid-September to discuss the situation. Kelly, perhaps sensing what was to happen, couldn’t make it owing to a ‘car mishap’. At the meeting it was resolved that he revert to his old position of secretary and the position of a manager concerned with football affairs be advertised. A month later Cliff Britton formally became Everton manager.
FOR THE next two years the pair worked alongside each other in what must have been an awkward relationship. In December 1950 Kelly was given a three-month leave of absence by the Everton board for reasons that are unclear. It was subsequently agreed to give him a payment of £500 and ‘50 cigarettes per week’. Kelly did not return to work and in March 1951 was replaced by Bill Dickinson.