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-= The Tributes of KEN ASTON MBE
Ken Aston, soccer’s legendary inventor of the red and yellow cards.
Discussed abandoning his referee post during matches in order to man guns against attacking German aircraft during WWII.
Honor from the queen... Soccer’s disturbing directives... Biography
A Interview with Ken Aston, by a... Referee
Referee: How did you get involved in soccer officiating back in …
Ken Aston: Well, I started refereeing in 1936, almost immediately in adult soccer. You might say, why not youth soccer? Because there wasn’t very much youth soccer around. There’s a good reason for that. To play any kind of sport requires money, and in those days, especially in the East End of London, where I was, there wasn’t very much money around. The country was just coming out of an economic depression. So I refereed in adult soccer, soccer teams of factory workers and this sort of thing. You really had to learn your craft there the hard way. You had no lines (men), no assistant, nothing of that nature. You went out on pitch number 79, and there were 146 pitches there, very much on your own. You sank or swam on your own, and I will tell you that you learned how to referee matches pretty quickly.
Referee: Or you didn’t learn at all.
Ken Aston: Or you didn’t learn at all. Or you would find the task so difficult that you would simply give it up. If you weren’t any good you would not survive.
Referee: You obviously survived. How quickly did your career as a soccer official progress?
Ken Aston: Well, you must understand the war came along, and my refereeing after a brief 3 years, really, came to a standstill, but I will still lay claim to being, perhaps, the only referee who has ever worn a steel helmet and a gas mask on his chest in refereeing kit (uniform). You might wonder how on Earth this happened.
I was at the time a gunner on a gun site on a bomber station in 1940 when bomber stations were being heavily attacked by German aircraft, and a match had been arranged between the Royal Air Force personnel and the gunners who were operating the low-level-attack guns. And there was this match being played near my gun site. For that reason I was allowed to referee the game. In the middle of the game we hear a low droning sound. It was a day of low clouds. We look up at the aircraft and it is a JU-88, a German light bomber. And so I raced to my gun, whipped on my steel helmet and respirator which we had to wear - you never knew when there was going to be a gas attack - and manned the guns in refereeing kit. How about that?
Referee: Did you interrupt the time of the game to accomplish this?
Ken Aston: Well, the game had to be abandoned.
Referee: OK, just checking.
Ken Aston: The game had to be abandoned, yes.
Referee: After the war, I assume you got right back to officiating?
Ken Aston: I came back in 1946, took up the whistle again and made a meteoric rise up the refereeing ladder.
Referee: How did that occur?
Ken Aston: I was given three or four challenges in a row. Challenges which I could accept or reject with no hard feelings. I accepted them all and came through them very successfully. The final challenge was on a Friday, the Isthmian league. The referee-secretary of this very senior competition - when I say senior competition I mean crowds at the matches of this particular league would be regularly 10,000 to 15,000 people - well, the guy says, “An emergency appointment has cropped up tomorrow, the referee is ill. Would you be prepared to referee the Wycombe Waunders?” Of course, I would! He said, “Ah, you haven’t heard it all. This team is from Ilford,” - my home town. I said, really? He said, yes. I said, fine, I’ll do that. Which I did. A humdinger of a game, finished up five goals each. After that moment I didn’t really look back. I went up from there to the professional ranks.
Referee: What were the real career highlights on the field?
Ken Aston: Well, the real highlight wasn’t on the field at all. It was walking the famous 39 steps to the royal box at Wembley Stadium, shaking her majesty the queen’s hand, receiving from her my gold medal and walking away from my active career. That was the final game of my long, long career; a medal from the queen to retire absolutely on the crest of the wave.
Referee: Now, when did that occur?
Ken Aston: 1963. Final between Leicester City and Manchester United, and Manchester United won, 3-1.
Referee: That was obviously a very significant game in the English league.
Ken Aston: You must understand that to an English referee, if he were offered a choice between refereeing the English Cup Finals at Wembley or the World Cup Finals, he would choose to referee the English Cup Finals. It’s called the FA Challenge Cup. It is a cup which they’ve been playing for since August. All the little town and village clubs start playing in this vast knockout competition. In each of those weeks the numbers are halved and halved and halved and halved, until by November the professional clubs, who’ve been given byes in the early rounds, get involved. Then, sometimes, the magic. Sometimes a team from a village of 5,000 people, where the team consists of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, is drawn in the cup against Manchester United. And they’re going to play in front of a crowd at Manchester, 45,000 people. And these matches produce results which are termed “giant killers.” Sometimes it happens, a little team beats one of these great, famous teams. It can happen. It does happen. Giant killers.
Referee: You were instrumental in establishing soccer’s system of yellow and red cards.
Ken Aston: It followed a particularly difficult game in the 1966 World Cup Finals between England and Argentina refereed by a referee who spoke only German, and it was quite a rough game. The following morning the two famous Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, were in bed, breakfasting in bed looking at the Sunday newspapers reporting the game. Suddenly Jack says to Bobby, “It says I was cautioned yesterday. I didn’t know I was cautioned.” “Neither did I,” said Bobby. “It says that you were cautioned, too, Bobby.” “Me? Never!” said Bobby. So they rang the (tournament manager) and he said, “I didn’t know you were cautioned. I’ll ring FIFA.” I was in the office at the time. The record keeper, secretary, confirmed that both had been, in fact, cautioned.
I thought little more about it and, having finished my business in the office, I went and got my little MG sports car out to go home. Driving up the little side street to the main drag, the traffic light was green. So I accelerated to get the green light, and it suddenly went yellow and went red, and because of the fact that it was a little side road, I had to wait really a long time before it did go green. Got into the main drag, and immediately there were three sets of traffic lights about 50 yards apart, all green. Did the same thing, accelerated. Same thing, yellow, red. Yellow, take it easy. Red, finished. I thought, well, this is the way to overcome the language problem in international matches. And so I sat on this until 1970 and launched the red and yellow cards in the World Cup Finals in 1970 in Mexico.
Referee: Were they well received?
Ken Aston: They were well received, and within several weeks, certainly months, they had spread worldwide. Because they knew part of the law that you must use them. They saw them used in the World Cup. All the national associations adopted them, and now, of course, red and yellow cards are used in all kinds of aspects of life, not only sports. The police are beginning to use yellow cards as cautions for people … minor offenses. If I had taken (copyrighted) the idea I’d have been a millionaire by now.
Referee: Use of the cards has developed into what apparently is a bit of a problem. At times it’s more provocative than proper.
Ken Aston: If I came to you in the excitement of the game and suddenly thrust a card in your face, how would you receive that?
Referee: I probably would not be terribly happy.
Ken Aston: Yes, yes. How would you react if you committed a foul and you knew you’d committed a foul and the referee blows his whistle and you run away to take a position and the referee holds up a yellow card to your retreating back? When you turn around you happen to see the card before he puts it in his pocket, how would your react?
Referee: It would be less offensive, clearly; perhaps as effective.
Ken Aston: The yellow card, not the red card; the yellow card must only be a confirmation of what the referee has said, mimed or indicated.
Referee: Why has it grown in poor directions? Why is the use deteriorating?
Ken Aston: Because the referees have not been effectively and sensibly instructed in their proper use.
Referee: How has a soccer official’s personality evolved in the 60 years since you began refereeing?
Ken Aston: At the higher levels, especially in England, the referees have tended progressively to be stripped of their personality, to be stripped of their real personal authority, to be stripped of their native judgment and sense of discretion, because they are subjected to too many thoughtless directives, and they have, therefore, lost a lot of the discretion which I was able to use in my day.
Referee: From the passion in your voice it’s clear you believe that’s a detriment to the game.
Ken Aston: Oh, absolutely. Although at the lower levels that is not nearly so true. There is an element, of course, of what happens at the top that transfers its way down to the lower level. People at top levels set the examples.
Referee: Is the trend reversible?
Ken Aston: It’s only reversible if the authorities stop imposing their chair-born bureaucratic thinking on officials. Those people who have never been subjected to the cauldron of the soccer match themselves shouldn’t issue directives.
Referee: What else really stands out as you reflect on your life?
Ken Aston: I would suppose hanging some senior Japanese officers stands out most in my mind. At the end of the war I had command of 8,000 Japanese. Not prisoners. We were not allowed to call them prisoners. They were not captured in battle. They lay down their arms when their general surrendered. When a man surrenders in battle in Japan he is worse than something that crawls out from under a tree. They were called JSPs - Japanese surrendered personnel. Among those 8,000 there were 21 who were charged with war crimes against humanity. Of the 21, eight were sentenced to death by hanging and it was my duty to promulgate the sentences of death. I went into each death cell to inform them of the sentence of death by hanging, and then had to attend the hangings.
Referee: So you were the commanding officer.
Ken Aston: Oh, yes. Most of them accepted it with a deep bow. One said, having seen the armed soldiers behind me with the bayonets on their rifles, “Are you going to do it now?” I said, no, within 3 days. And one lieutenant general said, “As an officer and a gentleman for many generations in my family, I refuse to be hanged. I will consent to being shot. I will even consent to being shot in the back. But hanged I will not be.” And I said, “I have no authority to vary the sentence at all. You will be hanged!”
Referee: He was?
Ken Aston: Oh, yes.
Referee: How about something more positive.
Ken Aston: While I was in command of that unit, further up on the island, about half a mile, here is an old barracks, the Punjabi Barracks. Empty, dirty, full of snakes. One night I get a call from headquarters down in Singapore: “You will forthwith have Punjabi Barracks scrubbed out and cleaned, get rid of all the snakes, insects, etc., etc., etc. It has to be made fit for human habitation by 10:00 tomorrow morning when 300 RAPWI will arrive.” Returned allied prisoners of war and internees. The internees were Dutch colonists from Indonesia, women and children. With the capitulation of the Japanese, Japanese guards had been removed. They weren’t cared for any more. They were dirty, filthy, hungry, ragged, emaciated, diseased. Sure enough, at 10:00 the next morning a convoy of three trucks arrived and out came 300 women and children.
I’m talking about this a short time ago at a soccer camp in Long Beach (Calif.), some 70 of the staff there listening. One of the staff says, “Yes, I remember it well. I was one of the boys who got off of one of those trucks.” He said, “I don’t remember you as a person because that was a long time ago and there were so many people around anyway, but I remember getting out of the trucks at the Punjabi Barracks.” Bob Keus was his name. He remembered a British colonel who was there personally greeting every person who got off one of the trucks.
AGE, HOMETOWN, FAMILY: Born Sept. 1, 1915, in Colchester, England; lives in Essex, England. Married Hilda on March 21, 1940; one son, Peter, 51 as of 2001.
OCCUPATION: Retired after a 44-year career in education including 18 years as a classroom teacher and 26 years as a headmaster. Also served 14 years as a magistrate (1972-86). During World War II, served in the British Army and advanced in rank to lieutenant colonel between 1940 and 1946.
EDUCATION: B.S., Economics, St. Luke’s College, Exeter (1935). (St. Luke’s, with a renown program combining education and athleticism, has produced three international soccer referees.)
SPORTS PLAYED: Soccer, cricket, boxing, track (400 meter runner). Also coached youth soccer (ages through U-14). His teams never lost during his 6-year career, scoring 503 goals while allowing 15.
OFFICIATING: Soccer referee 1936-63 with premier assignments including the World Cup. Concluded his on-field career with the 1963 FA Cup Final in Wembley Stadium. Has continued to serve soccer in both active and advisory roles with FIFA, including a 4-year appointment as chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee (1966-70). Pioneered a variety of soccer officiating innovations including: use of red and yellow cards; design of black and white referee uniform; modified linesmen’s flag for better visibility; instituted a comprehensive training program to help standardize referee judgments prior to the 1970 World Cup; created the concept of a fourth referee, also for the 1970 World Cup. Continues as an internationally recognized soccer clinician, presenting seminars for both referees and coaches.
Worked as a boxing judge “for a short time.”
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