Home Football Exclusive: Interview With MLS Referee Alan Kelly
GELSENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 23: Tomas Berger (C) of Plzen receives the yellow card from referee Alan Kelly (R) during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 second leg match between FC Schalke 04 and FC Viktoria Plzen at Veltins Arena on February 23, 2012 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Exclusive: Interview With MLS Referee Alan Kelly

Alan Kelly has gone from being the League of Ireland’s pre-eminent referee, to being voted the top referee in the MLS in 2015. Here, in an exclusive interview with Pundit Arena, he speaks to Brian Strahan about his playing days with Cork City, his refereeing background and his solid rise that saw one of world football’s fastest growing leagues, seek out his presence.

Brian Strahan: So refereeing, it’s in the blood for you?

Alan Kelly: You could definitely say that. At this point it’s almost like the family business. My grandfather, father and brother are all referees.

BS: What was your own interest in sport growing up?

AK: My parents introduced me to sport at a very young age. I started playing football with Western Rovers (no longer in existence) before playing all my schoolboy football with Avondale, before playing Munster Senior League with Ringmahon, Tramore Athletic and Cork City before finally taking up refereeing.

I played hurling with Blackrock and Gaelic Football with St. Michaels and participated in other sports like golf and wwimming. I never played rugby but I’ve been a big fan of Munster for years. Funnily enough, I’ve been watching American football since about 1985.

BS: On Cork City, how would you describe your time there?

AK: I played with the old reserve team in the MSL {Munster Senior League} during the 93/94 season.

The first team had won the LOI {League of Ireland} during the previous season. We played out in Bishopstown. We had some players that went on and played with the first team, Billy Woods, Stuart Ashton and Eoin Daly. First team players coming back from injury would also play in the team. It was a strange experience that season and we ended up being relegated on the last day.

I had been a LOI fan for a while at that point with my Dad being a referee, it was good to be around a player environment at that level. In a way it was part of my referee education for what was to come.

BS: Do you retain that – the ability to see a player’s perspective in-game?

AK: First and foremost, I look at the game from a refereeing and Laws of the Game perspective. I’d like to think that I understand the game and how it’s played. Communication with the players and coaches is a vital tool for a referee to use once it’s used correctly.

BS: When your training, is there an emphasis on communication and the psychology even of communication?

AK: We discuss communication and the importance of effective communication. We don’t train in terms of ‘what’s best to say’ in terms of game situations. Each referee is different in how he or she will communicate with players and coaches. There has to be that element of individuality from referee to referee. Some are more comfortable than others.

BS: So was the Munster Senior League your first port of call?

AK: In terms of refereeing?

BS: Yes.

AK: I started refereeing in the Cork Schoolboys League (Tramore v Mayfield u-11, a 7-6 cracker). I moved from there to the Cork AUL and onto the MSL. While refereeing in the MSL, I became part of the original School of Excellence for young referees which was a program piloted by the FAI at the time. From there, I graduated to the LOI and subsequently onto the FIFA list of referees.

BS: It was the perfect ascension. Did you encounter many, or any, drawbacks?

AK: That’s generally the pathway of refereeing in Ireland.

Grassroots football is and was an excellent environment to learn and develop your craft. At the beginning I missed playing the game. That was a difficult choice I had to make at nineteen, play or referee. Some bumps along the way included being physically assaulted during a game. Not a pleasant experience and something that has no part in the game.

There was many a time I came in from a game and questioned whether I wanted to continue. You have to learn to take the good with the bad. I would encourage any young referee starting out in their career to take their time and experience all that grassroots and local football has to offer them in terms of learning and developing their refereeing.

BS: So the same principle as footballers needing similar experience. I suppose a referee is never going to come straight out of an academy, but I get what you mean. What caused your assault?

AK: It isn’t something I want to dwell on. It was in an AUL game, the player received a red card and he grabbed me by the throat. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and no referee in any sport should be subjected to any sort of physical assault.

BS: A referee can only do so much to protect himself, is it more a need of redefining players attitudes, not referees? The obvious example to draw comparison is rugby.

AK: Maybe so. I don’t necessarily have the answer to that. I am a big fan of rugby and particularly how it is refereed. That being said, I have seen a lack of respect for referees creep into rugby recently, Wayne Barnes being pushed during a Champions Cup game being a stand out incident. We have a duty to protect the image of the game and shouldn’t forget that.

BS: Do you find a difference in the degree of respect given since you moved to the MLS {Major League Soccer}?

AK: I’ve refereed at different levels here in the US, High School, College and MLS and I generally find the players respectful for the most part. Players will argue some decisions but make their point in a relatively respectful way. I’ve also encountered some players that show close to zero respect and that unfortunately happens.

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 14:  Joan Capdevila,Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta of Spain appeal to the referee Alan Kelly after Argentina are awarded a penalty in the second half during the friendly International football match Spain against Argentina at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, on November 14, 2009 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN – NOVEMBER 14: Joan Capdevila,Iker Casillas and Andres Iniesta of Spain appeal to the referee Alan Kelly after Argentina are awarded a penalty in the second half during the friendly International football match Spain against Argentina at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, on November 14, 2009 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

BS: I presumed you went straight into the MLS, did you referee at High School and College level in order to get a similar feel for grassroots football in the US?

AK: No, refereeing MLS was first. I just decided to referee some high school and college just to get to know the systems and a feel for the game from a cultural perspective. My eight year old daughter has taken up playing when we moved over so it’s a good way to get to know people locally.

BS: What’s the biggest cultural difference you have experienced?

AK: Culturally, football wise, it took a bit of getting used to. I was used to LOI where the games were very direct in the main. That’s not a criticism by the way. There are some really good footballers playing LOI and the league doesn’t get the credit that the players deserve.

European wise, the game was a slower build up with players having fantastic skill and technical ability. Again, a different style of football that as a referee, you have to adapt to. Here in MLS, the game is very high tempo with an high emphasis placed on tactics, dead ball plays.

There is an aggression there that I am familiar with and irrespective of the score in the game, players play at the same intensity to the final whistle. Getting to know players and coaches etc, it was literally like starting all over again. It’s been great to experience another style of football which allows me to develop my skills as a referee further, which hopefully I can put to good use in the future.

BS: And does the future lie in the U.S.?

AK: Right now, I’m taking it one season at a time.

I know it sounds a bit clichéd but I’ve learned to never look too far ahead. I’m enjoying refereeing in a professional league and learning in a professional environment. As long as I am performing well and as long as I am enjoying what I am doing, and more importantly as long as my family are happy, I’m happy to continue to do what I’m doing. I’m very lucky in that what started out as a hobby, then turned into a passion, is now my job and I appreciate that every day I go to work.

BS: Where are you based?

AK: Based not far from Boston, but travel all over the country and also Canada such is the requirement of an MLS referee.

BS: And is the goal to climb to the highest point as a ref in MLS as you did here and in Europe? Is that what drives you?

AK: Again, I’m going to roll out a cliché and say I’m taking it one game at a time. I’ve always set myself goals during my refereeing career. What drives me is to be the best that I can be and if that leads to more games then so be it. Refereeing a game is not about one individual, there is a team of us there. Leading that team to deliver an efficient, competent performance is what drives me.

There are some really good officials here in MLS and some very promising young referees and assistants. Hopefully being in a position to impart some knowledge and experience will add to their development. That’s another thing that drives me. I’ve been refereeing for twenty-two years and I am never above learning something new from every game.

The game has evolved and we as referees have to learn to adapt our game to the changes in football. That’s why I say that every game presents its own unique challenges that as a referee, I can learn from. Learning and developing, they still drive me.

BS: And that’s the hunger, right? The want to learn?

AK: Absolutely and unequivocally yes.

Refereeing is a skill. Like a footballer, a referee develops his or her skill level to become a better player, so to does a referee have to want to learn so he or she can develop into a better referee. In my opinion, if you don’t want to learn and develop, then you’re doing yourself, your colleagues and the game a disservice. As well as looking forward to the beginning of the MLS season, I’m also looking forward to the LOI season and will keeping an eye on how my colleagues at home are doing.

Here’s hoping that it’s a great season for officials, players, clubs and fans.

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