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SSFC Spotlight: Charlie Kelman making best of limbo at Queens Park Rangers

The striker is scoring for the reserves.

Cambridge United v Queens Park Rangers - Pre-season Friendly Photo by Ian Randall/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The career of a young professional can be difficult, as competition for playing time is fierce. There is no straight line to success, and the process often features several stops and starts until the right opportunity is found. Charlie Kelman is in the midst of this difficult grind, having returned to Queens Park Rangers following the termination of his loan at Gillingham. Due to contract restrictions, the 20-year-old is forced to compete with the reserves until January.

Lee-Kelman was born in Basildon, England and spent several years in Texas, from ages four through ten and again at 14 years old. He was a member of the FC Dallas set-up, using the time to “hone his athletic ability” but “wasn’t good enough for the academy.” Upon returning to England, several clubs, including Fulham and Norwich, attempted to add him to the youth ranks. After a brief stint at Hornchurch F.C., the striker became a sensation for Southend United, scoring 61 goals in a single season for the U-16 squad and 22 with the U-18s. His production and amateur status drew reported transfer interest from West Ham, Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Aston Villa.

Kelman stayed with the Shrimpers and made his first-team debut in a 3-0 EFL Trophy win over the Southampton Reserves, with then-manager Chris Powell referring to him as “excellent.” A few months later, he attracted worldwide media attention for a wonder-goal against League One opponent Plymouth Argyle. He beat the goalkeeper with an outrageous effort from his own half in the 3-2 loss, the first English-based player in his age group to register a goal.

“It was quite a negative atmosphere but [my coach] gave me the call to go in,” the then-teenager shared with American Soccer Now after winning League One Goal of the Month. “The keeper was always off his line. I was standing there with Simon Cox and I told him the next time I get the ball, I am going to have a shot. The ball just fell to me and as soon as I hit it, I knew it was in. It was kind of just an instinct. I didn’t really think about it, I just hit it. Next thing, I look up and the ball is in the back of the net.”

After the club signed him to a “dream” two-and-a-half year deal, Kelman made 11 total appearances. The next season, he played in 19 league and cup matches, scoring a club-leading seven times despite sitting out two months due to an ankle injury. His best performance came against Stevenage in the EFL Cup, contributing both goals to claim a 2-1 victory. After “turning down six-figure bids from Tottenham and Sunderland,” Southend struggled and was relegated down to League Two, making the young striker an enticing target for many clubs.

During the extended transfer window, Kelman joined Queens Park Rangers for an undisclosed fee on a three-year contract, spurning an offer from Swansea City. The striker was attracted by the club’s track record of development. His debut against Bristol drew praise from manager Mark Warburton who cited the player’s “technical ability.” He made 12 total appearances last season but failed to register a goal. Despite the arrival of an additional striker in January, the club opted to not pursue a loan and kept him in the reserve set-up.

After adding another attacker last summer, QPR began looking for an ideal place for Kelman to spend the season. On Deadline Day, the club sent him on a full-year loan to Gillingham in League One, amid interest from MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon. The hope was for him to gain first-team experience and return stronger next season. The Gillies pursued the signing for months, believing the player to be a great fit.

Kelman’s temporary stay started with an assist in a 1-1 draw against Burton Albion. Unfortunately, the young striker would fail to find the back of the net in three successive appearances. Over the course of a month, his status went from declining minutes to unused bench option, until not being included in the match day roster. “Frustration” over a lack of playing time led to a premature return to QPR.

The failed loan and assignment to the reserves appear to not have deterred his enthusiasm. Kelman scored three goals in a recent Professional Development League Two fixture against Ipswich Town U-23s, followed by the match-winner against Blackburn Rovers U-23s. Despite his production, he cannot play for the first team until the New Year when the contract with Gillingham is officially expired.

“I moved out on loan and it was unsuccessful, but it is what it is,” Kelman told the club’s official website. “Sometimes moves like this work out and sometimes they don’t. My job is not to dwell on it – I have to get my head down, work as hard as I can see what happens in January. These games are a big chance for me now… I have good people around me, there are great people here at QPR who look after me, give me good advice, and my job now is to put my head down and to start banging in the goals.”

At the international level, Kelman is eligible to play for England and the United States, the latter through is father’s citizenship. Based on a recommendation from Southend United, he joined the set-up in 2018, appearing for the U-18 team at 16 years old. With the U-20 squad, the striker scored seven times in 19 caps and was “gutted” to miss out on the 2019 U-20 World Cup, a sentiment surely increased by the cancelation of this year’s edition.

Kelman describes himself as “a very instinctive player” that “loves doing things no one else would think of,” earning the nickname “young Wazza” due to a “small but stocky stature” resembling Wayne Rooney. He is considered “mature for his age” and “an old school number nine type of player.” Despite the failure at Gillingham, manager Steve Evans praised him as a “really good kid” and “will never have a bad word to say about him.”

Kelman is an intuitive striker, not overly athletic or pacey, but possesses an innate understanding of the position. He makes the correct runs and presses the opponent, while also displaying some tricky dribbling to open up space. His 5’9” height belies the ability to win headers in the box, adding another dimension to his two-footed scoring ability.

The pandemic disrupted the sporting world, altering the paths of many young talents. For Kelman, the canceled U-20 World Cup would have provided the chance for higher-level playing time and the opportunity to further integrate into the U.S. national team program. After a failed loan, his climb remains steep, although recent performances at the reserve level indicate an ability to score in bunches still bubbling under the surface. With time, he could work his way back into the QPR rotation or embark on another temporary move that better suits his needs, adjusting the trajectory of his career.