George Kay was born in Manchester on 21st September 1891. A centre-half he played for Eccles before signing for Bolton Wanderers in 1910. Kenny Davenport, who discovered Kay, claimed that "Kay was as strong as I've seen a lad of his years. Nothing passed him. He's a big chap, but fast and bright."
Kay only played in three first-team games until he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery on the outbreak of the First World War. During the conflict Kay played friendly games for several league clubs including West Ham United.
Kay was eventually sent to the Western Front and was both wounded and gassed. In 1917 Kay, who had been promoted to the rank of sergeant, was sent back to England suffering from shellshock.
Kay joined West Ham United in 1919 for a fee of £100. He made his debut for the Second Division side against Barnsley on 8th September 1919. Kay joined a team that included Syd Puddefoot, Jimmy Ruffell, Edward Hufton, George Kay, Billy Moore, Jack Tresadern, Vic Watson, Syd Bishop, Billy Brown, Dick Richards, Jack Young and Billy Henderson.
Kay retained his place in the side and in 1922 Syd King decided to appoint him as captain of the side. West Ham United enjoyed a good FA Cup run in the 1922-23 season beating Hull City (3-2), Brighton & Hove Albion (1-0), Plymouth Argyle (2-0), Southampton (1-0) and Derby County (5-2) to reach the final against Bolton Wanderers. The final took place at Wembley Stadium, only four days after the stadium had been completed.
The stadium had a capacity of 125,000 and so the Football Association did not consider making it an all-ticket match. After all, both teams only had an average attendance of around 20,000 for league games. However, it was rare for a club from London to make the final of the FA Cup and supporters of other clubs in the city saw it as a North v South game. It is estimated that 300,000 people attempted to get into the ground. Over a thousand people were injured getting in and out of the stadium.
Jimmy Ruffell was later interviewed about the final: "Most of the people at Wembley seemed to be Londoners. Well, the ones I saw seemed to be. As we tried to make our way out onto the field everyone was slapping us on the back and grabbing our hands to shake them. By the time I got to the centre of the pitch my poor shoulder was aching... It was a hard game for West Ham to play as the field had been churned up so bad by horses and the crowd that had been on the pitch well before the game. West Ham made a lot of the wings and you just couldn't run them for the crowd that were right up close to the line. Bolton had to play on the same field of course, but they didn't play so wide as West Ham." When the game eventually got started, Joe Smith and David Jack scored in Bolton's 2-0 victory over West Ham United.
In their next game West Ham United beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 to ensure promotion to the First Division. Top scorers were Vic Watson (22) and Billy Moore (15). However, the defence did very well only letting in 38 goals that season.
West Ham United finished in 13th place in their first season in the First Division. Kay played in 40 of the 42 games that season. The following season he only missed one league game. That year he became the first person to play more than 200 games for West Ham. When he left the club at the end of the 1925-26 season he had played in 237 league games for the club. Kay joined Stockport County but now aged 36 he only managed two games for the club.
The following year be became coach at Luton Town in the Third Division. In 1929 he became manager of the club. However, after two fairly unsuccessful season he became manager of Southampton in May 1931. As the Second Division club was in financial difficulties he spent a great deal of time developing his young players. This included Ted Drake who scored 48 goals in 74 appearances. In March 1934, Kay sold Drake to Arsenal for a fee of £6,500.
Considering the financial problems of Southampton, Kay did well to keep the club in the Second Division. In 1936 Kay became manager of the First Division side Liverpool. Kay did not have a very good start and in the 1936-37 season the club finished in 18th place. Kay made Matt Busby club captain. Later, Busby claimed that Kay showed him how to become a good manager. Liverpool finished in mid-table in the 1937-38 and 1938-39 seasons.
According to Tony Matthews, the author of Who's Who of Liverpool (2006), Kay was: "A man of fine mettle and a great talker, he never donned a track suit, always preferring to wear a collar and tie and a suit (or blazer and trousers) no matter what the circumstances. His bark was far worse than his bite and he certainly got the players wound up before a game."
The Football League was abandoned during the Second World War. Kay had developed an excellent team by the time football resumed after the war. Matt Busby had been forced into retirement but Kay had acquired players of the quality of Bob Paisley, Billy Liddell, Jack Balmer and Albert Stubbins.
Liverpool won the First Division championship in the 1946-47 season. Bob Paisley claimed that Kay "took Liverpool through the War to come out a bit like West Ham did after the First War ...He was one of the people who laid the ground for the way Liverpool teams would play in the future ...keeping the ball on the ground and passing it well ...but being strong on the ball as well." The club owed a great deal to Jack Balmer and Albert Stubbins who ended up joint top-scorers with 24 goals each. Liverpool also reached the semi-final of the FA Cup, but was unfortunately beaten by Burnley 1-0.
The club could only finish in mid-table for the next three seasons but they did reach the final of the 1950 FA Cup against Arsenal. As Brian Belton pointed out: "Kay's health began to deteriorate due to the stress of the run-up to the 1950 FA Cup final, during which time he lost weight and began chain smoking. He collapsed and required emergency medical attention. Although confined to his sick bed two days before Liverpool met Arsenal in the Reds' first Wembley final in 1950, Kay was not going to be denied the honour of leading his players onto the Wembley turf for the presentation to the King." Liverpool lost the game 2-0.
Kay's health continued to deteriorate and he retired as manager in January 1951. Billy Liddell commented: "He had no other thought but for the good of Liverpool during his waking hours, and also during many of his nights. He told me often of the times he had lain in bed, unable to sleep, pondering over the manifold problems that beset every manager, but which can be a curse to the oversensitive or excessively conscientious ones ...if any man gave his life for a club; George Kay did so for Liverpool."
George Kay died in Liverpool on 18th April 1954.
(1) Tony Hogg, Who's Who of West Ham United(2004)
This fine centre-half was one of the first former West Ham players to make a mark in football management and could justifiably lay claim to being the pioneer behind the famous West Ham managerial "Academy".
(2) Tony Matthews, Who's Who of Liverpool (2006)
A man of fine mettle and a great talker, he never donned a track suit, always preferring to wear a collar and tie and a suit (or blazer and trousers) no matter what the circumstances. His bark was far worse than his bite and he certainly got the players wound up before a game.
(3) Rick Glanvill, Sir Matt Busby: A Tribute (1994)
The new manager at Anfield, George Kay, was a man Matt came to admire - one of the finest men he had met in the game. They were kindred spirits, sharing common views and goals.
(4) Brian Belton, The Lads of 1923 (2006)
George was one of the first Hammers to make a mark in English management when he kept Southampton established in the Second Division for five seasons between 1931 and 1936. His time on the south coast wasn't entirely successful, with only 76 wins in 219 games in charge of the Saints. But he signed Vic Watson from West Ham, which was a big surprise at the time. Kay did well enough with the Saints to be offered the manager's job at Anfield in 1936.
The Liverpool side Kay inherited were thought of as a certainty for relegation and it was considered something of a miracle when he steered the side (featuring future Manchester United manager Matt Busby) to the relative safety of 19th place. Busby was the only real quality player at the club. In the year leading up to the Second World War, Kay signed the little-known Scottish winger Billy Liddell from Lochgelly Violet, snapping up the 17 year-old on a £3 a week contract. He also introduced reserve defender Jim Harley, and signed Willie Fagan from Preston. Liverpool reached 11th place, however war was declared shortly after the start of the new 1939-40 season; it was to be seven long years before Kay and Liverpool returned to League football.
George managed the wartime Reds in the regional competitions that sustained football during the years of conflict, recruiting the likes of Horace Cumner, Stan Cullis and Preston defender Bill Shankly to fill in for the likes of Berry Niewenhuys and newcomer Bob Paisley. One of the few positives of that era was Liddell; he was too young to be taken into the forces when the War started and he marked his wartime debut with a goal in the 1940 New Year's massacre over Crewe; his skills lit up a depressing time for Liverpudlians.
Kay guided the Liverpool Reds to victory in the initial post-war First Division championship in 1946-47, finishing just one point ahead of their most deadly of rivals Manchester United. He had planned the assault on the championship with brilliance; like all great managers he achieved success by drawing positives from a negative situation. Before the season started he took his team on a trip to the USA and Canada, where against mediocre opposition, but with tremendous support, he gave the Liverpool team time to gel and, very significantly, live, become re-acquainted with one another, play and regain fitness in an environment without the curse of food rationing; the Anfield lads had never eaten better. His team, fit, healthy and buoyed by ten wins in ten games managed to stand the strain of a season that ploughed on to July, the hard winter having delayed fixtures for weeks on end. Kay's men achieved a unique "quadruple" that term, winning the Liverpool Senior Cup (defeating Everton in the final) and two other local cups, the Lancashire County Combination Cup, and the Lancashire Senior Cup; all were significant trophies at that time.
The Championship was a marvellous feat and the following season Liverpool came so near to yet more glory; after a goalless tussle with Burnley, Kay's lads were narrowly beaten in the semi-final replay of the FA Cup at Maine Road by a single goal. However, George was to get his second FA Cup final just a few years later, after beating Everton in the last four of the competition. Kay's health began to deteriorate due to the stress of the run-up to the 1950 FA Cup final, during which time he lost weight and began chain smoking. He collapsed and required emergency medical attention. Although confined to his sick bed two days before Liverpool met Arsenal in the Reds' first Wembley final in 1950, Kay was not going to be denied the honour of leading his players onto the Wembley turf for the presentation to the King. The final, for which the Anfield board dropped Paisley, was a close game, but it was sadly another 2-0 defeat for George Kay, bringing back memories of
his first Wembley final in 1923...
George retired from football in February 1951 on medical advice and Liverpool appointed Don Welsh as his successor. Kay died in April 1954. He was recognised as a deep, thoughtful man, very serious about his football. He analysed every decision no matter how small and was not afraid to revisit these same judgments after reflection. George was always pristine in his dress and devoted his work. He ate, drank, slept and lived for football but never allowed his heart to rule his head. He had a shrewd tactical knowledge and good motivational skills. To quote former Reds' striker Cyril Done, who worked closely with Kay, George was "the Shankly of his day". He was called one of the all-time great managers by Bob Paisley. Sir Matt Busby once said that Kay was his mentor, and that without his teaching, it is doubtful that he could have masterminded Manchester United's first European Cup win. George Kay turned a struggling Liverpool club into one of the best sides in the country.