I walked into a meeting in Newbridge, the commencement of a course for new referees, and when it was realised it was me I was asked if I was in the wrong place, and informed that the disciplinary meetings were held in Parnell Park.
The words of JP Kelly, former Kildare Town AFC, Castle Villa player who went on to ‘run the line’ at European and World Cup games for a decade, visiting practically every country in Europe, all the top stadia and keeping tabs on some of the top players that ever laced a boot in the ‘beautiful game.’
From Lourdesville in Kildare town, JP Kelly played gaelic football with Round Towers, before realising his first love was soccer, and joining the local club he enjoyed plenty of success at Youths level initially alongside the likes of Budgey Nevin, Mick Collins, Dermot and Sean Daly, Tom Wall and many more, before moving on to the 1st team, reaching a Sheeran Cup final, losing out to Athy Town.
Moving to Portarlington for work with Avon, and having “fallen out of love with soccer” JP nevertheless began playing again with Avon Éire, a team made up from employees of Avon that took part in many tournaments, involving other branches of the company that saw him travel to German and Spain, it was the first of many journeys to Europe, initially to play, but later on to officiate at.
Like many at that time and between picking up injuries and a mortgage to pay JP drifted away from the game again until one day while having a cuppa in the canteen in Avon, Harry Murphy “a local referee who was doing well,” enquired if he, JP, would be interested in turning his hand to refereeing.
I mulled over it, says JP, adding that “I didn't even realise that referees met and discussed games, mistakes etc; I though referees just arrived for a game, gave a crap performance, took their fee and that was it.”
In fairness, says JP, “me and referees rarely saw eye-to-eye” adding “I was the greatest moaner and whinger, just ask Brendan Shortt or PJ Coyne and a few other top referees from that time would readily testify to.”
Sure you can only imagine how the likes of Johnny Flood, Val Harris, Peter Murrayhill, JP Wallace and Brendan Shortt felt when I opened the door and walked into a referees’ beginners course.
Having signed up, JP then went on and did a four week crash course on the rules and regulations of the game, held incidentally, in the snug in The Winning Post (pub) in Newbridge on four consecutive Wednesday nights, conducted by PJ Wallace and Tommy Whiteley.
So how did the newest recruit to the whistlers’ brigade pan out?
To be honest, says JP, I took to it big time, I absolutely loved it; all I wanted to do was one game after another, adding “according to the assessors I did well from the word go.”
After some time JP linked up with the aforementioned Harry Murphy as his assistant, one of his flag men. “We got the Oscar Traynor final in Waterford and John Scanlon, the scout for the League of Ireland, reported that the three of us that day, referee Murphy, myself and Gerry Higgins (Monasterevin) all did well and were more or less told to move on up to the next level.
I then attended a seminar conducted by Bill Attley, Eamonn Farrell, Pat Kelly and Paddy Daly, all legends of the game, with the intention (or hope) of being called onto the League of Ireland panel of referees.
“Of course there was just one Division in the League of Ireland at that time and with about 40 or so referees, games were limited and while I got no word back initially, after attending another two or more of these seminars and completing fitness tests, I was eventually informed I had made it on to the panel with my first game in two weeks, a B division game in Dublin.”
No mileage or anything like that at that time, JP laughs, you got your standard £6 and that was that but gradually I got more games, mostly as an assistant but then around 1993 FIFA changed the match officials set-up.
Up to then at Euro and World Cup tournaments assistants were all referees but due to a lot of controveries and poor calls it was decided to get Assistant Specialists and each Association was asked to supply a certain number of people to fill these roles.
Having been called up to Belfield to do an FIFA fitness test, soon after, JP then received word that he had been appointed an official FIFA Assistant, a one year appointment that is renewed every 12 months.
JP's first ‘away’ game soon arrived; an U18 Euroean game in Helsenburgh, Sweden between the home side and Switzerland, a nice three day trip for openers.
Soon after that JP linked up with Brendan Shortt, the Newbridge man was a FIFA referee and they covered an amount of games together, JP, as he says himself, being Brendan's wing-man.
Over a time span of a decade JP travelled to practically every country throughout Europe and some, understandably, spring to mind more than others.
On particular game was a World Cup Qualifier in Sofia, as he explains.
“It was a World Cup Qualifier with 70,000 fans, Stoichkov was playing, that was the Bulgarian team that got to the World Cup semi final, USA 1994
“In the European Championship they were at home to Moldova, I never forget it, minus 14 windchill factor; freezing; I was on the line, teams were out on the pitch, but there was no sign of Stoichkov; one of the officials were sent it to see what was going on and reported back that there were a couple of lads with him praying (or something); two lads standing each side of him with a blanket so when he stood up they put the blanket around him and led him out; he was a God in Bulgaria.
“I disallowed a goal for Bulgaria for off-side after two minutes; the crowd came down from the back of the terraces and were throwing the shells off nuts at me. Next thing Bulgaria scored, and everyone was happy again but then in the second half I gave a hairline call to Moldova to make it 1-1 and it all started again.
Bulgaria hit back though and won 4-1 with two incredible goals from Stoichkov, the place went mad, the fireworks, the smoke, the noise, absolutely incredible.”
The former Kildare Town man — now a keen golfer and Handicap Secretary Athy GC — explained that back in those times it was the home country, or its Association, who looked after the match officials and by all accounts they were well looked after in Sofia.
“We went back to nightclub after the game; queues out the door but we were ushered in, brought to a VIP section, something like that place the Dublin footballers go — Crackerjacks or whatever they call it — talk about being looked after.
“After a while everything went quiet, completely silent, lights were switched off and then brought on again as the Bulgaria team were marched in; the noise, the music, the roaring and shouting just unreal and to make it even better the team arrived over to where we were sitting and I find myself along side no less a player than Stoichkov.
“Lovely lad, we got talking he was asking me where I was from and all that, of course no mobile phones so I couldn't even take a photo but I got a beer mat and asked him to sign it and he wrote on it ‘Best of wishes Margaret'’ (my wife); it was brilliant.”
Another big game that is recalled is one involving Croatia v Latvia in Crotia, another World Cup Qualifier where the Kildare official, at the toss, asked Davor Šuker if he could get his jersey after the game (something you could do at that time but not these days) anyway he replied “I do my best.”
After the game JP says “we were in the dressingroom, I'm in the shower, knock on the door and in comes Šuker standing with his jersey, I'm there in the nip and he says ‘you ask me for jersey I did not forget you’.”
Another trip fondly remembered, but not for its football mind you, was one in Holland, Tilburg to be precise, a friendly game between Holland and Belgium.
On arrival we were met by the home officials who informed us the game was off, a frozen pitch, but as there were no flights back to Dublin we would have to stay over-night and fly home the following day. However, as JP explains, we had few complaints, a night being wined and dined in The Hilton made up for the disappointment of no game.
However soon after JP and his crew returned, Holland played China and with the likes of Overmars, Bercamp and that great Dutch team, that was certainly a night to remember.
“Brendan Shortt was the referee with myself and Willie Long his Assistants, a bit of the Long and Shortt of it; beautiful place though.”
A trip to Germany was also recalled at a time during the famous Beer Festival.”
We have probably all heard of the Munich Beer Festival but most of us never had the pleasure of experiencing it. However, JP insists it is something not to be missed” adding “as far as that goes anytime you can go to Germany is a real bonus.
“After that game we were brought to the Festival, absolutely incredibly, the crowds were enormous and the discipline of the people incredible, yet come 10.30 everything finishes, everyone goes home, not an ounce of trouble, incredible.”
While JP Kelly refereed the odd game here and there, mostly he was the Assistant, something he really enjoyed.
“When they made the move and introduced specialist Assistant Referees as they were called, I was more than happy, that was my career to all intents and purposes; got to see practically the whole of Europe; got to most of the top games back home, less pressure than actually refereeing, really good.”
JP says back then a League of Ireland clash between the big clubs on a Friday night in Dalymount of wherever was a night to savour. “Great crowds, real football, not like nowadays; tackles flying in left, right and centre and in fairness it was much easier back then to referee a game, unlike nowadays.
“Back then a referee had four disciplines when dealing with players: (1) you had a quiet word; (2) you dragged a fella out to le thim know you were angry with him; (3) a yellow card and (4) a red; four steps and you didn't skip any of them but if there was a red card then it was a red card but apart from that it was the four disciplines.
“You were allowed back then to use your man management skills but then the mandatory red and yellow cards were introduced and if you didn't flash them, well, you were taken down and reminded by the match assessor.”
JP maintains that nowadays a player could be off with one tackle but back in the day when the likes of Paul McGrath and Roy Keane were playing, them lads wouldn't last five minutes such is the way the game is refereed these days, quickly adding “probably rightly so, too many good players were destoryed by hatchet men.”
The highlight on the home front for the former Castle Villa man was probably the two FAI Cups he was involved in. In 1994 Derry v Sligo while disappointed not to have got the 2004 decider as age-wise it could have been his last game but 12 months later, 2005 JP was in his usual position running the line in the final between Drogheda and Cork, his final soccer game at League of Ireland level.
“That was a very emotional night” he recalls, “I remember after the game going over and waving up to my wife, mother, and other family members who were in the stand, but it was a great way to bring down the curtain on a career I enjoyed from the first day I took it up.”
Nowadays JP is a Referee's Observer, going to games, assessing, de-briefing those in charge after the game, writing up a report and sending it to headquarters.
There are three particular happenings that remain firmly in JP's mind from all the games he was involved in throughout his career.
One was a game between Italy and Ireland. That brilliant Italian player, Marcello Lippi was managing his country while Brian Kerr was manager of the boys in green.
At one stage Lippi came up to Kelly and said “excuse me sir, I would like to make a substitution.”
That approach, said JP, showed just how class that man was, sheer class; while at the same time, during the same game Brian Kerr roared down at the same official “JP, JP, will you tell that referee he is giving us fucking nothin.”
In a pre-season Friendly one season, Manchester United were playing Shelbourne, Roy Keane was the United skipper and before the game started JP approached Keane and told him “my da is a lifelong United fan and a great supporter of him (Keane); he (da) is far from well at the moment, I was wondering is there any chance you might give me the captain's arm-
band for him after the match; to which Keane replied “come to me after the game.”
However with five minutes left in the game, Keane was substituted, and handed over the armband and when JP went for it after the game, the “less than helpful kit man told him it was probably down in the bottom of the kit bin.”
I left it, went back to the dressing room only a few minutes later for Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson to come in. Roy said to me “we are staying in Finnstown House tonight, call in in the morning, tell security you are looking for me and I will have it” for you, while Alex Ferguson said “sorry to hear about your dad” and duly presented me with a Man U pennant, a Man U badge and a Man United tie for my da.
“My dad passed away soon after that and was waked wearing that United tie, I will never forget that.”
Taking a break at the minute from his role as Referees' Observer, he will return when covid has departed, JP Kelly can certainly look back with a huge amount of pride and satisfaction; an incredible journey, thoroughly enjoyed and still more to come.
One can only wonder how that career would have panned out all those years ago when JP turned up for his first introduction meeting to become a referee when asked was “ he not in the wrong room, are you sure it's not the disciplinary meeting you should be at”?
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