There are few better places to spend a spring day than downtown Boston, where the reawakening nature blends seamlessly with the surrounding colonial and modern architecture.
It is on such a day that I meet with Alan Kelly, the former League of Ireland and FIFA referee, who is now plying his trade in Major League Soccer in the United States.
With such a gorgeous setting, it is not surprising that the Cork native chose to live with his family just south of ‘Beantown’. But the ideal conditions on the day we meet are a far cry from the brutal winter that battered the New England region only a few months previously.
“You know you’re in trouble when your kids start telling you they’re fed up with the snow,” says Kelly, who took up an initial mentoring position with the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) in the States in 2014.
Pre-Season training Rocky IV style... pic.twitter.com/rldSArpXFp— Alan Kelly (@alanrefkelly) January 27, 2015
Kelly’s job as an MLS referee takes him to cities all across the US. Does he ever regret not choosing one of the larger metropolises to reside in, or, after the harsh winter, somewhere with less Arctic tendencies? Not in the slightest.
“We’re really happy. My wife and kids are settled in the area. I’ve settled in the area, even though I don’t spend a lot of time there, but I’ve settled," he says.
“A lot of the guys have asked me ‘why Boston, why not somewhere with good weather all-year round?’ but the diversity is a good thing.
“We like it, we really do. It’s easy to get home, and it’s easy for people to come visit us, stuff like that.”
Kelly made the move before his family, but they’ve had no problems acclimatising across the pond.
“Very well,” he answers, when asked how his family have taken to life in Massachusetts.
“Even my wife has settled in quicker than I’d expected. I was conscious of being away a lot and stuff like that, but she has family [in the area], the neighbourhood that we found before we moved over ticked all the boxes for us, neighbours are great, kids are settled in schools. They’ve met more friends than I have.”
His professional life is progressing nicely as well, and he has had no lasting ill effects from the injury that prematurely ended his debut season as an MLS official.
“It was unfortunate last year. I’d never missed an extended period of time through injury. I just picked up what turned out to be a nasty foot injury.”
But every cloud has a silver lining, as the enforced break gave Kelly ample time and opportunity to prepare adequately for the present campaign.
“It gave me a good three, three-and-a-half months to rehabilitate and get back for pre-season camp.”
A clean bill of health then for the man who recently celebrated a milestone birthday.
“I reluctantly admit to just turning 40,” says Kelly, adding, “it was a most difficult time in the last couple of weeks I have to say. Long gone from being a young 26-year-old rookie.”
Such a landmark usually engenders reflection, but also a keener focus on the future. Kelly’s initial contract with PRO was a two-year deal, with the option of a third. That third year option has already been exercised, and the Kellys are contemplating extending their time in America beyond that time frame.
“The intention now is to stay for the long term,” he explains.
"Fitness is obviously a big factor - recovery, injury prevention, all of that. Everything is geared towards ensuring that we’re at peak fitness throughout the season – that’s a must"
“We really like it. The way of life is good. The quality of living that we have is really good. There are a few other factors, like my wife has her own career at home; she’s on a leave of absence.
“But because of the way they’ve settled in, and because of the way things are going for them, that’s what we’re looking at.”
Kelly’s introduction to the MLS occurred under a cloud after he was drafted in as a replacement referee during a lockout at the beginning of the 2014 season. It’s a period he is keen to leave in the past, and he insists it left no lingering resentment.
“When I came into the group at the beginning of last year, there was a lot of uncertainty on both sides, which is very, very normal.
“Without wanting to get into it, it was a strange start, but once that initial period was over with, there’s a really, really good group there. There’s a really good camaraderie, and a level of professional respect that’s very, very evident.”
Kelly speaks enthusiastically about an “honesty” within the group, which comes to the fore when they sit down to discuss and analyse key refereeing decisions.
“It’s very advanced in that the technology available to PRO is within every stadium, so there’s different camera angles and that kind of stuff, so nothing goes amiss,” he explains.
“The full-time refs, we meet every two weeks, and every four weeks the part-time guys come in. That regularity is a big plus. It’s something that we didn’t have in the League of Ireland.”
The leap in professionalism is underlined when Kelly describes a regular week for him when he’s not away at training camp. PRO operates a centralised training system, which involves individual fitness programs being emailed out.
Every morning when they wake up, each referee must immediately take his or her resting heart rate. Then they must complete their workout wearing a heart rate monitor before emailing the details back to the organisation’s sports science team.
It’s a rigorous regime, but one Kelly believes is necessary.
“We’re operating in a professional environment, so, from a refereeing point of view, we’re no different than the players. Fitness is obviously a big factor - recovery, injury prevention, all of that. Everything is geared towards ensuring that we’re at peak fitness throughout the season – that’s a must.”
The analysis of the Orlando City versus New York City FC clash on the opening weekend of the season in March should certainly have added to Kelly’s stock in the MLS. Both clubs were brand new 'franchises', and their encounter at the Citrus Bowl (the stadium where the Republic of Ireland were beaten by The Netherlands at World Cup 1994) attracted a crowd in excess of 62,000, along with huge media attention, as Kaka and David Villa made their debuts for their respective clubs.
Kaka’s injury-time free-kick equaliser for Orlando grabbed the majority of the headlines, but there was also much praise for how Kelly handled the game, particularly in relation to the three yellow cards for diving he dished out to Orlando players.
Kelly, who has refereed at Champions League and international level, is no stranger to major occasions, but admits it was an “honour” to get the call to officiate what was billed as the ‘Franchise Bowl’.
“When I got the assignment it was a very proud moment. I was very honoured to get that game. And it was a big game. First games of the season are always big games, irrespective of where they are, but when you have two new franchise teams playing each other in front of a 60,000 sell-out crowd, it’s a big, big game.”
He says his team of officials didn’t make any special plans for the occasion and just made the calls based on their merits.
“From our point of view, we didn’t approach it any differently from any other game just because of the game that it was. We just treated it the exact same way and dealt with whatever we had to deal with.”
Sean St Ledger, who has 37 Republic of Ireland caps to his name, came on in the last few minutes of that clash for Orlando, but Kelly didn’t get to talk to the former Preston North End defender. He did meet Houston Dynamo coach Owen Coyle at a pre-season friendly and has had “brief chats” with Robbie Keane at some LA Galaxy games he’s been involved in.
The Irish contingent in MLS will be increased when Kevin Doyle makes the move to Colorado Rapids in July. Kelly encountered Doyle during the striker’s days at St Patrick’s Athletic and Cork City. While the Corkonian says it is not his place to judge whether the move is a good one for Doyle, he certainly reckons the Wexford native will prove a useful addition.
“The league here is always developing and it’s a really good standard. I’ve been watching MLS for a fair number of years, and year-on-year it’s improved. It’s good to see another recognised player in terms of international status come to the league.”
While trying to maintain the core of his refereeing style, Kelly admits that he has had to tailor his methods to suit his MLS surroundings.
"I miss the League of Ireland. I was brought up on League of Ireland as a League of Ireland fan, being brought all around the country"
“I’ve definitely had to adapt. It’s a different environment, different footballing level. Culturally, it’s different. It was a real culture shock, even though I’d been watching games. Watching games and being in the middle can be very, very different.
“I did some USL games and some NASL games [third and second tier leagues respectively] and it’s very much a learning curve. It gave me an insight into what to expect, but it’s much quicker than the League of Ireland, and that’s not to be disrespectful to the League of Ireland. Technically, it’s of a higher standard.
“It wasn’t just a case of coming over, standing in the middle of the field, and just refereeing the same way.”
One major difference is the fact that not all MLS players can converse in English. Kelly took French and German at school, but he has suffered from a lack of Spanish vocabulary.
He has acquired enough “words to get me by”, however, thanks to help both from his colleagues and his seven-year-old daughter, who’s learning Spanish at school.
“Managing players has always been one of my strengths, and being able to communicate and talk with players, so I’ve brought that to my game here, which seems to have worked more often than not.”
When asked if there was one rule he would like to change, the response is almost immediate.
“I think, offside. There have been so many interpretations of the offside law over the last couple of years. It’s just caused massive confusion with everybody. So, simplifying that would be ideal. Just get back to basics. For everybody. Not just for match officials, but for the players, the coaches, the fans.”
He says it is a “dream” to be involved in professional football, and, while the travel aspect can be draining, in some ways he has found a better balance to his life since the move.
“Being away from family, especially when you travel as much as we do here, it can be quite taxing. But I’m lucky enough in that it’s now my profession, so I train during the week, and I’ve got some home time before I go and travel.
“Back in Ireland was very different because I had my job, I had my family, I had my refereeing and training, and I had my matches, so that was a difficult balancing act.”
The distance from family and friends in Ireland is an obvious drawback to emigrant life, but Kelly also acutely misses the League of Ireland - hardly surprising given his and his family’s long association with it.
“I miss the League of Ireland. I was brought up on League of Ireland as a League of Ireland fan, being brought all around the country.
“That’s integrated into the family. I’m going home - I keep calling it home - in six or seven weeks’ time and hope to get to one or two League of Ireland games, so I miss that.
“Like, on the way in on the T there [the Boston public transport system], Dundalk are playing Bray and Cork are playing Bohs and I’m looking at the updates, so that doesn’t go away.”
Kelly has gone away, though, and, as he continues to build a reputation as one of the top men in the middle in MLS, he may not be back for some time.