Pub quiz question – which Englishman made his last appearance on 25 May, 1963 when Leicester City and Manchester United met in that year’s FA Cup Final?
The answer is referee Ken Aston, a primary school headmaster from Ilford, who first qualified in 1936 before working his way through junior and non-league football to the highest level of the professional game in 1949, becoming responsible for many important developments in football refereeing, including the yellow and red card system.
Aston would probably have reached the Football League list a few years earlier had his progress not been interrupted by the Second World War. He served in the Army with distinction, mainly in the Far East, rising through the ranks and serving on the Changi War Tribunals Commission which investigated Japanese war crimes.
Referee Ken Aston was a true pioneer of the game.
A tall, imposing figure, he exuded authority. 'Ken Aston is a schoolmaster and an ex-Major', the Daily Herald noted before the 1963 final. 'He looks like it, talks like it and behaves like it'. It is ironic, then, that he is often remembered for losing control of the high-profile encounter between Italy and host nation Chile during the 1962 World Cup.
With tensions running high after hostile comments about Chile and its people in the Italian press, the match – usually referred to as ‘The Battle of Santiago’ – degenerated into what Sunday Times journalist Brian Glanville called ‘an orgy of violence’. Aston sent off two Italians but somehow missed the punch with which Chile’s Lionel Sanchez floored Humberto Maschio, breaking his nose. The match, according to Aston, was ‘uncontrollable’.
Despite this setback, Aston went on to leave an indelible mark on the game as we know it today. Always an innovator – he was the first referee to insist on linesmen using brightly-coloured high-visibility flags. Aston became an important and influential figure at FIFA, serving as tournament referee for the World Cup Finals in 1966, 1970 and 1974.
He officiated at four FIFA World Cup tournaments.
He was to make one more, very brief on-field appearance at Wembley Stadium, coming to the aid of the referee during the tempestuous England-Argentina quarter-final in 1966. Antonio Rattin, Argentina’s captain, was sent off and it was Aston that eventually persuaded him to go.
Driving back to his hotel, Aston was delayed by traffic lights on Kensington High Street. This gave him the idea of issuing referees with yellow and red cards; ‘Yellow, take it easy. Red, stop, you’re off.’ This was a simple code which could be understood by match officials, players and spectators the world over.
FIFA quickly recognised its practicality and Aston’s system was trialled at the 1970 World Cup Finals. It was adopted in England in 1976.
For several seasons, Leicester City Football Club has worked with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture on various heritage projects. For more information about sports history at DMU, click HERE.
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