A player for the 70s: The brave Ray Kennedy

WHAT A marvellous and varied football career Ray Kennedy enjoyed. Considered to be too slow when he was very young, he proved the doubters wrong and enjoyed huge success at both Arsenal and Liverpool. Furthermore, he reinvented himself from a big, combative striker to a powerful midfielder, possessing a hammer-link left foot and good aerial ability. All things considered, he was one of the players that defined his era, versatile, strong and, when the moment demanded, creative.

Ray Kennedy has died at 70 years of age, no mean feat considering he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 33. To live with such a cruel and unforgiving disease for so long demanded courage and commitment, both qualities of which he displayed as a player.

Kennedy started his professional career with Arsenal, making his debut in September 1969 against Glentoran in the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. By the end of the 1969-70 season, he had helped Arsenal win the competition, their first silverware since 1953, and had scored in the first leg of the final in Brussels against Anderlecht. He didn’t play in the second leg, but Arsenal won 3-0 to secure a 4-3 aggregate victory.

A year later, Kennedy was the toast of the red half of north London as Arsenal won the league title at, of all places, Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane. Kennedy scored the goal that ensured the Gunners were champions: “The ball went as far as Armstrong, outside the penalty area on the left. He in turn centred once more, and this time there was Kennedy to rise powerfully and send home a blitz of a header underneath the crossbar.” 

A few days later, Arsenal won the FA Cup to complete the double, only the second time that the feat had been achieved in the 20th century. The role played by Kennedy and his striker partner, John Radford, was very important to Bertie Mee’s side, the duo were labelled “strong, effective bombardiers” by the Times. Kennedy netted 26 goals, 19 in the league in 1970-71.

Kennedy was only 19 and had won three major prizes, the future seemed very bright for the big young man from Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. He never won another trophy with Arsenal, although they reached the FA Cup final in 1972 and over the next three seasons, he scored another 43 goals, of which 33 were in the old first division. Arsenal, by 1974, had lost their way and in the summer, Liverpool signed him for £ 200,000. It proved to be Bill Shankly’s last acquisition, in fact Kennedy arrived at Anfield on the day the legendary Liverpool boss resigned. 

Injury prevented him from opening the season for his new club, but he made his debut at Chelsea on August 31, scoring in the 22nd minute as Liverpool won 3-0. Kennedy had an excellent record against Chelsea and his presence unnerved a team that was destined for relegation. Kennedy was no John Toshack in the air, said the reports, but he was very hard to shake off the ball.

He started well, scoring eight goals in 11 games, but by the end of 1974-75, the big concern was his lack of goals. By sheer chance, manager Bob Paisley converted him to left-side midfield and suddenly, Kennedy had a new career in a new town. He was capped by England for the first time in March 1976 and went on to win 17 appearances.

At Liverpool, Kennedy was a pivotal figure in a golden era for the club – three European Cups, five league titles and a UEFA Cup, as well as the Football League Cup. He eventually left in January 1982 to join old team-mate Toshack who was managing Swansea. But his fitness was declining and it became obvious something serious was wrong with Kennedy. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 and struggled for decades to combat its dreadful symptoms.

In so many ways, he was one of the key figures of the early to mid-70s in English football. To enjoy success with one club is a magnificent achievement, but Ray Kennedy made an impact at both Arsenal and Liverpool, two clubs with rich heritages. He was a player with his own impressive history. Rest in peace.