Home > FIFA, Referee, World Cup > Ken Aston – inventor of the yellow and red cards

Ken Aston – inventor of the yellow and red cards

Battle of Santiago

Rummaging through my football referee paraphernalia lately, I came upon a prized pair of red and yellow cards in my possession, with the name “K. Aston” signed in person in big black, scrawling letters on each card. A present from an American referee friend, all the way from Chicago. [ Thank you again Timothy Orosz! ]

Ken Aston (1915 - 2001), inventor of yellow and red cards. Author has a signed pair.

Kenneth George Aston, known as “Ken,” born in Colchester, Essex, joined the Royal Artillery during World War II before transferring to the British Indian Army, where he reach the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Aston was involved after the war in a war tribunal (Changi War Crimes Tribunal) and the hanging of senior Japanese officers. 21 officers were charged with war crimes against humanity and 8 were eventually sentenced to death. It was Aston’s duty to inform them of their sentence and then he had to attend the hangings.

Aston later settled in the United States. He was knighted by the Queen for his football activities and work  in the States.

Aston was one of the match officials in the 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt. This match is regarded by many as the greatest European Cup Final ever played. Madrid won 7–3 in front of a crowd of 135,000  at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, with both Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás scoring a hat-trick for Real Madrid. Madrid were crowned kings of Europe for the fifth straight time, prompting the legendary Bill Shankley, after viewing the match, to say: ” Real Madrid are the greatest club side the world has ever seen”

Another notable achievement for Ken was as middle referee for the 1963 FA Cup Final between Manchester United – managed by Matt Busby – and Leicester City, attended by 99,000+ spectators at Old Wembley stadium, which was then fully roofed for the first time. The match was broadcast live – black and white – with the BBC requesting the one team change kit as the red of United and blue of City would have been indistinguishable to the viewers. Leicester changed into a mostly white kit, as they loss the toss for team colours. Gordan Banks was in goal for City. Despite fielding 9 internationals, including Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, United had struggled during the league season while their opponent had performed well, doing the league double over Manchester in the process and thus entered the FA Cup final as slight favourites. United won 3-1.

Ken Aston invented a few ideas during his service to football, not least of which are the yellow and red cards that referees use today to either warn or expel players if they step on the wrong side of the Laws of the Game. He is also credited for other innovations &  ideas in football refereeing, including:

  • The first referee to wear black with white trim as an official uniform, which later became the standard apparel for referees;
  • The first referee in England to introduce the neutral bright yellow linesman flags (in 1947) in place of the home team pennants;
  • In 1966 he introduced the practice of naming a substitute referee who could take over in the case of the referee being unable to continue – his eventually evolved into the practice of having a designated fourth official;
  • The number boards to announce substitutions;
  • He successfully proposed that the pressure of the ball should be specified in the Laws of the Game;
  • During the 1966 World Cup in England, he came upon the idea of issuing yellow and red card to players.

The story goes that, as FIFA Head of World Cup Referees in 1966 (he was in charge of all referees for the 1966, 1970 and 1974 World Cups)  Ken received a call from Jack Charlton, the England player. The latter explaining that he read in the newspapers that he apparently received a caution from the German referee Rudolf Kreitlein in England’s World Cup match versus Argentina, but that he was unaware of such a caution being issued verbally, as was the custom then. Kreitlein also could only converse in German.

Aston, returning from Wembley Stadium to Lancaster Gate that same evening, mulled over the language confusion that Charlton mentioned. On his trip from Wembley in his MG sports car, he passed many a traffic light. Aston came upon the idea to use coloured cards with the same colour coding (yellow/amber and red) used by traffic lights. He reckoned that showing coloured cards to players will transcend language barriers and clarify to spectators and players that they have been cautioned or sent off.

The use of red and yellow card to warn and/or sent off a player was first implemented in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Referee Aston trying to control tempers, World Cup 1962, Chile vs Italy.

But there is another notorious incident(s!) that Ken is remembered for; he officiated the infamous Battle of Santiago,” a 1962 World Cup match between Chile and Italy in Chile’s capital. On the bench as substitutes for Italy that day were the future star players and managers Cesare Maldini, father of famed and elegant AC Milan left back Paolo Maldini, including Giovanni Trappatoni – the only football manager to have won all UEFA club competitions and the Intercontinental Cup – as well as Lorenzo Buffon, related to the grandfather of Gianluigi Buffon, the current goalkeeper for Juventus and the Italian national team.

This match was not unlike the 2006 World Cup match in Nuremberg between Portugal and Holland, except the tackles and wild swinging fists were of such brutality that by today ‘s standards most of the players would have been sent off. Tensions were running high before the match as two Italian journalists, Antonio Ghiredelli and Corrado Pizzinelli, had spent weeks labelling Santiago in the newspapers as a poverty-stricken dump, full of loose women. Chile’s organization for the tournament had suffered through poor infrastructure, a problem made worse by the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960. Fearing for their own safety, the two Italian journalists left the country before the World Cup kicked off.

When the match was shown on BBC television, reporter David Coleman introduced the Group B game with this classic statement:

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.

He wasn’t far off the mark! Those with squeamish stomachs should not click on the football video below. Chile won 2-0.

Notice the very last few seconds of the above clip, where the 1st assistant quickly runs onto the field to stand next to referee Ken Aston as the latter was about to separate another fight after he blew the final whistle. Aston said his assistant, Leo Goldstein, uttered the following: “Ken, don’t bother sorting this mess out!”

Ken Aston admitted afterwards: “I wasn’t reffing a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military maneuvers.”

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  1. October 14, 2010 at 6:29 pm

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