British Skating Legends

Unsung British heroes of roller speed skating

DANNY KELLY

 

DANNY KELLY (LEFT) WITH BILL SHARMAN AT THE 1965 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS - WETTEREN, BELGIUM

Daniel (Danny) Kelly (No.19 in the list of male British team members) was born on 21st April 1939.  As well as his successes it was also his, at times, relaxed attitude towards racing that makes him one of the most recognised names in post-war British roller speed skating circles.  But you would be mistaken for confusing "relaxed" with "care-free".  Kelly was far from that.  In fact he cared a lot and aside from the obvious, winning was what he cared about most.

Kelly spent his youth on a pair of metal wheeled roller skates around the Birmingham streets and when on weekends he was supposed to be off to church to sing in the choir, unbeknowing to his parents he would be off down the Embassay Rollerdrome sprinting round the rink in the general speed sessions.  It wasn't long before he got himself noticed by some of the established local speed skaters and was asked to join the Midland club. One of it's founder members was Les Woodley, one of the World's elite who was four years older than Kelly and already a multiple World medallist.  Kelly joined the club and the National Skating Association in 1956 aged 17.  In February 1957, he finished 3rd in the Five Mile British Championship behind Leo Eason (Birmingham R.S.C.) and team mate Woodley.  He had arrived.

Such was his impact that almost immediately he was called up for international duty.  At 19 he was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1958 World Championships in Finale Lugure, Italy - one of the youngest skaters to have put on a British race vest.  His raw talent, strength and speed made him an instant success.  The road circuit was an "up and down" affair along the main coast road with a hairpin bend at one end of the course and a roundabout the other.  His international team mate that year, the late Dennis Stafford, once remarked that

"...his strength and determination was awesome...but such was the antics of the Italians that he came over the finishing line in second place in one race minus his shirt!" 

That race was the 10000 metres and with a lap to go Kelly was literally shoved off the track, bounced off a tree and fell over.  In that incident  a number of other athletes also hit the deck, but in the mele that ensued Kelly got straight back up and charged after the leaders.  His effort to catch them was nothing short of remarkable and he did just that, only just missing out on the gold medal to Rossi of Italy.

In the 1000 metres knock-out Kelly would make it all the way to the final, where he met another relative youngster to the sport, Guardigli.  Guardigli himself would go on to become a speed skating legend in his own right and win no fewer than six World titles, but as yet he had not won any.  Kelly was a hungry youth and Guardigli knew he had a fight on his hands.  The victory went to the Italian, but it wasn't easy and the Italian knew it.  Kelly would finish those World Championships with three medals from four races, two silver medals and a bronze medal.  He had almost single handedly taken on the might of the Italians in their own back yard.

In 1959 there was no World Championships but in January of that year Kelly took part in the Northern Counties Championship held over One Mile at the Granby Halls rink in Leicester.  He won his heat, finished second in the semi-final and won the final, only to find he had been disqualified.  Again in March for the Clore Cup and again over a One Mile distance Kelly won his heat, the quarter-final, the semi-final and the final, only to be disqualified again.  It was still early days, but for Kelly he felt a pattern was beginning to emerge.  He would later say that some judges had his name on a disqualification slip even before the gun had gone to start the race. Admittedly, he raced hard, but he had to.  He hadn't just taken on the Italians in Italy with some degree of success without having to fight for his place.  But in those early days Kelly would find it hard to change his international skating style to better suit the domestic race scene, something his team mate Les Woodley was a master at.  Unfortunately for Kelly he was probably right about the "Old School Tie Brigade" who probably had his card marked from the off. 

His acid sense of humour was also not well received by some Judges.  One particular story has it that Kelly was approached at one race meeting by Cyril Cooper, a Judge and then trainer of the Alexandra Palace club, and asked to put tuppence into the "swear box" after he was overheard swearing.  Kelly's reply was to put an extra penny in the box and call Cooper a c.... well, I'm sure you get the picture.  It is rumoured that Cooper was later responsible for Kelly's disqualification in one the Five Mile Championships.

Despite this, in 1960 he was again called up to represent Britain at the World Championships in Wetteren, Belgium.  Again he was a silver medalist in the 10000 metres but just lost out to another of Italy's greats, Civolani.  He was also still in the early rounds of the 1000 metres knock-out when Team Manager, Bert Lamb, withdrew the team.  Leo Eason had been disqualified from 1st place in the 5000 metres and a disputed decision involving Barbara Woodley in the ladies 500 metres knock-out resulted in the team boycotting any further racing.  As a direct result the Roller Speed Committee boycotted a further two World Championship events in 1961 (Voltrega, Italy on the track and Gujan-Mestras, France on the road).

1960 was also the start of Kelly's "love / hate" relationship with the Five Mile British Championship.  He was a multiple World medallist but had still to win a British title, perhaps testament to just how high the standard in Britain was at that time.  As one of the favourites Kelly made the final only to fall and have his team mate, Woodley, take the victory.  His first of five British Championships came in 1962 when he won the Half Mile.

In 1962 a number of skaters set out to break a number of World Records on the Brixton rink in London.  Danny Kelly was one of these and along with team mate, Ricky May, did just that.  Their goal was to break the 2 Man Relay Records, which they did - in fact they set no fewer than 11 new World Records over distnaces ranging from 5 miles to 20 miles and 15000 metres to 30000 metres.  They also set new timed World Records for the 'Half Hour' and 'Hour'.  Whilst this attempt was a well publicised event, it is a little known fact that Kelly and May already held the World Record for the 10000 metres 2 Man Relay which they had set on the Birmingham Embassy some 2 years earlier.

In 1963 Kelly was now a well established skater and again represented Britain at the World Championships in Nantes, France.  Skating in all four distances his results in the 5000 metres, 10000 metres and 20000 metres was pretty average by his standards, his highest position being that of 15th.  However, in the 1000 metres knock-out he again found himself in the final.  This time, though, there was no Italian.  His "oponent" was his own British team mate, Leo Eason.  Eason had earlier become World Champion at 10000 metres and he would tell people that he "gave" Kelly the win in the 1000 metres.  Some years ago now I asked Kelly if this was the case and he told me  

"...people will tell you Eason gave me the win in the final, and that may be so, but what people don't consider is that I might have beaten him anyway.  After all...what people forget is that I had beat Guardigli in the semi to reach the final...and HE was the man to beat". 

Intrigued, I also asked him more recently how with results like 15th, 15th and 17th in the other three events back in '63 he managed to become World Champion at 1000 metres? In true Danny Kelly style he told me "I was saving myself!"

Kelly would only compete in one more World Championships, those in Wetteren, Belgium in 1965.  No medals this time (although a trophy with his team mate Ricky May in the Coupes Des Nations Relay) but his results were more in keeping with his standing within the sport.

The same year he would finish first in the Five Mile British Championship which would have been three in a row had he not been disqualified.  Then a year later it was an identical story.  He would again cross the line first in the Five Mile only to find he had been disqualified again.  Mick McGeough was awarded the victory, but what kicked off McGeough's British Championship gold medal haul would end Kelly's.  This disqualification was to be the last straw and on 12th February 1966 at just 26 years of age, Kelly walked away totally from the sport and was never seen at a rink again...until some 20 years later.

With the opening of the Birmingham Wheels track Kelly bought his young family along and soon they had joined the club and were competing.  For a short while, Danny too put his skates on and did a couple of races.  In fact he even took gold on occasion in one or two of the veteran events.  Then, in 1987, he took a tumble in training and broke his collar bone.  It was a shock to the 48 year old who had never broken a single bone in his skating career.  He recovered quite quickly, though, and was soon back on his skates.  Then, some months later he fell in training again, this time breaking his collar bone on the other side!  Because he had broken both sides doctors advised him that another serious fall could potentially be fatal as his collar bones were weak and his sternum may well collapse should another break occur.  It really was time for Kelly to call it a day....almost.

Since then he has moved to North Wales and has been doing his bit for charity on his skates but has had to stop recently due to "problems" with his feet.  But knowing Danny like I do I am sure he will be doing everything he can to get back on those skates, and don't let any bugger tell him otherwise!

DANNY KELLY AT HOME - OCTOBER 2011