Exclusive: Darren Kelly details his Hartlepool United exit and shares thoughts on Raj Singh and the club's takeover situation
Just under a month previous, Kelly’s Hartlepool United exit had been confirmed with ‘personal circumstances’ cited as the reason behind the Northern Irishman’s somewhat hasty departure from Victoria Park.
Kelly, the club’s sporting director, had only been in place little over five months after swapping South Wales and Newport County for the North East and Hartlepool in February.
But in a time in the club’s history where people seem to stick around less and less, Kelly’s exit felt impetuous. His subsequent appointment little over 60-miles away at York felt, to supporters at least, as though they had been served up more bluster following their relegation from the Football League.
“I can absolutely understand any curiosity,” Kelly tells The Mail. “But they’re reasons I still stand by, even taking this club out of the equation,” he adds on the personal circumstances highlighted before agreeing terms with the club he spent two years with as a player.
“The Hartlepool project is something that I really bought into after conversations with Lee and the chairman about the vision and everything they wanted to do.
“But the main aspect was my daughter started to have seizures. To this day, quite a few months on, we’re still trying to find the answers.
“As a parent, to see any of your children in a point of struggle that you can’t control because you don’t know what is going to happen is scary. You’re at your most vulnerable. That’s why the quick decision came.
“At that point I had to make a family decision because what I’ve done for the last few years is I’ve absolutely worked my backside off in a role of sporting director, and one I’m very proud of. But when I saw my daughter going into the seizures like she did it just scared the absolute life out of me. I wouldn’t want anyone to see that.
“Even in the process of when it was announced I got a couple of offers, one in League One and one in League Two. But when that happened, my outlook totally changed. I felt, and I still do, it was the right decision.”
As a sporting director, Kelly’s phone would never leave his side in anticipation of it ringing and having to deal with players and agents and boardroom members in the hope of securing deals.
Now, in an office tucked away in the bowels of York’s LNER Community HUB, his phone doesn’t leave his side for an entirely different reason.
“We’re still trying to find the answers,” he says. “If I’m at Newport or I’m at Hartlepool and I get a call from the school saying there’s an ambulance being called, you’re going to be driving like an absolute lunatic. Whereas I’m here now.
“Even if I didn't work, that was an option. The point was that family is the most important thing. I’ve thought about all of this, it’s not that I’ve just decided it.”
So why not stay out of football altogether?
“I think it's one of them where I need to keep active,” he says. “When you’re not in football it’s difficult to get back in.
“And I go back to having a family to support. The owners of the football club know the circumstances and everything about it and are willing to work around my needs. There’s clarity around that.
“There was an opportunity to come in here and it’s a case of it coincidentally working. But I had other opportunities that would have been progressive opportunities that would have been great. I’ve always looked to progress and it was there for me on a plate, but it all changed.
“I don’t work here for five days. I work from home some days. I do almost have the best of both worlds. If I’m still a sporting director, yeah it can work, but it’s not the main priority.
“I’m not a sporting director now. You’re not going to see me up and down the country. I’m 15 minutes from home so if anything happens I’m home. It works for me. There’s not going to be a case where I’m in London or Birmingham on a Tuesday night.
“I’m able to stay in the game and be able to support my family, but I’m also right on hand should anything change or I get a call I don’t want to get.”
Kelly’s exit, though, comes at a time of unrest at Hartlepool.
A promising start to the season has evaporated as focus has now shifted towards off-field matters and the direction of the club with chairman Raj Singh seeking his exit.
But while Kelly acknowledges the setback of relegation from the Football League last season, he also signalled his sympathy for Hartlepool’s owner.
“I remember the conversation when the chairman sat me and John down to tell us. I’ll be honest it was tough to listen to,” he says of Singh’s decision to put the club up for sale.
“You could see he was devastated with the abuse he got [against Crawley] and he openly said he was going to put the club up for sale.
“It would be easy for him to walk away and be done. Other people have seen it happen in business in general, but he wouldn't walk away and leave the club like that.
“Relegation was deflating but, again, from my own experience, I credit the staff. They were hurt but everyone was on the same page and they’re doing everything they can to get back into the Football League.
“It was sad to hear the abuse he was getting. For me, having seen what he’s done and the money he’s willing to put in and invest, I just think it’s wrong. He’s got the best interests of the club at heart.”
Singh’s quest to find a prospective buyer for the club has recently seen him hold talks with the Supporters Trust with suggestions he will only fund the club in the short-term.
But Kelly supports Singh’s claims in that there had been no ‘genuine’ interest to buy the club over the summer during his time.
“Ultimately, there has been no genuine interest. I can speak first hand because things came through me,” he explained.
“There was nothing, and because of the way he felt, if he had got an offer that was right for the club he would have taken it because that really hurt him.
“The thing about it is, players have still come in, he’s backed it. He hasn’t said I’m not giving you anymore money, it’s actually been quite the opposite. I can’t stress it enough, I've seen it first hand.
“I can only speak from my experience, but from a football point of view he backed it fully. He wants to work. He’s been successful. I think that video [after the Crawley game] was his emotion because he wants the club to do so well and it was hurting him the grief he was getting for it.”
But will that emotion stand in the way of Singh doing, what he feels, is right by the club?
“I genuinely don’t know,” Kelly tells The Mail when asked about an asking price being a potential stumbling block.
“The only things I know are about the training ground, which they don’t own, the stadium, which they don’t own and that he doesn’t want the club just going to anyone.
“I think the club in the past, before Raj, had people who had the wrong idea and who didn’t treat the club particularly well.
“Don’t get me wrong, if supporters keep pushing it he might say ‘okay then.’ But he genuinely wants to put the club in better hands, to someone that can take the club forward instead of someone who could take it to a dark place.”
Kelly’s exit may still ruffle one or two feathers among the supporters – whilst the club’s longer term future remains unclear as talks between Singh and the Supporters Trust are expected to continue once the Trust are able to bring forward potential solutions.
But in the here and now, Kelly is preparing to welcome his former employers to the LNER Community Stadium for what is a significant fixture in the National League between York and Hartlepool.
"I’m looking forward to the game,” he says. “It’s sold-out, which I didn’t expect anything less from Hartlepool supporters.
“I had a great relationship with the people there,” he added.
“I adored the supporters, I’ve always thought up north the passion of the supporters shines through. I’d been to a number of Hartlepool games, even when I was at Newport, and the atmosphere was electric and the passion of the supporters has always been amazing.
"But there was a project and a vision of what we wanted to do. Everyone was aligned with what we wanted to do.
"I can’t stress enough that I loved every minute of my time at Hartlepool. There was frustration, but that was more when speaking to players. You could be speaking to players for weeks and thinking you’d got deals over the line and they don’t materialise. It’s deflating, but that’s the game.”
For Kelly, though, that is no longer his game. Where football steps out of the bounds of the hours 9-5, Kelly is no longer around the clock or around the country. And for all there is disappointment his time with Hartlepool was short-lived, it was a period which helped provide clarity – the kind of clarity he is pleased to be able to share.
"I was very lucky to build relationships with supporters and to work with John and the staff who are unbelievable people,” he says of his time with Hartlepool.
"Hopefully the supporters will understand my decisions and the fact it’s genuine and not an excuse to get to York City. It’s not.
"If York City hadn’t come into the equation I probably wouldn’t be working and I know it would have been difficult to get back in.”