Alan Kelly – Man in the middle on way to the top

Articles, Sunday Tribune - 1. 3. 2012
At just 34 Alan Kelly is one of the young referees Uefa believes can go all the way, but he knows that it's a game of snakes and ladders and he can't afford to slip up.

At just 34, Alan Kelly is one of the young referees UEFA believes can go all the way, but he knows that it’s a game of snakes and ladders and he can’t afford to slip up.

The winter winds have started to howl and it is usually around this time when reviews of the sporting year are compiled. While the much-publicised achievements and failings of certain individuals and teams will be discussed, Alan Kelly would have every reason to feel slightly aggrieved if his name does not get a mention.

He has enjoyed a terrific year, although he is so used to being out of the spotlight of the national media that he doesn’t expect many people to take notice of the strides that he has taken. Besides he is too busy to take the time to reflect on such things. From his full-time job as a manager in a health spa to his blossoming career as a referee, he rarely even has time to spend with his young family.

If he is not looking after the 24 employees under his charge in the Maryborough health & leisure spa in Cork, then he is normally travelling to officiate at a game. Whether it is Berlin or Ballybofey, he is in high demand and his globetrotting exploits are starting to lead to a higher platform.

Having built up his reputation in the League of Ireland, Kelly is now a rising star on Fifa’s radar. He is currently in Category Two of Fifa’s official list for referees, which means that he is just outside the Top 26, who are regularly chosen to handle Champions League group games as well as European Championship and World Cup fixtures.

“The way it works is that Fifa identify the potential in certain referees and monitor it over an extended period of time,” he told the Sunday Tribune. “I am in Category Two, which would be like being in the Championship and wanting to be promoted to the Premier League. But you have to be careful as they are just as quick to demote some referees as they are to promote some – it is like snakes and ladders.

“Right now I’m taking every game as it comes. Next July is when I might get the chance to be upgraded, which would allow me to referee in the Champions League and be eligible for the next European Championships. So I’ve put myself in the shop window and I just have to keep doing well.”

A month ago he was in Madrid looking after a friendly between Spain and Argentina. The atmosphere in the Vicente Calderon was palpable, to say the least, while on the pitch it was a fiery encounter. Kelly had to show that he could stay in control. By dishing out seven yellow cards and awarding two penalties (one per team), he did just that as he showed that he could handle star players like Leo Messi and David Villa.

The following week he was in the Tallaght Stadium refereeing the FAI Ford Cup final. Again he was forced to make a tough call when Sligo Rovers keeper Ciaran Kelly flattened Sporting Fingal’s Eamon Zayed inside the box. Due to his position on the pitch he was able to rightly award a penalty, which Colm James smashed into the top corner. Sure he got some stick from the Sligo fans, but it was the correct call.

Kelly will be the first to admit that he doesn’t always get it right though. No referee does. Irish fans can attest to that after Martin Hansson failed to spot Thierry Henry’s blatant handball in the Stade de France. So the debate over whether video technology should be introduced to football inevitably crops up.

“It is a debate that gets more relevant year on year. There are always incidents that require a closer look,” said the 34-year-old official.

“Uefa have been testing out the experiment of using two more referees in Europa League games and that is another way of looking at it.

“But I think referees have to be open-minded on goal-line technology, as long as it helps the game as the technology isn’t fail proof as has been proved in other sports.

“The laws have made the game a lot faster, so referees are forced to make decisions a lot quicker. Any help that they can get has to be a good thing as it is not an easy job most of the time.”

Whether he knew it or not, Kelly was always destined to become a referee as his father, Pat, was one of the most popular referees in League of Ireland football before he retired. Alan equalled his father’s record of refereeing in two FAI Cup finals last month, but he should go on to handle many more end-of-season showpiece events as he has youth on his side.

Recently named as the PFAI Referee of the Year, he acknowledges that sacrifices have to be made in order to achieve the high targets that he has set for himself. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to spend little time with his wife and young daughter.

By next year Kelly hopes to have made the breakthrough into Category One, and if he does he will certainly have ensured that there is a place for Irish refereeing in the national spotlight as it will be hard to ignore his climb up Fifa’s ranks.

For now though, he deserves to enjoy whatever time off he can get after what has been a whirlwind year.