Geordie great Ray is still winning battles

Ray Kennedy lives alone in the tiny village of New Hartley, nestling on the outskirts of Seaton Delaval.

Ray Kennedy lives alone in the tiny village of New Hartley, nestling on the outskirts of Seaton Delaval. He is at home back home.

Once a bull of a man, big and strong and vibrant, he was the most decorated of footballers.

Ray won the league and cup double at only 19, a centre-forward with Arsenal, and, converted spectacularly to a left-sided midfielder, went on to lift three European Cups and five domestic championships with a Liverpool side the like of which we've never witnessed since.

That, sadly, was yesterday. Today his world is very different, cruel in a way we ordinary mortals who have never drunk the nectar of ultimate success and fame nor the bitter cocktail created by unimaginable life-sapping illness, would ever dare to understand.

Kennedy has just celebrated his 50th birthday and suffers from Parkinson's disease, a crippling, shaking palsy that drags the great as well as the ordinary into an abyss.

Muhammad Ali is the most famous athlete to be reduced at its hand and, like the boxing legend, Kennedy's bravery has to be witnessed to be believed.

Others who have risen to fame like Kenneth More, Terry Thomas, Dame Anna Neagle and even General McArthur and Mao Tse Tung have suffered as Ray Kennedy has.

I had known Ray through many years of dazzling success and he wanted to meet me because we can talk on common ground of what once was. However, it requires `a good day' for it to happen, not any day.

When I arrive at his spotless bungalow Kennedy is seated on the settee beside a framed photograph of him with Ali.

"We met in 1992," he told me with pride. "I was working with the Parkinson's Disease Society and Ali was promoting his book at a shop in London.

"I had to wait two hours to have a special audience with him but it was worth it. He really is The Greatest.

"When we met he asked me if I could box because I was a big lad."

Ray's humour in the face of adversity shines through on occasions, even if it's tinged with a blackness.

"You know, Muhammad fought Henry Cooper at Highbury and used Arsenal's dressing-room. He must have had my peg and that's how I got Parkinson's!"

That the world may have forgotten a footballer of unique achievement is sacrilege but, thankfully, I find that a sport so sullied by unthinking alleged superstars still has a heart.

Graeme Souness, Jimmy Case his comrade in arms at Anfield, Ray Clemence, Phil Thompson and Bob Wilson have phoned him on several occasions.

His old Arsenal skipper Frank McLintock visited him every day when he was in hospital in London, Pat Rice sent him an Arsenal tracksuit for Christmas and Gazza turned up with boots for his son Dale.

His old club Liverpool still post him two programmes after every home match. One Ray keeps, the other he gives to the son of John Maley, his former secretary at New Hartley Juniors where a fairytale began and who, 30 years on, still visits him regularly along with John Jnr.

However, it's the private actions of one former colleague, Graeme Souness, which tugs at the conscience.

Souness has the reputation of a hard man, though he also played with a silky skill, yet despite the trials and tribulations of being a football manager he has still found time to take care of an old pal without any self-congratulation.

Three times this season, when his club Blackburn Rovers have been in the North East, Souness has made a point of meeting up with his midfield partner.

"When Blackburn played at Sunderland my daughter took me through in her car to meet Graeme at the team hotel," explained Ray. "I stayed with him until 10.30pm but I wasn't well enough to go to the match the following day. However, I got to St James's Park with my son Dale when Blackburn played Newcastle."

Even when Souness only paid a fleeting visit with his reserve side to play United at Kingston Park he drove Ray to the Royal Victoria Infirmary for a check-up - and privately arranged for the PFA to pay for a home help for Kennedy, who has finally succumbed to such generosity and caring.

No wonder a week ago Ray sat alone in his New Hartley home with tears in his eyes watching on TV as, against all odds, Souness' Blackburn side won the Worthington Cup 2-1 against Tottenham. Good things can happen to good men.

What you admire of Ray Kennedy is not his footballing achievements, as unique as they are, but his ability to stare adversity in the face and smile the smile of defiance.

It isn't easy. His great frame has deteriorated, his hands shake and his speech is often slurred. Sometimes he can remain in bed for three weeks and he often falls when moving from room to room. But he had, until Souness' intervention, refused a home help even if the ironing can take three hours to complete on a good day which still demands he takes no fewer than 30 pills to ease him through the endless hours. Life is hell - but only if he allows it and in the main he fights it.

And his memory is as clear as crystal, his successes with Arsenal, Liverpool and England locked in his brain as a permanent consolation. The mind is sharp even if the body isn't.

Ray insists that we watch a video which depicts some of the fine goals of his career in red. He becomes noticeably excited, yelling "get in" as a shot rips into the netting behind a keeper blown away by its ferocity and then exhorts: "I didn't know I was that good!" A twinkle enters his eye.

Kennedy was officially diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's disease on November 4, 1984. He was only 35 - young to be struck by such an incurable illness - but, looking back, he believes that the symptoms were there almost throughout a glittering career which makes it all the more remarkable.

During the early days when his world collapsed Kennedy was forced to sell much of his glittering array of caps and medals, something which hurt him deeply, but unexpectedly fortune has changed.

"I was contacted recently by solicitors acting on behalf of a London millionaire who bought five of my England caps," Ray revealed. "The man had died and he'd left Dale my caps in his will. So they have come home again."

Ray has been invited to attend a players' reunion in May to mark the 25th anniversary of Liverpool's first European Cup final victory in 1977. He has accepted but fitness will dictate whether he can travel.

By the time I leave the darkness of night has cut in and his driveway is covered in a touch of frost but the goodbye is as warm as a summer's day.

Ray envelops me in a bear hug, just as he did with team-mates upon Highbury and Anfield on many a great occasion. For a moment the years have rolled away and he's young and fit and full of joy again.

Playing a huge part in Reds' Euro glory

The European Cup had been famously won in Rome's eternal city and Liverpool's players were ecstatically celebrating putting the Germans of Borussia Monchengladbach to the sword.

An Englishman visited to offer his congratulations - not any Englishman but Sir Stanley Matthews, the legendary wizard of the dribble with Blackpool and Stoke City.

Ray Kennedy smiled as Matthews approached. "Ever seen one of these, Sir Stanley?" he inquired thrusting forward his European winner's medal.

It was a moment full of poignancy because it was Matthews who had thrown out the big Geordie at Port Vale, labelling him "slow and cumbersome." Another young dream shattered.

"Oh, it wasn't malicious, I just couldn't help myself," smiled Ray. "Actually Matthews did me a favour - if he hadn't peddled me I might never have played for such great clubs as Arsenal and Liverpool. Three other lads who went with me to the Vale stayed and faded into obscurity."

But what of Sir Stanley's cruel assessment of a young Kennedy? "Well, Matthews could run backwards in training faster than I could run forwards," came the reply.

Kennedy won the European Cup three times with Liverpool's red machine - in 1977, 1978 and 1981 - but he rates the first victory as the best.

Perhaps modestly Ray insists that he always played badly in cup finals though his overall contribution to the capture of silverware was immense.

For example, in '81 he drove Liverpool to the final almost singlehandedly when, after Bayern Munich had held the depleted Merseysiders 0-0 at Anfield, Kennedy scored a goal of immense professionalism to take them on to Paris.

"We were without Graeme Souness and Phil Thompson in Germany so Bob Paisley gave me the captaincy," said Ray. "Kenny Dalglish limped out of the game after a few minutes.

"Late in the match, with no score and the tie heading for extra-time, David Johnson was struggling with a hamstring so the boss pushed me up front - and I scored when I pulled down a Johnson cross and beat the keeper with a right-foot shot."

Though Bayern equalised in the last minute Liverpool went through on the away goals rule - and in the final it was the quick thinking of Ray, snatching the ball from Sammy Lee at a throw-in, that released his namesake Alan Kennedy to run on and strike the winning goal.

It was a Kennedy header, too, against old rivals Spurs that clinched the league championship for Arsenal only a few days before the double was completed in the Cup final at Wembley. Massive contributions all.

Keegan a great but Daglish was best I've seen

He was thought to be irreplaceable at Liverpool - Kevin Keegan, a hurrying, scurrying dynamo of a player. But then along came Kenny Dalglish as purringly smooth as a Rolls Royce and life for Ray Kennedy got even better.

"Nobody can take away what Keegan has achieved," admitted Kennedy. "He's been great for every club he's been at, both as a player and a manager.

"But I would say that Dalglish is the best inside-forward I've ever played with or against. He was magnificent, a wonderful reader of the game with a great awareness, great feet. A skilful player who wasn't flash.

"I remember the first time he played for us in front of the Kop - it was against Newcastle United in August 1977. I played the ball to him and he turned instinctively to curl a shot into the net. `Lucky so-and-so,' I thought but I had to apologise to him a little later because he kept on doing it!"

Both Keegan and Dalglish crowned their Liverpool careers with magical moments in European Cup finals.

"In '77 Kevin absolutely destroyed Berti Vogts, the new Scotland manager," said Kennedy. "Berti was man-marking him and Kevin pulled him all over the pitch. We reckoned later that when Keegan went to the bar Vogts followed him like a puppy dog.

"It was Keegan's last game for Liverpool before he went off to Hamburg but we got some replacement in Dalglish. A year later it was Kenny's goal that retained the European Cup for us when we beat Bruges at Wembley."

Paisley turned him into new-born star

If Bill Shankly signed Ray Kennedy as his very last present to Liverpool then it was Bob Paisley who turned him into the best left-sided midfielder in Europe.

"Shanks completed the deal with Arsenal on the day he was retiring," Kennedy explained. "He signed me as a centre-forward to replace John Toshack but Bob changed my position and resurrected my career.

"Paisley was a magnificent man - the top boss. When he called me in and said he fancied me on the left side I was gobsmacked. But he was right - and I could come into the back post when the ball was being played diagonally on the other side by Terry McDermott. I always found acres of space there and scored a lot of goals.

"Within five months of the switch I'd been capped by England.

"Actually as a kid with New Hartley Juniors I'd always played deeper, rather than as a target man, and I scored 56 goals in a season. Mind you, our centre-forward Ian Watts, bagged 84."

Paisley also broke with tradition that said every player ought to wear the correct numbered shirt. The centre-half was always No 5 in the days before squad numbers were invented but Kennedy always wore that number during his Anfield reign.

Ray had done the double at Arsenal under the tutelage of Bertie Mee and when, in 1991, he returned to Highbury for an emotional testimonial between his two old clubs after the onset of Parkinson's, Bertie was there to greet him.

"He shook me by the hand and when he walked away I found a 20 quid note in my palm," said Kennedy.

"I was really touched but then the whole day with 18,000 fans coming to see me was emotional. I cried in the tunnel after being introduced to the crowd."

Words of Tosh caused pain

Ray Kennedy has a certain bitterness towards John Toshack, another Kop legend.

Tosh accused Ray of being "lazy and not trying" when he was his boss at Swansea City.

But in reality, unknown to Kennedy or Toshack for that matter, the Geordie was suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

After a career in soccer's Savile Row such an accusation distressed an inventive footballer.

"Toshack would stand with his arms folded shaking his head," Ray said. "I didn't like it.

"In training I was getting hot, choking sensations in my throat and my right arm felt tense. I `carried' my arm during matches and my ability to read games deteriorated alarmingly. Altogether I had a very unhappy time in Wales.

"Toshack had been daft enough to give Liverpool their money back for me which meant I'd certainly earned my corn at Anfield."

Arsene crows we're better

Arsenal's current championship-chasers are better than their 1998 double-winning predecessors, according to manager Arsene Wenger.

Wenger, whose side have finished runners-up for the past three seasons, believes there is now a strength in depth at Highbury that was lacking four years ago.

That year of success, of course, featured many of the present players at its nucleus with the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars also on board.

Now, however, Wenger says Arsenal have back-up to Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp's skills.

Arsenal, still on course for a Champions' League, Premiership and FA Cup treble, can regain first place in the title race with a win over Derby tonight.

Of the differences between now and then, Wenger said: "I think the task is bigger because we are in the Champions' League and we were not that year. It demands a lot of concentration and the team, the squad is better.

"I don't think in 1998 we could have afforded to play without 10 players at Newcastle, who were second in the league.

"The team now is linked with more ambition. We had 14 or 15 players at the time now we have 20 to 23 who can cope with top-level football."

After that stunning win at St James's Park last Saturday, Wenger revealed he believed his team were good enough to emulate Manchester United's 1999 treble achievement.

Ahead of John Gregory's side's visit, he added: "I just want to take the club as far as I can and like at every big club it is a construction - there is a scaffolding you build up and up and up.

"The club now has recognition in Europe but we want more and there is still a lot to bring.

"We want to become the biggest club in the world.

"People before me have done a lot, I want to go further and I hope people after me will go further. I believe the club is in progression, it is on the move.

"If you look at the potential of Arsenal with the new stadium, you cannot say you want to be the second best in the world."

Wenger added that Arsenal could cope without Henry should they lose him when he goes before a Football Association disciplinary hearing tomorrow after his tirade at referee Graham Poll in the home defeat by Newcastle in December.

But he is hopeful his 28-goal striker will escape punishment.


David Whetstone
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Graeme Whitfield
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Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
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