Support Your Local Man in Black

With refereeing standards the big topic of the day, Not The Blogview will be featuring a series of articles in the next week or two on one of our favourite subjects. We begin by revisiting ‘The Man in Black – a History of the Football Referee’ by Gordon Thomson.

ref book

This book has been around on the shelves for a few years now, but in the wake of recent events at Inverness, with poor Willie Collum getting pelters for his performance, I picked it up again in order to delve once more into the psyche of these most reviled of creatures, football referees.

To begin at the beginning, football as we know it today evolved from what the author describes as, ‘a bastard hybrid of rugby and Greco-Roman wrestling… imagine British Bulldog played by the cast of Goodfellas performed in front of a bloodthirsty crowd.’ A whimsical image I’m sure you’ll agree, but I still found it easier to picture a Rangers (RIP) v Aberdeen game at Ibrox.

From this primeval football swamp rules emerged, although as the game was still very much in its infancy and mainly being propagated by English public schools nobody was able to agree initially on what the rules should actually be. Each school had its own code of legislation, with some maintaining that while kicking of the shins was ungentlemanly it was still allowable, a noble tradition still carried on to this very day at Fir Park. One contemporary observer – who could easily be describing most of the teams in the SPL – likened the early players to, ‘a set of harmless lunatics who amuse themselves by kicking one another’s shins but do no great harm to the public at large.’

The game needed arbiters and so God created those tyro maniacs known affectionately to us all as ‘the bastard in the black’. Interestingly, one of the caveats of the fledgling football leagues was that the governing body would supply a list of officials for matches but these men were not allowed to officiate a game involving their own team. SFA et al take note.

With the advent of the World Cup, international referees became celebrities in their own right and paved the way for the fevered egos we see strutting around the pitch these days. The book charts the careers of some of them, most notably the dictatorial Arthur Ellis, who went from sharing a stage with some of the greatest footballers of a generation to adjudicating how many custard pies assorted oafs from all over Europe had managed to hit one another with for the honour of France/ Germany/ Her Majesty on ‘It’s a Knockout’.

With international fixtures often being a thinly disguised substitute for open warfare, it must be a tricky proposition sometimes having to keep the teams from laying into one another, and it surely can’t have been helpful in reducing the inevitable pre-match tension when, before a group game in Berne during the 1954 World Cup, a commentator visited the dressing room of the Brazilian squad in order to exhort his compatriots to take revenge on their opponents (in this case Hungary) for all the Brazilians killed in Italy during the last war.

I wasn’t too sure about the history – nor the geography – of this particular animosity, but the Brazilians seemed to have been satisfied that Hungary was sufficiently close to Italy to merit giving the Mighty Magyars a doing. Ellis had to send off three players eventually, two of them seriously cranked up and hysterical samba stars, and was berated around the head at the end of the match by a man wielding a large microphone who was accusing the official of being an agent for the Kremlin. How Ellis must have been longing for a custard pie in the mush at that moment.

These stories of the Christians in Black being thrown to the lions in such volatile places as Uruguay and Argentina are some of the highlights of the book. British refs were always well quoted in South America, having a reputation for their impartiality and for displaying extraordinary stiff upper lip sang froid in the middle of the proverbial ‘cauldrons of hate’.

Bob Turner was one such who, in 1957, was handed the poisoned chalice of officiating at an encounter between Peru and Ecuador, two countries with a particular loathing for one another. In the national stadium in Lima, in front of a crazed home support, Turner had nonchalantly disallowed two Peruvian goals during the opening twenty minutes. A South American sports writer summed up the official’s performance thus: ‘Mr. Turner, without worrying what they might say, disallowed the goals, not just one, but two – and for no reason at all! ‘If it had been in my country,’ commented a nearby Uruguayan, ‘the smell of fried referee would have been in the air.”

Needless to say, I would not have been reviewing this book for NTV blat were it simply full of anecdotes extolling the praises of such paragons of phlegmatic virtue as Mr. Turner. If your image of the typical referee in civvy street is of a happily married bank manager type then you’ll be interested in reading the revelations of retired whistler Howard King, who would while away the time during trips to the continent before big games by swapping his yellow cards for the red lights. He would habitually frequent brothels and bed prostitutes courtesy of whatever club was playing at home: ‘Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Portugal (the country with the best whores in Europe he claimed), Russia, Germany. He became like a dog straining on a leash whenever the chance to get away on European duty arose.’

He also claimed that he and his colleagues used to compare notes on the various sexual favours offered by different European clubs. At which point I couldn’t help but ponder on what the ref in charge made of the night life in Kirkcaldy the time Raith Rovers entertained Bayern Munich.

The author continues his trawl through the dark side of refereeing by turning the spotlight away from sexual peccadillos and on to bribery and corruption, and it is truly heartwarming to read that it’s not just Johnny Foreigner who gets up to these kinds of tricks. Remember our very own JRP Gordon (Newport on Tay)?

John Gordon was a Celtic-hater who was remarkable in that he stood out amongst his peers when it came to decisions that disadvantaged the Hoops. The ‘J’ stood for John, but it wasn’t long before we worked out that ‘RP’ was ‘Reverend Paisley’. Despite belonging to a Scottish fraternity which is practically elevated to sainthood by the hacks in this country when they bravely stand by yet another decision in favour of Rangers, John, along with linesman David McCartney, was suspended by UEFA for letting AC Milan pick up the £800 tab for a shopping spree they went on in the Italian fashion capital. ‘How come he always looked like Worzel Gummidge after an all-night rave then?’ was the reaction of most fans back in 1978.

But JRP isn’t alone in terms of Scottish representation when it comes to shady goings on in the strange and frightening world of the man in black. Bobby Tait’s skulduggery during the Rangers v Kilmarnock match in ’97 (what a shame the whistler’s testimonial had to be spoiled by that late winner from the visitors some eight minutes into time added on … on the other hand, if Kilmarnock hadn’t scored the match would still be going on) is recorded for posterity, as is Jim McCluskey’s brush with a private eye, John Rowbotham’s pathetic refusal to send off Paul Gascoigne against Aberdeen – also at Ibrox – David Syme’s legal action against Irvine Welsh for defamation of whatever character Syme possessed when the author dared suggest that the ref might have leanings towards Rangers and finally Jim McGillvray’s astonishing performance at Firhill when he refused to send off Paul Gascoigne, claiming that he didn’t want to start a riot.

Can you spot a recurring theme in the section devoted to SPL refs?

At nearly 250 pages there is a lot of ground covered but surely there must be enough material out there for a book devoted solely to the Scottish strand of this particular species? Thomson has but scratched the surface of the spectre that haunts our game.

As to what makes anyone actually want to become a referee, there’s a chapter on the motivation of these strange characters. Some are ex-players who want to retain some involvement in the game at the top level, but the majority, if their own testimony is anything to go by, are anal-retentive control freaks with no personality who are prone to childish sulking fits if they don’t get their own way and who become worse the more attention they get: a kind of cross between Hitler and Jimmy Crankie.

By the end of the book I was no further forward in understanding the psychology of refs, but I did end up having a twinge of remorse at some of the abuse I’ve heaped upon them in magazines such as this one. They could be somebody’s father, after all, even if they don’t know their own father.

Then I remembered how I felt coming away from the game at Celtic Park against Dundee towards the end of the 2001 season when I heard the not altogether shocking news that Hugh Dallas had awarded a dodgy penalty to Rangers in injury time in a close game at Tynecastle on the say so of his linesman Andy Davis I recalled a wee nugget I picked up from the book; the Spanish word for whistle can also be slang for penis.


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