James Crombie/INPHO
Man in black

'I’m racking up air miles!' - Ireland's Alan Kelly on life as an MLS referee

The Cork official has settled in well in the States and has recently been nominated for Referee of the Year.

Updated at 12.00

HIS SEASON MAY have been cut short by injury, but Alan Kelly could hardly have imagined his first year in the US going quite so well.

Widely-regarded as Ireland’s best referee, Kelly took the decision to emigrate to the States with his wife and kids back in January after securing a role with the Professional Referee Organisation.

Ten months on, the 39-year-old has already established himself as an MLS official and last week was even named as one of three finalists for Referee of the Year.

When I caught up with Cork native over the phone yesterday, he was just in from a trip to the physio.

“I picked up an injury six weeks ago in a game and it has finished the season for me,” explained Kelly. ”It’s a heel injury and an awful one at that. I picked it up in the warm-up of a game in Dallas and it blew up with about five minutes gone in the game.

“I carried on until half-time but I couldn’t carry on anymore. It’s the first time in my life that I had to take myself out of a game.

“It killed the momentum a little bit. The games were going great and then that happened and it knocked it on its head. It has finished my season which is disappointing but these things happen. It has given me an extended break, not that I wanted it but I’ve got it anyway.

“If there is any time to pick up an injury it’s at the end of the season as opposed to midway through where it completely kills the momentum and it can take some time to get back into it then even if you are fit. In a perverse way, it was probably a good time to get it.”

Kelly wasn’t long in his new job when the PRO were involved in a dispute with the league which led to a lockout of the Professional Soccer Referees Association (PSRA) members. As a result, a number of replacements were drafted in with little notice for the opening round of the new MLS season.

In Florida at a training camp at the time, Kelly was given 24 hours to fly to Seattle to take charge of the Sounders’ meeting with Sporting Kansas City in what he describes as “crazy circumstances”.

I didn’t even have a kit. I had no whistle, boots or anything like that. I didn’t know who the assistants were. It was madness!

“It was an incredibly difficult decision for me. I had moved across the Atlantic and taken the decision to move my family. My employer tells me that I have to go and referee a game and that was it. It was a very difficult thing to do. I had just got to know the lads and some them were very supportive and knew the situation I was in.

I can understand the emotion attached to it but when I went back into camp we spoke and we’ve got over that in the most positive of ways. There are some really good guys there who I get on well with. It’s the same in any walk of life that you’ll get to know better than others but it’s a very positive environment.

“I was happy when the lockout was over and the guys were back to refereeing. About six or seven weeks after that I got the opportunity to referee and things have just progressed from there. Has it happened quicker than I expected? Absolutely.

“I had just registered as a referee here in Massachusetts and I had done an U9s girls game, which was the only match I had refereed for a period of time. So it definitely happened a lot quicker than I had imagined.”

Having done their research before making the move, the Kellys chose an area south of Boston to begin the new chapter in their lives and, with the help of family and neighbours, they have settled right in.

The travelling involved around matchdays and training camp is something that Alan has had to get used to, however.

“I’m racking up air miles!” he jokes. “I’m used to driving from Cork to Dublin or Cork to Derry or Cork to Sligo or whatever the case may be for domestic games. So flying from Boston to Los Angeles on a six-hour flight for a domestic game is a strange one.

“The way it works is that we get our appointments a couple of weeks in advance and they are all performance-dependent. That’s a difficult thing to overcome. In the Airtricity League, you get your appointment on a Sunday for the game the following Friday. So your focus is just on one game.

“Here you could know where you’re going three weeks in advance. Mentally, trying to block that out and focus on one game at a time was a little bit tricky at the beginning but once you’re into that routine it’s just about focusing on your next game.

“You’re literally doing it on a week to week basis. If your game is on a Saturday you tend to travel on a Friday and get home on Sunday.”

After the chaos that was his MLS debut, Kelly has enjoyed learning about the football culture in America and says he has grown in confidence as the months have passed by. Refereeing the derby game between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers in front of 65,000 fans at CenturyLink Field was a special moment for him while he has also crossed paths with another Irishman plying his trade in the US — Robbie Keane.

I refereed a game in LA back in August for the meeting of Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes,” he recalls. “We got to speak pre-game there and during the game was just a professional environment so there wasn’t too much chatter. We weren’t speaking as gaeilge or that!”

Like Keane, Kelly is a finalist for an MLS end-of-season award after being named on the three-man shortlist for Referee of the Year. He has never been big on individual accolades but would nevertheless be honoured to win it on his first year.

“I didn’t know there was a Referee of the Year award in the MLS,” he says. “The first I knew of it was from a tweet and it was a complete shock.

“When it comes to individual awards, I’m not a big fan of them for referees. I’ve said this before. I was honoured to win the PFAI award before and said that I’m not a fan. The recognition is very much appreciated but it really isn’t something you set out with an aspiration to do.

“The guys I worked with this year have been absolutely brilliant to me and for me in the way that they have helped me. It sounds a little cliched and is like a player getting an award and saying it is all down to his team-mates but I can honestly say from a refereeing point of view that’s the way it is.

“I’m delighted to be nominated but it really isn’t something that I set out to win.

“Having been nominated it would be great to win but if I don’t then fair play to Mark (Geiger) or Jair (Marrufo). Those guys are fantastic referees. Mark was a World Cup referee this year and very experienced while Jair is also a fantastic referee domestically in the MLS and internationally.”

Awards and injuries aside, Kelly is pleased with how things have gone on and off the pitch. His contract is two years with the option of a third and, at the moment, he doesn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t see that out.

Coming over was very much a step into the unknown. I didn’t know how it was going to pan out.

“It has gone very well and people seem to be very happy with me. If they want me to stay longer, then as a family we’re open to it.

“There is a lot of things to take into account with my wife and kids. My kids love it here and have really embraced the culture but my wife has her own career at home to think of. It was tough for her at the beginning but the area that we’re in and the family and the neighbours have been very helpful and accommodating. They have made the transition much easier for us.

“As long as we’re happy and PRO are happy to have me and us here, then I’m happy to stay. But the attraction of home is always there and we are going home for a couple of weeks at Christmas.”

Originally published at 7.30am

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