In the loving Memory & Spirit of the Game
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-= The Tributes of KEN ASTON MBE #28 =-
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The London Referee

January 2002

The official publication of LONSAR
The London Society of Association Referees
Over Here...
 – By Chris Hall

The Yanks often like to refer to the British as the world’s greatest planners. How else to explain the efficiency of the Empire, the resilience of an island people and the close ties between the Old and the New World?

Correctly or not, Americans often like to adopt the notion that the Brits create the module while the Yanks perfect it. Indeed, Americans are industrious and creative, and many of the inventions of the modern era come from Europeans who moved to the New World (e.g. Alexander Graham Bell). However, Americans (author included) are keenly aware that their history is short and incomplete in comparison to the seemingly endless history of Europe. This might well explain Yankee enthusiasm to improve and tinker; needless to say, in football the rest of the world has not always welcomed this.

The history of football in America reads about as long as Newcastle’s honors list – short and to the point (sorry Geordies). A few glorious moments here and there (ironically most of those moments came at the expense of the Brits, i.e. 1950 and 1993) but nothing to really distinguish their football from that of a middle of the road South American country. It was a point most keenly felt when the States won the privilege of hosting the 1994 World Cup but, unlike the Atlanta Olympics, the Yanks pulled it off seamlessly. Attendance records were set and the disastrous NASL experiment of the seventies was replaced with the optimism of a new league, spawned from the successful tournament.

Yet the referees in America have always been a step ahead of the players and today there are more licensed referees in the States than in any other country, 109,000 to be precise. However, to analyze the success of this program you need to take a hard look at the influence of one Englishman, Kenneth George Aston, MBE.

By the time Ken Aston began to get seriously involved with US Soccer he was no longer Chairman of the FIFA Referees’ Committee, a victim of politics, as it were, being too close to Sir Stanley Rous for the incoming administration. But he was already a legend in and out of the game, and with the fledgling football programs in the US his expertise was both welcomed and needed.

At first it looked as if Aston might find himself ensnared in a whole new set of politics. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) was flexing its muscles and pulling on the carpet what it termed as “outlaw” or unaffiliated leagues. But in 1979 the American Youth Soccer Organization, one of the largest youth football organizations in the country, was expanding its programs as more American kids found out about soccer. At the time the AYSO was unaffiliated, not such an uncommon event back then; you will remember that at one point the English Schools Football Association was unaffiliated to the FA. At any rate, Ken had conducted some clinics for the USSF in California and was asked to visit the AYSO to speak to their referees. All seemed well until the USSF objected to Ken speaking to an “outlaw” organization, even one which was destined to have a tremendous impact on all youth sports in America. Pressure was applied to the Referee Administrator of Northern California that his FIFA badge could be put in jeopardy if he didn’t tow the line. The original meeting was cancelled (apparently too late for the poor bugger from California who lost his badge anyway), but at a meeting that same weekend Ken and Hilda Aston met officials from the AYSO and promised to return the following year on their own initiative to conduct a clinic.

The rest, as our American Brethren like to say, is history. Ken Aston did return the following year and began a lifelong association with the AYSO which resulted in a transformation in the way referees in the United States were trained. Eventually the AYSO and the USSF put aside their differences and football in the States is now the second most popular participatory sport after basketball. Countless parents, kids and athletes have been certified as referees and it is no surprise that many of the training elements seemed to bear the hallmarks of Lancaster Gate (sic).

The Americans fell in love with Ken Aston. I regret that I am unable to say I knew the man personally. Perhaps it was appropriate that as one of several Americans who attended his memorial service to pay last respects to this giant of the game, I was the one who had never shaken his hand. What I do know of Ken Aston is that he was a headmaster, scrupulously fair, with high expectations and an intricate knowledge of the subtleties of football. He was also officious and would not shirk from offering an opinion. He stood by his convictions and will always be remembered as such, and while Ken may have his detractors, you won’t find any of them in the United States.

As the Americans were in awe of the man who refereed the Battle of Santiago in 1962, Aston himself seemed awed by America itself. Although he had traveled throughout the football world, the grandeur and wide-open beauty of California was fascinating to a person used to the urban ways of Illford. Up to the end of his life, Ken and Hilda Aston would return to America each summer, undertaking long speaking tours (not only in California), conducting clinics and shaping the ways American referees looked at football.

Ken’s contributions to football on an international scale are well documented but a story told by Bill Mason, the AYSO’s FIFA Law Interpreter and a Member of the USSF Referee Committee, tells quite a bit about the respect Ken Aston was accorded:

“You must all remember the story Ken told us about Sir Stanley Rous. The one when the television commentator informed Sir Stanley that Ken had said a ball placed for a corner kick need not be wholly within the arc? Sir Stanley replied: “Is that so? Then I’ll have to see that the Law is changed!” And, at the next meeting of the International Board, he did!! A few years back Ken asked if I would see that the Law got changed back, so that the corner area markings are consistent with the other field markings. As you know, that change was made in 1997. So…when you see the drawing that accompanies Law 17, look at it as our tribute to Ken Aston. Perhaps Ken, at this very moment, is reminding Sir Stanley as to who had the final word.”

Ken Aston never was asked to instruct at a FIFA organized event after 1980. The AYSO feel that this was because he had “crossed the line” to work with them, but then Ken Aston was always his own man and disapproved of anyone who tried to turn officials into faceless clones. He was a man passionately disinterested in the politics of the game, but very passionate about the spirit of the game. Would anyone but Ken Aston have been able to get Rattin off the pitch in the semi-final in 1966? Ken was interested in results, and if that meant he avoided some of the niceties to get to the finish line, so be it. Bringing a conviction that comes from experience, Aston was able to lecture without appearing dogmatic, teach by using an understanding of the game bred from years of experience.

Today, all American referees owe something to Ken Aston. His experience is vested in the USSF and AYSO instructors who preach consistency in application of the Laws and professionalism, whatever the fixture. He passed along his expertise and helped America to develop a program where America’s FIFA Referees are represented at the top FIFA tournaments. Finally, Aston’s innovation and willingness to “think outside the box” gave us the tools which most people associate with our profession: the yellow and red cards.

Although Aston was responsible for many innovations in the game, it can be argued with some conviction that his legacy to football will be the introduction of the card system for discipline, first used in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

The story of Aston driving on Kensington High Street and, when stopped at the traffic lights, receiving an epiphany which would change the game forever, is by now well known. The Americans, of course, are a people who love a good story. And the idea that traffic lights would spawn a method where everyone in the stadium can be aware of the nature of the infraction has resonated throughout their referee corps. The AYSO is currently spearheading an effort to place a plaque at the intersection where Aston first got the idea, and the initial plan has been favorably received at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Having a plaque at a set of traffic lights would probably please the big man; he was once quoted as comparing the job of referee to that of a conductor of an orchestra, and as the traffic lights direct the flow of traffic, Aston felt the referee had to direct the flow of the game.

Ken Aston will be keenly missed on both sides of the Atlantic and the world of soccer will be a sadder place without him. I can think of no better tribute than the words of Mason who summed up Aston at a Memorial Service in California last November:

“Many people have made significant contributions to the game of soccer, but I honestly and sincerely believe that no one else, neither players, nor coaches, nor administrators, has had the lasting impact on World Football as Ken Aston. He was first and foremost a magnificent instructor without peer, the most wonderful of storytellers, an innovator, and a man of uncompromising principles. There has never been anyone who understood the spirit of the laws nor had the love of the game that Ken had – there never will be. No one else could, or can, give the clear, incisive interpretations that reflect that spirit and leave us without questions.”

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