AS much as Daryl Powell, Brian McDermott and Tim Sheens could all lay claims for being Coach of the Year last season, few would ever argue if Dewsbury Rams’ Neil Kelly had instead been suggested.
His club start the new Championship campaign on Friday with a home derby against Sheffield Eagles.
I’m aware of the ‘never go back’ scenario and that was one of the reservations I had when I took the job. But I’ve got to say it was a bit like putting your old slippers on.Dewsbury Rams head coach, Neil Kelly.
The very fact Dewsbury are still even in that division, though, and not fretting in the abyss of League 1, is principally down to Kelly, not that the modest 55-year-old will ever admit as much.
If you look at the rudimentary facts, Rams were staring relegation in the face when he surprisingly took charge last April, losing their opening eight league games starved of form and confidence.
Nevertheless, once the ex-Wales coach – who famously led Dewsbury to the 2000 Northern Ford Premiership during his last spell in charge – entered the fray they easily avoided that fate.
Resurgent Rams won eight of their remaining 15 league fixtures before claiming another four scalps in seven Championship Shield outings.
“The club was in a demoralised state when I took over as we’d lost the first eight games of the season – and lost them heavily,” Kelly told The Yorkshire Post.
“But from that point onwards credit to the players and those who came into the club after I was appointed.
“They really turned it round on the field to the situation where we finished eighth which was unbelievable really considering where we were and we also did quite well in the play-offs. We did well and now we look to consolidate and move on again.”
It is perhaps surprising Wakefield-born Kelly has been away from rugby league as long as he had. Let’s not forget, he won Super League coach of the year when at Widnes in 2002.
He had ended a six-year stint with Dewsbury to join Widnes in 2001, helping them immediately earn promotion and a seventh-placed finish in their first season back in the top-flight.
But then he crossed codes, joining Ulster and – after a spell back in rugby league at Leigh Centurions – went on to work with Doncaster Knights, Namibia and Romania while also undertaking a teaching career. Given all that, did, he ever wonder if it would be the right thing to do to return to Dewsbury?
“I’m aware of the ‘never go back’ scenario and that was one of the reservations I had when I took the job,” admitted Kelly.
“But I’ve got to say it was a bit like putting your old slippers on.
“The players and the environment was totally different, though, to what I had before – the way the players train – and that gave me a big enough challenge in itself.”
He has still yet to put pen to paper on a permanent deal with the Rams but he insists that is just a formality.
“We’ve not signed it physically but we’ve agreed so that’s not really a problem,” he said.
“Going back 15 years to when I took my rugby union badges, it is all one big workplace to me now.
“For the time being I’m going to be in rugby league. Hopefully that will be the only job I ever need but we all know for various reasons coaches come and go.”
To that end, Kelly has not ruled out one day hopefully returning to Super League. He added: “For sure. I’m desperate. I want to get back into Super League. I really enjoyed my time with Widnes.
“I think I did a good job with them. I’m looking forward to going back there – if we get things right with Dewsbury.”
He hopes the part-time outfit will offer new threats to their more illustrious rivals in 2018 with relegated Leigh, London Broncos and Toronto Wolfpack some of the sides they will face.
“We’ve changed the emphasis on the way we attack; we’ve a more fluent attack that’s not so rigid so that’s good,” he said.
“I think we’ve a bit more steel in the team as well and with those things combined we’re actually a dangerous team to play.
“We know we’re a dangerous team at home but we want to be dangerous away as well.
“I’m not going to come out with anything silly like we’re going to win the league as there’s some really big teams in there. But I’m quite confident we can do well. And maybe better than last year.”