Can you name a player who was once on the books of Old Firm rivals Celtic and Rangers, crossed the Irish Sea to trial with Glentoran and then missed out on a big-money move to Linfield?
It’s one that would have even the keenest of pub quizzers scratching their heads. Granted his time with the Glasgow giants was in his teenage days, but when Kevin Kelbie arrived in the Irish League, he certainly came of age.
Born and brought up in Stirling, he was one of a small posse of players to cross the uneasy divide that exists between Scotland’s biggest clubs. However, he later made an unconventional move to East Belfast following a spell in America.
“Having left Rangers, I embarked on a Sporting Scholarship at Oklahoma College which didn’t work out, so I came home early,” recalls Kevin. “I was in limbo, I had no club and no work.
“But I had an uncle who owned a business in Northern Ireland, and he offered me a job. I was looking for employment, football wasn’t high on my agenda at that time.
“Basically, I moved over to begin a new job. Just by chance, my uncle was friendly with a guy called Denis Reid, who was from the Shankill Road area. When he heard I played football, he said he could put me in touch with someone from Glentoran. I was invited up to train on a trial basis.
“I decided to take in a game before I turned up to training — what a fixture I picked. It turned out to be a League title decider on a sunny April afternoon in 2005. There was a massive crowd, the kick-off had to be put back to let everyone into the ground.
“It was ‘Morgan Day’, of course. The game is still talked about and celebrated in certain quarters. But it was a fantastic game between two good sides. I reckoned if I was fit enough, I could play at that level, without sounding big-headed.
“I worked really hard on my fitness levels with the Glens and Roy Coyle indicated that he wanted to sign me. I was always an out-and-out striker, but he told me he wanted me on the left side of midfield, which was alien to me.
“Although Michael Halliday and Chris (Morgan) were the strikers, I still thought I could have made an impact. I told the gaffer (Coyle) I didn’t fancy playing anywhere other than up front. The contract was still there for me, but I stalled on signing it.”
Out of the blue, Ballymena United boss Tommy Wright then contacted Kevin.
“It was actually Chris (Morgan) who gave Tommy my number,” he revealed. “He (Morgan) spoke highly of the manager and of the club.
“Tommy picked me up after work one night and brought me up to The Showgrounds. I was immediately impressed. He explained he was looking for a striker and, if I could get myself match fit, I’d be his first choice.
“I had a bit of catching up to do in terms of fitness, so I worked hard, got my head down and did extra training when I could. After that, it was brilliant. I began banging in the goals and the supporters really took to me.
“It was a great first season and we came within a whisker of winning the club’s first trophy in 17 years only to be beaten by Linfield in the Final of the County Antrim Shield at Seaview.
“I have bittersweet memories. I scored early on and we held the lead for a fair bit of the game only for the Blues to equalise in the second half.
“Rory Hamill then came off the bench and he put me through on a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, which would have won us the game. I should really have taken it round him but, as I hit the shot, the ball took a little bobble and it smacked the crossbar.
“As fate would have it, Linfield went straight down the pitch and scored with about five minutes to go. A lot of people remember me for that miss, rather than my goal.
“Oddly enough, there was a funny story relating to that. I was at the Cheltenham Races a few years back and this lad came over to me and asked was I Kelvin Kelbie. He recognised me as he was a Coleraine fan. He then said, ‘That was a hell of a miss in that Shield Final!’ — I couldn’t even escape the stigma of it at Cheltenham.”
After almost three years in Northern Ireland, Kevin decided to move back home again following a change in his working conditions.
“Unfortunately, I had a disagreement with my uncle and decided to move back home,” he adds. “I explained to Tommy, and I was happy enough for him to rip up my contract.
“But I was doing well and scoring a lot of goals and he was reluctant to let me go. After speaking with the Board, the club took the decision to fly me in and out for games and also fix me up with a club to train with in Scotland. The club was very fair with me and really looked after me.”
Another moment of agony in a sky blue shirt came when United were beaten in the Semi-Final of the Irish Cup in 2010.
He recalls: “We lost 4-3 in a penalty shoot-out against Portadown which is probably the most cruel way to lose a game. It would have been nice to play in an Irish Cup Final, but it just wasn’t to be.”
By that stage, Wright had been replaced by Roy Walker in the manager’s office and that’s when Kevin’s transfer to Linfield almost became a reality.
“That was a big disappointment for me,” he adds.
“I think David Jeffrey offered £20,000-odd to bring me to Windsor Park. Peter Thompson had joined Stockport County and the Blues were looking for a replacement.
“The negotiations were a fair bit down the line as far as I knew. In fact, I had boys like Michael Gault ringing me to say it would be a great move for me.
“I had put in a transfer request that was turned down originally, but then Ballymena decided to go ahead with the deal. At that time, Linfield were winning everything and it was a challenge that really appealed to me.
“Roy called me into his office to say everything was good to go, but it hinged on a player he had coming up from the south of Ireland to replace me. But as the transfer deadline day approached, the deal fell through at the last minute. It was a huge disappointment.
“Had I joined the Blues, I suppose it would have been a unique situation of me being on the books of the Big Two clubs in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
Instead, Kevin moved back home to Scotland to join Greenock Morton, but it was a relationship that lasted merely one season as his chances were hampered by injury for most of the campaign.
“I joined Glenavon the following year,” he recalls.
“The Chairman, Adrian Teer, came over to Glasgow to tie up the loose ends. I thought it would be a good move for me. Marty Quinn was boss, what a character he was.
“Again, I was flying in for games, which didn’t quite go down well with people at the club. It was different at Ballymena. I was established and was banging in the goals. I was the talisman figure at the club, I suppose.
“It was like starting to prove myself all over again at Glenavon and I never really got the chance to gel or train with the boys which was difficult. I was accepted at Ballymena, whereas I was the new boy on the block at Mourneview.
“Unfortunately, Marty was sacked in my first season and Gary Hamilton was brought in.
“Fair play to him, he was up front with me. He told me he wanted to bring in his own players and he wasn’t happy with the arrangement of me just coming in for games.
“It was fair enough, so that was me finished with the Irish League. I had no complaints. I returned to Scotland to join Stirling Albion, where I scored quite a few goals.
“After dropping down the Leagues, I packed in the game when I was 33.
“There is no doubt my best days in football were with Ballymena United — their result is still the first one I look for every week.”