Memory Lane

Sunday 29 September 2013 10:00

From the past or present, each week we talk to a different Fulham personality. Today, it's former Whites goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a key part of the squad that pulled off the ‘Great Escape’.

It’s not often somebody can make such an impression in just 14 matches for a club. Kasey Keller, though, is not your typical player.

A trailblazer for football in the United States, his distinguished career saw him play in the top flights of England, Spain and Germany.

A member of four World Cup squads, he moved to Craven Cottage in the twilight of his career. In fact, that famous 1-0 win at Portsmouth on a sunny May day in 2008 was his final match in Europe.

"With what it meant to the Club, to the fans and the players, nobody wants to be relegated and be part of those situations," Keller told fulhamfc.com. "To be able to prove that point when everybody has written us off, was the best sense of accomplishment."

It was a fitting end to a career in Europe that he had always strived for.

The son of a baseball player, growing up he always had a ball in his hand, not so much his feet. Still, watching kids play in his hometown of Olympia, about 90 minutes south of Seattle, he fell in love with soccer.

After pestering his mother, he joined a team and never looked back, going on to represent state, regional and eventually youth national teams.

Keller was a pretty steady feature in the national set-up from the age of 15 onwards, although he was still playing other sports - something that changed when it became clear he would be offered a college scholarship to play soccer.

"It was at that time that I kind of realised there was no pro league in America, so if I wanted to be a pro I had to go to Europe and preferably England," he said. "I was heavily recruited by different universities, so I chose a university that had two ex-English pros as their coaches.

"I went to the University of Portland under Clive Charles, the former West Ham United and Cardiff City player, who came over and finished his career in the NASL.

"It was at that stage I made 1990 World Cup team and in 1989 I won the silver ball at the Youth World Cup in Saudi Arabia, so things were starting to happen a little bit.

"Then in '91 when I was finishing university a couple of phone calls were made. Bruce Rioch was manager of Millwall at the time and had finished his career in Seattle after playing for the Seattle Sounders. He knew that American talent was better than people gave credit and, with the recommendation of coaches, Millwall flew me over and I signed a few months later."

The move started a 16-year stay in Europe, with Keller playing 202 games for the South Londoners over the course of four seasons.

Looking back now, he sees it as the best possible start to his career as a young goalkeeper, preparing him well for the battles to come.

"If you can handle Millwall, you can pretty much handle anything," he said, with a chuckle. "It was my first club, so I didn't really know any different and it wasn't really until I left and a teammate asked me if I had ever been involved in any kind of pitch invasion.

"I just kind of looked at him - I mean I was used to three or four a season.  I don't think I was ever in another one after that, so it was just what I was used to. I didn't know that was not the way it was meant to be."

Impressed by his performances, Leicester City forked out £900,000 for his services in 1996.

It proved a shrewd acquisition, with Keller playing a key role in a Martin O'Neill side that not only flourished in the top flight but also won the League Cup.

"Not every player gets to play for Manchester United," he said. "When I went to Leicester people expected us to go down. To be able to not only achieve success in the cup but stay in the top half of the Premier League three years in a row was fantastic."

Keller swapped Filbert Street for Madrid three years later, playing for Rayo Vallecano, before returning to England to join his second London club, Tottenham Hotspur.

He played every minute of the 2002/03 and 2003/04 seasons, only for the acquisition of Paul Robinson to see him fall down the pecking order.

So, after a brief loan spell at Southampton, Keller didn’t have to think too much about joining Borussia Monchengladbach, where he teamed up with former Spurs colleague Christian Ziege.

It was a good time personally and professionally for Keller, who captained the Germans and lived in a 1,000-year-old castle - a place where family and friends crashed during the 2006 World Cup.

"It was just not quite a tournament that went our way," Keller, who played all three matches, said of the tournament. "It was my fourth World Cup squad and it was nice to finish up in a country where I was playing and had a good solid presence. It was a lot of fun."

Keller went on to play one more season in the Bundesliga, before undertaking one more challenge in European football.

"Being able to come back from Rayo and have a great run at Spurs, then be able to go to Germany and be a part of the World Cup lead-up was great," he said.

"Borussia is a huge club and, after that, to have the opportunity to come back and kind of finish my English career at Fulham felt so comfortable. London was really my second home."

By that time aged 37, Keller was brought in by Lawrie Sanchez to add strength and depth to Fulham's goalkeeping department with Antti Niemi injured.

The move to SW6 saw him swell an already impressive American contingent, joining Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride - the latter instrumental in his move.

"It was an interesting situation how I got brought in," Keller explained. "I was actually going to retire and I was in my house in Germany packing up.  I gave Brian McBride a call because he did his knee on the Sunday. I just wanted to wish him the best and we talked about a bunch of different things.

"Antti was injured at the time and I wasn’t sure what was going with Tony Warner. Basically Brian asked me if I would be interested in coming. I just started to laugh.

"He said, 'I’m just going to the Club tomorrow and I’m going to tell them that you’re available'. I was like, 'all right, whatever'.

"He ran into Dave Beasant, who gave me a call and then Lawrie Sanchez gave me a call. A couple of hours later I had an offer and the next day I was on the plane."

Keller swiftly penned a one-year deal and was under no illusion that his role was little more than cover, although he was thrown straight in at the deep end.

"I finished with the national team in the June and I came to Fulham two or three games into the season," he said. "Despite only having three training sessions, I played at Villa. Antti got fit and came back into the side, but then I got put back into the team when things weren't going well.

"However, after a career of being fortunate with injuries, I had the worst injury of my career right after I kind of won the starting spot at Fulham.

"I blew out my shoulder tendon and my bicep tendon, which was obviously an extreme disappointment. I was really trying to establish myself. Still, I told the club 'look, I will get fixed, come back and prove myself'."

And, boy, did he do just that.

By the time he returned, Sanchez had been replaced by Roy Hodgson with the Whites feeling rather blue.

As Fulham struggled, Keller forced his way back into the starting line-up in the 1-1 draw with Blackburn on 8th March.

It was a performance that saw him keep the goalkeeper's jersey for the remainder of the season, with his assured performances and confidence giving the side new-found belief.

"We had been written off for so long, but we got a couple of wins together here and there," Keller said. "We drew at Derby County and won at Reading early in that run, which gave ourselves a glimmer of hope. Okay, we lost at home to Liverpool but, you know what, big deal. You’re supposed to lose to Liverpool."

Just as it looked over, then came Manchester City.

Keller produced several fine saves as Fulham unbelievably recovered from going two goals down to win the match 3-2 through Diomansy Kamara's last-gasp effort.

"That was the one that really let people know - at least let us know - anything is possible," Keller said.

Buoyed by that win, Fulham beat Birmingham City 2-0 in the penultimate match of the season, propelling them out of the bottom three.

"When we won our final home game, a bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards," the goalkeeper said. "There was a kind of a quiet celebration because we still knew the task wasn’t completed, but we’d got ourselves into a position where it was in our own hands.

"I think that’s what we were proud of, but we still knew we needed to go to Portsmouth and get a result."

One week later, Danny Murphy's header secured Fulham's top-flight status.

Heading for relegation with rivals Reading and Birmingham winning, the 1-0 triumph at Fratton Park, a third successive victory on the road, completed the ‘Great Escape’.

"We got the victory, kept the clean sheet, got the goal," Keller said. "It was a very, very nice sense of accomplishment to be able to pull off something like that."

Keller still remembers that day as amongst the best of his long, illustrious career, with it the perfect end to his time in Europe.

"It felt right to go," he said. "Fulham had made me a very decent offer to stay, but it really was for more of a role as a back-up. I think they knew Mark Schwarzer was coming in and with his age that he would have a longer run with the team than I would be able to. After the career that I’d had, I didn't necessarily feel like I had to go down the back-up role.

"There was kind of an offer to go back to Tottenham and a few other things to go back onto the continent, but then the opportunity came about for myself to come back home."

That offer was from Seattle, back in the Pacific Northwest. 

The three-time US Soccer Athlete of the Year joined the Sounders for their inaugural campaign in Major League Soccer and stayed there for their first three seasons.

Keller lifted the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in each of those years, before deciding, aged 41, to hang up his gloves. He still works with the club now as a broadcast analyst and ambassador, along with coaching roles within the national set-up.

It’s a life you can tell Keller is thoroughly enjoying and, while there are days when he yearns to be back in London, he could not ask for a better way to leave his "second home".