HULL FC chairman Adam Pearson has backed Albert Kelly to be in the running for the Steve Prescott Man of Steel again this year – even though he knows that will probably mean the star player heads home to Australia.
After a glorious debut campaign for the Black and Whites in 2017, when he helped them retain the Challenge Cup, the gifted stand-off made the three-man short-list for the prestigious award as Super League’s best player, missing out to eventual winner Luke Gale.
However, he was unable to replicate that same sensational form again last term when the frustrated 27-year-old suffered an injury-hit time, and played just 16 games for the East Yorkshire club.
Former Hull KR star Kelly did not feature after suffering a third concussion of the year against St Helens on July 13, missing the entire Super 8s as depleted Hull lost all nine games he sat out.
Some fans thought the former Gold Coast Titans star looked over-weight, too, when he returned to pre-season training but Pearson is adamant the maverick player – out of contract at the end of 2020 – is primed for a cracking season ahead.
“Alby looks like he’s flying and that makes a huge difference,” said the chairman, as FC prepare for their opener at derby rivals Hull KR in barely three weeks’ time.
“He looks a completely different Albert Kelly. It’s all rubbish all this talk about him being fat and overweight; he’s working very, very hard and looks great.
“I’m backing him to be right up there in the running for Man of Steel again.”
However, Kelly’s Hull team-mate Jake Connor, who shone for England against New Zealand during the autumn, has admitted he is intent on making the FC stand-off role his own in 2019.
Although Connor is ordinarily used at centre by head coach Lee Radford, half-back is his preferred position and he has thrived there when given the opportunity in either Kelly or scrum-half Marc Sneyd’s absence.
More tellingly, he duly won man-of-the-match at No 6 for England against France last year and England coach Wayne Bennett has gone on record with his belief he sees the Halifax-born player as a Test half-back in the long-term.
Will Connor’s public admission that he wants Kelly’s shirt fire the Australian on?
Pearson said: “No. I think Alby fires on Alby. I think he thinks he has another contract in the NRL and to do that he knows he needs a big year with us.
“In my opinion, he is looking to finish off his career there and to do that he needs to be playing really well for us. He is a complex character but I do think if we can get him, Jake and Marc Sneyd playing well together, we’ll have a great backline.”
Asked about Kelly during yesterday’s season media launch at the KCOM Stadium, Radford concurred: “I can only go from obviously what I’ve seen in pre-season and he looks sharp.
“He’s got a smile on his face; Albert Kelly plays his best when he’s enjoying his rugby. So, yes, I can see why Adam has said that. He does look very sharp.”
Radford is pleased that Connor, too, has expressed his desire to challenge for Kelly’s role.
“The more people I have telling me they want to be in the team –and striving to be in the team – the better,” he said.
“Our issue has been not having people to pick in the team and that’s been our fault.
“But that was 2018 and that’s not going to happen again.
“Competition is definitely healthy.”
Hull were, indeed, badly hit by injuries last term, Sneyd and Connor among those sidelined with lengthy issues and a contributory factor to a dimsal end to the campaign when they lost 11 successive games.
FC, then, have gone for a bigger squad in 2019, recruiting the likes of Oldham’s Danny Langtree, Wharfedale RU winger Charlie Graham and Leigh’s Matty Dawson-Jones to give them greater depth in a bid to avoid the same issues suffered last year.
Granted, some fans have been concerned by the lack of high-quality signings among them but Pearson believes they are still in good shape – and those bigger names will arrive later.
“2020 is going to be very different as that is when (some of) our quota players are up,” he said, with ex-Tonga captain Sika Manu, Australian veteran Mark Minichiello, ex-Canterbury prop Mickey Paea and USA winger Bureta Faraimo among those in the last year of their deals.
“There are huge recruitment meetings going on already as we’ll be bringing in players in six or seven different positions.
“We have a huge scope for change then. Hopefully we can have a good ‘19 and then really explode in ‘20 with a new-look side.”
They head to Wakefield Trinity on Sunday with senior players bidding to start the revival in a testimonial match for FC’s Danny Washbrook and Trinity captain Danny Kirmond.