The name Kelly is synonamous with refereeing in Cork and our headline picture shows the three responsible, a father and two sons.
Alan Kelly pictured on the left has taken the brand to the United States, father, Pat Kelly, in the middle, brought it all around europe and our focus in the third series of Refere”e’s Report is on Graham Kelly, pictured on the right and identifiable to so many globally after refereeing the Liam Miller Tribute Match between the Republic of Ireland/Glasgow Celtic Legends and the Manchester United Legends at Pairc Ui Chaoinh last September.
We asked Graham about his first memory of football.
“My first introduction to football was the FA Cup Final of 1985 seeing Man Utd beating Everton 1-0, courtesy of a Norman Whiteside goal.
“I started playing football from the age of eight and being from Blackrock, Avondale Utd were my local team.
“Back then, some of my team mates were Mark Riordan, Ruairi Beechinor, Michael Mulconry and Roy Downey to name a few and most of that team stuck together all the way up to Under 16.
“We had a very strong team and were a premier division team all the way through the schoolboy football, we had many battles with a very strong Blarney Street team who at the time were managed by John Murphy aka Chalky Senior.
“I would go on to referee a lot of my team mates from that time in later years,” said Graham.
After schoolboys football, Graham found the transition challenging as from schoolboy football you were competing another few steps up the ladder with youth football which involved lads a number of years older.
“Having finished up the U16 season in 1995 disappointingly as league runners up to St. Marys and losing the cup final to Tramore Athletic, it was a slightly difficult progression to youth football as there was no U17 league at the time so you were playing with guys a year older and there was a bigger pool of players to pick from so game time was a bit tougher also with Avondale.
“At the beginning of the 2nd year of youth football, I found myself warming the bench a bit too often for my liking.
“I received a call a couple of weeks later from the legendary Gerry Harris who was managing Cork City youths.
“He invited me out training with them in Stiofan Naofa on the Tramore Road and all of a sudden, I’m training with some of the best players in the city.
“Dave Barry was managing the first team at the time and sometimes the training sessions would mix with the first team.
“All of a sudden, you’re playing matches in training against the likes of Ollie Cahill, John Caulfield, Kelvin Flanagan, Gareth Cronin, Declan Daly and so on, It was a bit surreal I must admit,” commented Graham.
It must have been difficult for Graham to play in an environment where his father and brother were officiating and he did manage to avoid a dreaded red card.
“I had to be careful with my conduct towards referee’s as coming from a refereeing family with my father, Pat who was still refereeing at the time and my brother, Alan who had just started out in his career, any misconduct from me towards any referee and I would get in the neck as soon as I’d walk through the door at home that evening” laughed Graham.
“I never received a red card whilst playing but one yellow card that I did receive that I’ll never forget was while playing for that Cork City youth team in a game against Tramore Athletic, I put in a reckless challenge on Fionnan Murray only to be shown a yellow card by my father of all people who was refereeing the game.
“Needless to say, it got the biggest cheer of the day on the pitch.
“Obviously, my dad and Alan were referees I looked up to but there was also Jim McGrath, Aidan O’ Regan, Eddie Mullins ( who you never questioned ) and of course the late, Tom Tully that stood out from my playing days,” said Graham.
Remarkably, Graham kicked his last ball competiively at 21 but it looks like a decision ultimately it was content to make to follow a similar path to that of father, Pat and brother, Alan.
“After that second season playing youth football with Cork City, I wasnt sure if I wanted to keep playing.
“The end of that season coincided with me doing my Leaving Cert and I was thinking about what I wanted to do after finishing secondary school.
“I got a call from Patrick Gosnell later that summer who was managing the Avondale junior team so i decided to carry on playing as i wanted to stay fit and active and just continue to enjoy playing football.
“We finished out that season but Patrick was calling it a day as manager and with uncertainy around what players were signing back, Avondale pulled the junior team out of the league before the start of the following season.
“Again, with uncertainty looming as to where I’d be playing football that coming season, I had a conversation with Bryan Forde who I knew from my Avondale schoolboy days and he was going out to play with Coachford that season in the AUL under the management of Finbar Murphy.
“Bryan asked me to come training with them one night, which I did and again enjoyed it so I signed on for the season ahead which would end up being my last season playing competitive football at the age of 21.
“Little did I think then, that the start of the new local season later that summer I would be taking to the field with a whistle, and a red and yellow card.
“So after a summer of great enjoyment with holidays with the lads and concerts and all the typical stuff you do as a 21 year old, my dad asked me if I’d be interested in taking part in a pre season tournament, funnily enough out in Coachford as an assistant referee to Alan.
“At first I thought, no chance in hell but I knew both he and Alan wouldnt let it go so I said grand, I’ll give it a go, just to say I tried it anyway.
“Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that bad at all.
“My dad asked me if I wanted to do the Referees Beginners Course in Turners Cross a week later which I did and I went on then to referee in the Cork Schoolboys League that season.
“That first season in the schoolboys league, my first competitive game was Corinthians Boys v Kilreen Celtic, who would end up being 1st and 2nd respectively in the Under 11 Premier Division.
“It would also be my last competitive game that first season as both same teams contested the Under 11 cup final in Turners Cross.
“I mainly refereed the under 11 age group to the under 13 age group that in that maiden season.
“Players that stood out from then would have been David Meyler who played with Corinthians Boys under 11 and Billy Clarke who played with Maymount Celtic with both still plying their trade professionally in England today,” commented Kelly.
Even after that first season, Graham wasn’t convinced his future was in refereeing but his decision to take place at the FAI School of Excellence programme for young referees prolonged his stint as an official.
“After my first season of refereeing in the Cork Schoolboys League, I still wasn’t sure if this was something that I wanted to do long term.
“At the start of my second season, I had been selected for the F.A.I. School of Excellence (SOE) programme for young referees.
“I was joined by a good friend of mine, Mark Healy, who had also taken up the whistle at the same time as myself and Eddie McNally.
“The School of Excellence was the brainchild of the late, Eamon Farrell, a former League of Ireland referee himself and it was during this two year programme that my eyes were opened as to what can be achieved in the game as a match official.
“Eamon was a big influence during that time as was John Ward who was a former FIFA assistant referee and had acted as a mentor, frequently travelling to Cork to watch me referee.
“There was also Willie Bradley who was the chairman of the referees committee at the time and Gerard Perry, a former FIFA referee, all big influences to not just me, but also to that whole class of 2003.
During the School of Excellence programme it was a requirement of us lads in Cork to train with the League of Ireland panel in the Mardyke on a Wednesday night.
“The panel at the time was Anthony Buttimer, Eddie Foley, Alan Kelly, Aidan O’ Regan, Dan Deady and Stephen O’Connell.
“It opened our eyes in terms of the fitness of these lads and how and what was expected of us.
“Today, the eight cork members of the LOI panel still train in the Mardyke on Wednesday evenings along with the current SOE Cork group and younger referees again who are aiming to be a part of the next SOE programme.
“The SOE is the pathway now for a Refereeing career in the League of Ireland and beyond.
“Ultimately, my biggest influences would be my father, Pat and my brother, Alan but it was at the graduation from the SOE that my mind was made up and focused to have a right good go at this,” said Graham who is widely regarded as one of the top referees in the country.
Graham has not only refereed top players but also big games and none more so than the Liam Miller Tribute Game.
“I don’t particularly like singling out a biggest game I refereed because there have been a few so far.
“The 2005 FAI Intermediate Cup final between Rockmount and Wayside Celtic was my first National Cup Final and I was fourth official on the 2011 FAI Senior Cup Final between Shelbourne and Sligo Rovers.
“I refereed the 2014 EA Sports Cup final between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers which was significant also because the last time those two teams played in a national cup final was in the 1987 FAI Cup final which was refereed by my father, Pat.
“I’ve had numerous European appointments as a fourth official, the highlight being in 2012 in a Champions League Qualifier in Israel where Alan was the referee on that occasion.
“The Liam Miller Tribute game back in September of last year was another highlight for so many reasons not least because of the special occasion that it was.
“Again, I’ve had the privelidge of sharing the pitch with many great players over the years when you think of James McClean, Mark Farren, Ryan McBride, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey, Roy O’Donovan, Sean Maguire, Daryl Horgan, Damien Duff and the late, Liam Miller.
But even though most, if not all the players that played in the Liam Miller match were retired, being on the same pitch with the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, you could still see how gifted these players were,” said Graham.
And what words of advice would Graham have for perspective referees looking to make the first step?
“It’s always a struggle to keep the numbers up when it comes to referees.
“When I did the beginners course back in 2000, I would never have expected to be refereeing almost 20 years later at the highest level of Irish football.
“The advice I would give is to people out there be it male or female is to get involved.
“Everyone who enjoys the game of football always has an opinion on a referee’s decision so why not do a beginners course and take it from there.
“The ISRS branch in Cork as well as all other ISRS branches around the country would welcome new referees with open arms and ensure that they get the proper training and experience.
“With meetings on a monthly basis, I would have learned a lot as a young referee in the Blackpool Community Centre and even now today, I see faces in there that I would never have expected to see taking up the whistle.
My father always said, respect works both ways in this game, If you respect the players and managers, then by and large, you’ll receive that respect back.
“That is main piece of advice I would give any new referee starting out.
“We will get decisions wrong, which is only natural but 90% of the time we will get the decisions correct, I still enjoy refereeing today as much as I have for the last 19 years, whether it’s up in Mayfield on a Saturday in the Munster Senior League or in Inchicore on a Friday night in the Airtricity League, the passion and hunger is still very much there.
“Its about setting your goals before the start of every season and making sure you give yourself every opportunity to reach them,” concluded Graham.
Graham Kelly spoke to Paul Hogan for Cork Sports News.