UNTOLD STORIES: THE LIFE AND INNOVATIONS OF KEN ASTON

UNTOLD STORIES: THE LIFE AND INNOVATIONS OF KEN ASTON

It’s fair to say that, in football, most observers would hold the view that the very best thing a referee can be is invisible. Fitting then that there is quite possibly no one who has had such an impact on modern football while maintaining such a level of anonymity as Kenneth Aston. 

Born in the UK county of Essex in 1915, Ken Aston never set out for a life in football. His first and indeed lifelong passion would be for teaching and it would be in this profession that he would begin a most unlikely of journeys.

It was in 1935 that the then twenty year old Aston, a newly qualified teacher, was tasked with taking charge of an inter school game. He would in turn find that he had both an aptitude and an enjoyment of the role.

Perhaps the role of a football referee was a natural fit for a man who would spend his next forty years working in a primary school. A year after his first game, he qualified as a senior referee and began his assent up the footballing pyramid. 

After serving in the Second World War as a lieutenant-colonel, Aston returned to civilian life and in doing so brought with him his very first innovation to British football. Growing frustrated with the lack of pockets in the formal tweed jackets that had dominated refereeing attire for the preceding decades, Aston repurposed a military issue black jacket to wear over his white shirt. His innovation soon spread and it thus became the norm for referees to wear the black uniform with white trim. A norm that persisted globally for the next fifty years.

 

 

As he worked his way through the refereeing ranks, Aston spent much time as an assistant referee running the line. It was while working as a linesman on a foggy day in London the year after he first donned his black jacket that Aston would come up with another innovation, one that is still very much in use today. Prior to 1947, it had been standard practice for the home and away teams to provide the linesman with a flag to use, generally in the teams’ home colours. It was after this particularly foggy and frustrating day officiating a game between a side in brown and another in cream that Aston stopped off on his way home at a military surplus store. It was here that he purchased one red and one yellow rain jacket to be cut up and made into a set of brightly coloured flags. Again his simple innovation quickly spread throughout the country and eventually on to the wider world. 

 

 

Aston continued to work his way to the top of the footballing pyramid and, by the early 1960’s, had firmly established himself as one of the leading officials in the country, so much so that when it came time for Britain to select referees for the upcoming 1962 World Cup in Chile, Aston was immediately called upon. A tremendous privilege no doubt, but one that ultimately would end up threatening to overshadow his whole career. It would be here that the Englishman would be right at the centre of possibly the most infamous game in World  Cup history.

 

 

The battle of Santiago 

Aston was selected to officiate the very first game of the tournament, played between hosts Chile and Switzerland. The game ended 3-1 to Chile with Aston’s performance widely heralded. He was thus selected to referee the host’s next fixture against Italy. It was not a fixture that Aston would be looking forward to. 

The trouble started before the game had even kicked off. A pair of Italian journalists who had travelled with the side, Antonio Ghirelli and Corrado Pizzinelli, had described Chile’s capital Santiago as a a place where “the phones don’t work, taxis are as rare as faithful husbands, a cable costs an arm and a leg and a letter takes five days to turn up”. Seemingly feeling they had not gone far enough, they also added that the population was prone to “malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism and poverty”. Remarkably callous remarks under any circumstances, but factoring in that just two years prior the country had been hit by the hardest recorded earthquake in human history it becomes quite staggering. 

Somewhat unsurprisingly, it was decided that the pair would vacate the country before the tournament had even begun. It did not take long for Chilean newspaper journalists to retaliate by describing the Italian people as fascist, drug addict, oversexed mafiosos. The drug addict line in reference to the doping scandal that had recently tarnished Inter Milan’s reputation. 

“I wasn’t reffing a football match, I was acting an umpire in military manoeuvres”. - Ken Aston

 

 
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To set the scene, I’ll give you the description as given by BBC television newsreader David Coleman who introduced ‘highlights’ of the game by stating: “Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.” - A tremendous display of pompous British sensitivities, maybe, but it was nothing short of chaos. 

The first foul came approximately 10 seconds after kick off and things escalated from there. Two red cards, one broken nose and three armed military interventions later, the game was over. A 2-0 Chile win, if that mattered.

The following year would see the now 48 year old Aston refereeing the 1963 FA cup final, the highest honour a British referee could receive in the domestic game. The match, watched by 100,000 people at Wembley stadium, passed without incident and Aston promptly retired from the game. He would not be away for long. 

In 1966, he joined FIFA’s refereeing committee. It was in this role that he took charge of overseeing the refereeing at the 1966 World Cup on home soil, a tournament that would inadvertently bring about the creation of his most significant and lasting innovation. 

It was during an infamously ill tempered quarter final between England and Argentina that it would fall to Aston to attempt to calm an irate Antonio Rattin, the Argentine captain who was threatening to take his team off the field following his controversial sending off. He was ultimately successful in removing Rattin and the game would ultimately end in an English victory but the controversy did not stop at the final whistle. 

It was in subsequent newspaper reports that brothers Jack and Bobby Charlton learned that they had both been booked during the course of the game. Indeed, no one in the English camp new of, or had noticed, the decisions being made. Aston knew that a clearer system needed to be devised and it would be while out driving that the idea came to him. As he sat in his car watching the lights changing from green to yellow to red that he thought, “yellow, take it easy; red, stop, you’re off.”

Upon arriving home, he relayed this thought to his wife who promptly disappeared before returning with two pieces of cut up construction paper in red and yellow. The red and yellow card had been born. 

It was also in 1966 that Aston introduced the practice of having a back up referee on stand by, a position now widely referred to as the fourth official. His final innovation would come in 1974 with the introduction of a board that would be held up by the standby referee to clarify the number of the players entering and exiting the field. 

Aston’s retirement years were spent overseeing refereeing courses in the USA. It was for these efforts, along with his remarkably influential career, that Aston was awarded an MBE in 1997. He passed away four years later at the age of 86. 

Tactical innovations come and go and football’s protagonists change, but Ken Astons legacy endures. Every time a card is given, an assistant referee raises their flag or heads crane to see the numbers displayed on a substitutes board, his influence reverberates. An amazing achievement for a mon who, for the entirety of his career in football, remained working as a primary school headmaster in Essex. 

They may be the pantomime villains of football but in the world of refereeing Ken Astons is a figure who undoubtably deserves celebrating.

 

Written by Andy Gallagher

 

 

 

 

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