Monday, January 24, 2022

Ray Kennedy: 1951 – 2021

Former Gunner and 1971 double hero Ray Kennedy passed away yesterday, November 30th 2021.

Jon Spurling @JonSpurling1 looks at his life in red and white, and beyond.

Few, if any, footballers have been converted from striker to midfielder to such spectacular effect as former Arsenal and Liverpool star Ray Kennedy, who died yesterday aged 71, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. A chance meeting in 1975 between Liverpool manager Bob Paisley and Kennedy’s former PE teacher, who explained that in youth football Kennedy had played in midfield, convinced Paisley that the 23 year old forward, who’d struggled for form following his £200,000 move from Arsenal, would slot in on the left hand side of midfield. Although initially reluctant to make the switch, Kennedy took to it immediately, and remained a key component of Paisley’s all conquering Liverpool team which hoovered up league titles and European Cups galore throughout the rest of the ’70s and early ’80s.

Before Kennedy became an Anfield legend, he made his name at Highbury, as John Radford’s powerful and skilful strike partner. Like several of his Arsenal team mates, the burly north-easterner experienced the lows before relishing the highs as the ’70s began. Despite the fact that Port Vale manager Stanley Matthews had once journeyed to Kennedy’s house to convince the youngster and his family that he should sign schoolboy forms for Vale, Matthews later curtly informed the 16 year old Kennedy that he was ‘too slow to make it as a footballer.’

Crushed, Kennedy started working in a sweet factory, before Arsenal scouts watched him play for New Harley Juniors, and made their move. Kennedy arrived at the club in November 1968, with manager Bertie Mee still searching for a winning formula at Highbury. Kennedy bided his time in the reserves, and made his first team debut in September 1969, against Glentoran in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup.

Aptly, Kennedy rose to national prominence when Bertie Mee, with his team losing 3-0 and seemingly down and out to Anderlecht in the Fairs Cup Final first leg, threw on Kennedy as a late substitute in the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Kennedy grabbed a late goal, which, as one newspaper headline noted, gave the Gunners a RAY OF HOPE for the second leg. ‘In the dressing room afterwards, I went round to each player, shouting and screaming at them that we could fight back in the second leg. Ray gave us that lifeline,’ recalled skipper Frank McLintock. Despite Kennedy’s late goal, he wasn’t picked for the return at Highbury, which Arsenal won 3-0 to win the competition, but jubilant team-mates realised that Kennedy’s was a special talent.

He grabbed his chance early in the 70-71 campaign, when Charlie George broke his foot after a clash with Everton goalkeeper Gordon West in the opening game of the season. Now up front with John Radford, Kennedy blossomed into a top drawer striker, and led the scoring during the Double season with 21 goals in the league and FA Cup. Kennedy’s goals were almost always ones to savour. He rifled home two cracking shots in the Gunners’ home victory against Chelsea. In the air, he was simply unstoppable. Against reigning champions Everton, with Highbury bathed in sunshine, Kennedy emphatically headed home twice in a 4-0 win which further served notice of Arsenal’s title intentions, and he scored Arsenal’s third in a comfortable 3-1 victory over Manchester United at Christmas 1970.

When the 70-71 campaign reached its business end, Kennedy delivered when it mattered. In the FA Cup semi-final replay against Stoke City at Villa Park, he stroked home Arsenal’s second goal in a 2-0 win after great approach work from John Radford, and became a hero at White Hart Lane in May when, with Arsenal needing either a goalless draw or a win, he soared high in the air to head home an 88th minute winner past Pat Jennings to bring the league title to Highbury for the first time in 18 years.

Only grainy footage of Kennedy’s winner remains, but half a century on, it still stirs the senses. With Charlie George now also restored to the starting line up, the pair won FA Cup winners’ medals a few days later as Arsenal swept to the Double. ‘I think that Charlie and I thought that life at Arsenal would always be like this,’ Kennedy said, ‘winning medals and cups, but it didn’t turn out that way.’ It was the last silverware that Mee’s team would win, and over the next three seasons, although Kennedy remained a potent force, he never quite hit the heights of 70-71 again, with Mee suggesting that the player’s suspect ‘refuelling’ habits led to him putting on some extra pounds.

Convinced that Liverpool could rejuvenate the player, Bill Shankly signed Kennedy, shortly before resigning at Anfield. As Kennedy flourished in midfield, Arsenal’s Double side broke up and the Gunners became embroiled in relegation battles. The former striker’s renaissance in the north-west rubbed salt into Arsenal fans’ wounds as they watched their team struggle to find the type of creativity which Kennedy now gave to his new employers. After a glittering spell at Liverpool, Kennedy departed for First Division new boys Swansea City, for whom he scored an excellent goal as the Swans defeated Arsenal at Highbury during the 1981-82 season.

But soon after, Kennedy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his resultant mobility issues, Kennedy was present and correct at many of Arsenal’s ’71 reunions, and he returned to Highbury in 1991 for a testimonial match against Liverpool, with former team-mates George Graham and Kenny Dalglish managing the teams.

Largely overlooked by England managers, Ray Kennedy was one of the era’s most decorated, but underrated players. Yet Arsenal fans of a certain generation will never forget the young striker’s contribution to the historic ’71 Double season, and still glow with pride at the mere memory of that towering header at White Hart Lane which finally ended the club’s achingly long wait for the First Division title to return to N5.

Ray Kennedy: 28 July 1951 – 30 November 2021.

RIP.

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