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Ken Aston

How the red and yellow cards started
How red and yellow cards started

By Dick Sawdon Smith

The speaker at this month's meeting of the Reading Referees' Association was to have been the former international referee Ken Aston. Sadly Ken died in October aged 86, but he will leave a legacy to football and refereeing that will live for many years to come.

I was working as a steward at Wembley in 1966 when England played Argentina in the World Cup. One of the abiding images of that game for me and I'm sure for the millions who saw it on film and television was the sight of Ken Aston, then acting as an official of FIFA, gently leading the Argentinian captain

Antonio Rattin off the field of play when he refused to leave after being sent off. Ken Aston was no stranger to controversy at the World Cup finals for he had refereed the so-called Battle of Santiago in 1962 between the host nation Chile and Italy. Three times armed soldiers came on to remove spectators from the field of play. 'I wasn't refereeing a football match he said at the time, 'I was acting as umpire in military manoeuvres'.

But it was the Rattin incident that led to his greatest claim to fame. It was a curious affair because the German referee afterwards said that he had sent Rattin off for 'violence of the tongue', which in those days would have been translated into 'foul or abusive language'. Quite what he thought Rattin said to him only he knows because he and Rattin didn't have a common language. This is why the whole episode escalated, but it was probably the manner of Rattins dissent that led him to take action.

It is difficult to know whether Rattin genuinely did not understand that he was being sent off, although the referee constantly pointing to the touchline must have given him a clue. On the other hand, was he deliberately trying to ignore the obvious and refused to leave the field through sheer bloody-mindedness?

Although Ken Aston finally persuaded the Argentinian captain that he was sent off and must leave the field, the incident stuck in his mind. He felt that there must be a better way to let players know they have been given their marching orders. On his way home he was stopped at a set of traffic lights which had gone through their usual sequence, green, amber, red and it struck him that the amber for caution and red for stop could be used in such situations. And so the red and yellow cards were born.

Their introduction was at first very erratic and spasmodic. FlFA used them at first for international matches as Ken had envisaged, but it was 1976 before they were introduced into the Football League as it was then. They were scrapped in 1981, only to be re-introduced in 1987. Again that was only for games in the Football League and its subsidiary competitions such as the League Cup, and also the FA Cup from the first round when the Football League clubs came in.

The cards were freely available, however, and many referees in local football started to use them, only to receive a rebuke from the FA.

It wasn't until 1992 that the cards were actually incorporated into the Laws of the Game and made mandatory at all levels. Ken Aston who was in private life a headmaster was also said to have used the cards as a disciplinary system at his school. The yellow card was a warning to wrongdoers and the red card meant the withdrawal of privileges such as playing football.

He had a great pioneering spirit and he also suggested changes to linesmen's flags, the referee's uniform and the introduction of the fourth official, but it will be for the red and yellow cards that Ken Aston will be best remembered.

Dick Sawdon Smith

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