Kelly heads for new challenge in MLS

Tue, Oct 22 2013

Credit: Steve Alfred

Alan Kelly has long been regarded as one of Ireland’s top referees but at the end of the 2013 season he will be saying goodbye to the League of Ireland to set-off on a new career with Major League Soccer in the United States. 


Kelly is a football man who has grown up with the League of Ireland pumping through his veins and when spoke to him last week he was both excited at what lies ahead and grateful for the time he has spent in a League that he clearly has great affection for. His father, Pat Kelly, was a referee before him and growing up in Cork during the 80’s he watched the now defunct Cork United at Turner’s Cross before standing on the grass banks of Flower Lodge as Cork City were born in the autumn of 1984.


His career as a referee started in local Cork football and took him all the way up the League of Ireland ladder and on to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, where he has officiated twice, in a Champions League game featuring Real Madrid and in a volatile international between Spain and Argentina. Carlsberg don’t do referees but if they did they could do worse than give Alan Kelly a call.


The move to the US, where Kelly will take on the role of Assistant Training and Develop Manager with the MLS, started at the Emirates Stadium in London where he met former Premier League referee Peter Walton while refereeing in Arsenal’s pre-season tournament the Emirates Cup. Walton is now the head of the Professional Referees Organisation in America and he was obviously impressed with Kelly’s ability in an environment packed with some of the world’s top players and managers.


“I’d worked with Peter on a couple of occasions”, says Kelly, “and we kept in touch semi-frequently. We had a conversation about twelve months ago, more of a testing the waters conversation really, but it resurrected itself in June of this year and it just grew from there.”


Kelly’s initial contract is for two years but there is an option of a twelve month roll-over and the opportunity means that he, his wife Laura, and their young family will be setting up a permanent home in America, a country that has already played a big part in their lives.


“I’ve been to the States with regularity for different reasons. I ran the New York marathon in 2008 and we got engaged in America, and then we honeymooned on the west coast. I’ve been an American Football fan for close on 25 years and both myself and Laura like the way of life there. We never envisaged ourselves living there but any time we’ve gone it’s always been a pleasant experience and it’ll be an adventure from the point of view of integrating into a new society.


The MLS is divided into two conferences, East and West, but the referees move freely from one to the other, offering the Kellys an open book on where they might choose to live.


“We have the option of living wherever we want”, he explained, “but we’re probably going to base ourselves somewhere that’s one flight from home. It’s looking like Boston at the moment and we’re looking at areas about fifteen or twenty minutes south of the city.”


The new MLS season follows the same summer season as in Ireland and won’t recommence until next March, but Kelly has already has his first taste of the football culture that awaits. 


“They brought me over back in July and I went to one of the MLS games there (New York Red Bulls v Montreal Impact). I was really surprised by the quality of the game. I know the league there might be seen as a bit of a retirement home for aging European footballers but I was hugely surprised at the American players and the way that they performed.”


For decades, since the demise of the old NASL that brought world stars such as Pele, Beckenbauer and Best to American shores, the country’s football reputation has hung on the supremacy of the Women’s international team and its enormous popularity as a youth sport. But Kelly reckons that the latest incarnation of the men’s professional game is on solid ground.


“They’re putting a lot of money into the grassroots structures and it’s beginning to bear fruit. I think the whole purpose of having the World Cup back in ’94 was to kick-start things again and I think they’ve very much done that. The league there seems to be thriving and I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of people in positions of responsibility within US soccer and they painted a really positive picture.”


And so, from what lies ahead to what went before, and it doesn’t take long in Kelly’s company to realise that he is not just a man who works in the League of Ireland, he also has his roots there and can talk about its influence on him with as much knowledge and passion as any other fan.


“I’ve been a League of Ireland supporter for a lot longer than I’ve been a League of Ireland referee”, he says. “I can remember going to games back in the early eighties with Cork United and subsequently when Cork City started. One of my favourite memories of Flower Lodge - in fact I have two favourite memories - one was the Ireland v Spain international that was played in ’85 when my Dad was a linesman on the day. And I remember the Cork City v Derry FAI Cup quarter-final, I think it might have been ‘86. The place was absolutely jam packed, fourteen or fifteen thousand, and easily, easily, ten thousand of those were Derry supporters. Ian Hennessey scored with the game almost up and Cork won 1-0.


So how, then, does the league here compare with the game he will be immersing himself in across the pond?


“If you’re comparing the League of Ireland with the way that they are doing things in the States, it’s a little bit like chalk and cheese, and I say that with the greatest of respect to the League here. I would make more of a comparison with the Europa League and the Champions League than with our own domestic league.”


Among Kelly’s European experiences he cites the three Champions League games that he has officiated at as particular highlights. Along with his Irish colleagues he took charge of CFR Cluj v Basel in 2010, Bayer Leverkusen v Genk in 2011 and Real Madrid v Dinamo Zagreb the same year which finished 6-2 to the Spaniards in front of 65,000 fans. They were, Kelly says, “All different experiences”.


“The first Champions League game in Cluj, that was a huge thing, and then to referee a Champions League game in Germany, that was a really good experience as well.  And Madrid in the group stages of the Champions League, it just doesn’t get any bigger than that. And I’m lucky enough to be out next Wednesday in a Champions League game again. 


Kelly will take charge of Bayern Munich’s group D game against Viktoria Plzen and he is grateful for one final shot at European football before setting off on his new adventure stateside. “It’s a very nice game, I’m looking forward to it, and it will be my last European game so I couldn’t ask to finish on a better stage”


“We’ve done lots of good, competitive games in Europe down through the years. Genoa v Valencia (in the Europa League) was a very hotly contested game a couple of years ago.” He also mentions some of his international experiences, including Spain v Argentina in “the unfriendliest of friendlies in Madrid back in 2009.” Spain won 2-1 in a game that Sid Lowe of The Guardian described Diego Maradona’s Argentinian side thusly; “Argentina committed three times as many fouls. If they did not commit more, it appeared to be because they could not get close enough to do so.” A tough day at a rather glamorous office for Kelly.


In many ways Kelly’s achievements on the European stage have opened doors for other Irish referees along the way, and the career path that is available to our referees is a subject that is close to his heart.


“We’re perceived as being form a small footballing country so we have to work doubly hard to get recognition from a European perspective” he says. “We have some very good referees, despite what some people might think, and we have referees that really are dedicated to their profession. They do a huge amount of stuff behind the scenes in terms of the requirements to make the grade.


Kelly himself came close to the one ambition that has so far eluded him, going to either a World Cup finals or a European Championships, and it is clearly something that frustrates him.


“When we get to international level we’re ranked in terms of categories. Irish referees start their international careers as category three referees and then move on to category two and category one. Then they have ‘elite development’ and ‘elite’. Now, to get to a major championship you have to be operating among the elite referees, of which there are only twenty-six.


“I was lucky enough to get to the ‘elite development’ stage but never broke into the ‘elite’ group. I can’t give you an answer as to why that was, simply because we’re assessed by observers from different countries that we don’t know. The marks and the gradings were all good and there was real hope to progress but it never materialised.”


I mention the notion of a glass ceiling that might prohibit referees from smaller footballing nations in their attempts to access the upper echelons of world football. Kelly points out that pathways do exist but that they can be difficult to access and that movement for referees from one league to another is not made easy by the powers that be.


“It’s not something that’s done frequently, I have to say, referees moving from one country to another. I made tentative enquiries about refereeing in England, going back a couple of years, but you would have to start at the bottom and work your way back up again. It would take a minimum of four years, and possibly five or six, to get back to the level I was at. That was something I just wasn’t prepared to do. We had done the groundwork, done the hard yards, and I just wasn’t prepared to start all over again.”


One positive aspect of the Irish refereeing environment is the existence of some exchange programmes that facilitate Irish officials in working abroad, something that Kelly would like to see more of.


“There is an exchange programme which started out a couple of years ago between Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Republic”, he says. “It was for younger, up and coming referees to give them experience of different leagues, in different environments, with players they didn’t know.

“It was used as a development tool and it served a purpose in terms of giving younger referees more experience. It’s broadened a little as they’ve now included Malta in that. We had Maltese officials over here last weekend at the Drogheda v UCD and Wexford v Mervue games. And we had a group of referees in Malta a couple of months back.


“If you look at the Irish clubs, in terms of the teams they’ve played in Europe, they’ve played against the Scandinavians quite often and I think that would be a really good thing to do, to exchange with those countries if it was possible. The standard of football is pretty much the same as our own. I’ve refereed in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland over the past couple of years and, really,  there isn’t a huge amount of difference between the domestic football there and our own domestic league.


“I think it would be a great idea to do that but it’s for football associations, between themselves, to organise. From an Irish point of view, having spoken to a lot of the guys who have been to different games either in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland or, more recently, Malta, they did find it a very, very worthwhile experience.


And so, talking about the benefit of experiencing different football cultures, does Kelly expect there to be much difference in the style and standards of refereeing in the US?


“In terms of the game that I saw live I thought the match officials had a really good game that night with some interesting situations but I haven’t seen enough to comment on individual performances. But I know, having spoken to Peter Walton at PRO, that he seems quite happy with how things are progressing. There is always room for improvement but that’s no different from any other league or country.


“It will definitely be a challenge. I feel like I’m starting all over again and that I have to prove myself to a new set of peers. That’s something that I’ve thought long and hard about and I’m comfortable with the decision that I’ve made. I have belief in my own ability and in being able to go and do that and, hopefully, do it well”.


However the chips fall in the months and years ahead, one thing is certain, Ireland’s loss will be America’s gain.