At just 22 years old, Lloyd Kelly was the youngest captain in the Championship last season.
In taking the armband from Bournemouth legend Steve Cook, Kelly had big shoes to fill.
Yet when The Athletic spoke with the former Bristol City defender, it quickly became apparent why head coach Scott Parker was prepared to shake up his squad’s hierarchy at the start of 2021-22 and appoint Kelly as the team’s leader.
While, from the outside, it appeared a drastic change, for Kelly it was more of a natural move into a role he always envisioned himself in.
“It was just something that happened naturally,” Kelly tells The Athletic. “There wasn’t any initial conversation about the captaincy. It was just a smooth transition into pre-season friendlies where I was given the armband. That carried on to the start of the season and it has stayed the same.
“Even before I was captain, it (leadership) was something I focused on and I believed I had the qualities of a leader. Although there were various captains here when I first signed, it’s something I’ve been working on and always saw myself as.”
Given his age, Kelly would have been forgiven for having initial doubts about his ability to be the figurehead of a squad filled with seasoned professionals — particularly with just two substantial seasons of professional football under his belt at the time. Yet his poise, both on and off the pitch, made him the ideal captain.
As far as Kelly was concerned, his age was never an issue. And with Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard, both just 23, skippering West Ham and Arsenal respectively, it is clear Kelly is part of a growing number of young leaders in the Premier League.
“I think, nowadays, when you look at the professional game, age is just a number,” Kelly says. “If you look around other squads, you see young leaders in different teams, so I think it just comes down to the person. You could say I was young but at the same time, there was no fear or doubt in my mind when the decision was made.”
— AFC Bournemouth 🍒 (@afcbournemouth) May 4, 2022
But Kelly’s ascent to Bournemouth captain was not solely through his unwavering faith in his own abilities. With Adam Smith and Junior Stanislas around — the only remaining members of Bournemouth’s 2014-15 promotion-winning team — Kelly has not been short of seasoned team-mates to learn from. The prospect of barking orders at team-mates much more experienced than him was slightly awkward to begin with for the 23-year-old but the respect he commanded made those difficult conversations easier to have.
“Last season, we had Gary Cahill, my centre-back partner for the majority of the season,” Kelly says. “I think if you look at what he’d accomplished compared to me at that moment, there was a massive difference. But at the same time, it was just a thing of respect within the squad.
“If something needed to be said, everyone accepted that because we knew it was coming from a place where everyone had the same goal in mind, which we eventually achieved.”
Bournemouth played the majority of last season in a ball-dominant, high-pressing 4-3-3 formation — averaging the third-highest possession (57 per cent) in the Championship. Often the initiator of attacks or the player to take the sting out of the game, Kelly took the most touches (84.2) and played the most passes (72.3) per 90 minutes of any Bournemouth player.
In the Premier League, however, Parker is expected to move to a more conservative 5-2-3 system, which will likely see Kelly trade in his more progressive tendencies for dogged resilience out of possession. While acknowledging the sharp tactical contrasts that come with Premier League promotion, Kelly believes that a change to a five-man defence will only bolster Bournemouth’s survival hopes.
“Of course it’s going to be different,” he says. “Your positioning changes when playing centre-back in a two instead of a three. Sometimes in a three, you’re a bit more advanced and the passing options are a little bit different — especially when you’re playing the wing-backs as well.
“In a back five, out of possession, you’ve got a little bit more security, especially playing against teams that dominate the ball, probe and keep threading balls through and over the top. So if there’s a ball that the centre-halves can step in on and intercept, you always know someone’s covering in behind you. And then in possession, switches of play work better, especially when you come up against the back four because you’ve got that extra width.
“We’ve had to adjust and that’s what the gaffer this pre-season has been drilling into us. We want to keep the ball and play our way. But at the same time, we have to understand it’s going to be different this year and not get disheartened by making comparisons to what it was last year.”
A lot can change in the space of a year, particularly in football. Few players will be as aware of that as Kelly.
Before Parker was appointed as Bournemouth head coach last year, Kelly often found himself at left-back — making 19 league appearances there in the 2020-21 campaign under both Jason Tindall and Jonathan Woodgate.
But standing at 6ft 4in (193cm), a career in the heart of the defence seemed like an inevitability for Kelly, even if he was technically sound enough to occupy an attacking full-back role. As soon as Parker walked through the door, Kelly was quickly earmarked as a central defender and has since become a mainstay in Bournemouth’s back line.
Kelly’s desire was to be a first-choice centre-back for Bournemouth and was relieved Parker shared the same belief.
“I felt like that transition was always going to happen,” he says.” Although you could say I played some great games when I was left-back! In the back of my mind, I wanted to nail down that centre-back role, which I felt like I did last season. The transition was smooth and I feel comfortable there. I think all the pieces of the puzzle just fit together at that moment.”
As one of a few players in the Bournemouth squad to have been signed under Eddie Howe and then come to the fore under Parker, Kelly has long been tipped for big things by two of Bournemouth’s most pivotal managers in recent history.
That can be flattering for a young player, but he is just getting started.
“It just shows the work I put in,” Kelly beams. “But at the same time, I’ve always said to myself, ‘Just don’t get complacent in how you play and keep improving’. I’m always working hard to develop any weaknesses in my game. For me, it’s just about being able to soak up as much information as I can, no matter who the manager is.”
(Top photo: Robin Jones – AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images)