Rangers – then later sevco – supporting referees have been a feature, not to mention a running joke, in Scottish football for decades. After they hang up their whistles they can often be seen outing themselves on the lucrative masonic after dinner speaker circuit, boasting about how they never gave Celtic a thing and favoured their beloved Gers whenever possible.
These days it’s not uncommon to see a post on social media with said ref posing with his mates in a Rangers bar. This one works best if the whistler has spent the afternoon in charge of a Glasgow derby and has given some shocking decisions against Celtic (see Beaton, John et al).
What a scoop it was then for Craig Bathgate to stumble upon a retired referee who came out of the closet and declared an allegiance to Celtic, albeit some twelve years after he quit as one of the Men in Black.
RETIRED referee Steve Conroy has admitted he had to keep his love for Celtic a secret in order to avoid getting “battered”.
As Doris Day warbled in Calamity Jane:
Once I had a secret love
That lived within the heart of me
All too soon my secret love
Became impatient to be free.
Not that impatient, since it took 12 years, but still.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure Bathgate’s take on Conroy’s revelation is quite what he intended. Could it really be true that a referee can’t say he’s a Celtic fan without being assaulted? What on earth does that say about Scottish officialdom?
But it’s ok. Before you start ringing up human rights lawyers and alerting Strasbourg, the remark’s tongue-in-cheek nature soon becomes clear.
Speaking on the Get Involved Referee podcast, he said: “If you are a St Mirren or Aberdeen fan, you are perfectly at liberty to come out and say that. But you can’t come out and say you are a Celtic or Rangers supporter, because you are just going to get battered.
The thought that a referee would be on the receiving end of a hiding for saying he was a Rangers fan is truly Monty Python stuff.
How does one function, then, undercover? For Conroy, it was a back story worthy of a John Le Carre novel.
Conroy refereed under the guise of being a Dumbarton fan despite having no affiliation with the club.
“I used to always pretend that I was a Dumbarton supporter. No affiliation to Dumbarton whatsoever, I just used to pretend.
Try this one yourself some time. Try passing yourself off as a Dumbarton supporter. If it was me I would fall at the first hurdle – “how did your lot get on at the weekend?” And that’s before we get into the more difficult questions, such as how are the new signings doing, or even what division are you in?
The obvious conclusion I have come to is that referee meetings are full of people claiming to each other to be fans of Scottish clubs from the lower leagues that nobody dares ask anybody else any questions at all about their ‘favourite’ teams.
For Steve this results in an obvious problem, but it’s one that has an easy solution.
“Down south if you have an affiliation with a team, you don’t ref them.
“Up here we all get into the game to be a ref in top games and being from the west of Scotland, more often than not, you support Celtic or Rangers.
“So if you have an allegiance to one or the other, and you are not allowed to ref them, who is going to be reffing the games?
All of the Brechin City and Stenhousemuir fans presumably. Who are actually Celtic and Rangers fans undercover.
Phew, this is all getting a bit confusing.
Thankfully, those in charge of the MIBs have a sixth sense about such matters.
“You don’t declare an allegiance, but somehow the SFA know. You know that they know because you get allocated an awful lot of pre-match friendlies involving the team that you supported.”
And we know that you know we know you know.
I can’t help but wonder what this ‘somehow’ involves. What are these subtle clues the SFA can pick up that mere mortals can’t see. The cut of a man’s brogues, perchance, or the lack of Rangers cufflinks?
And there’s the SFA’s secret signal to fans right there as well. I was a bit sceptical about refs getting to officiate their favourite clubs in pre-season friendlies so I actually went to the trouble of checking out who had done Celtic’s most recent friendlies. (I do theses thing so that you don’t have to. You’re welcome)
Going back to the start of season 2016-17 we have played eleven friendlies at home. The referees have been Willie Collum, Don Robertson, Greg Aitken, Steven Clancy, John Beaton twice and Bobby Madden three times. Quite the CSC membership there, I’m sure you’d agree.
I’m beginning to wonder whether Steve Conroy might be full of shit.
Are you still there Doris?
So I told a friendly star
The way that dreamers often do
Just how wonderful you are
And why I’m so in love with you.
It’s rumoured that in SFA referee circles, the way to judge how highly regarded you are by the establishment (and you can read into that whatever you want) is by the number of Celtic v sevco games you are allocated (or Rangers if you want to go back a bit).
In his whole career (he was a category 1 ref for 12 years) Steve was allocated the grand total of… one.
Although still pledging allegiance to the Sons of the Rock at the time, it seems to have been quite the thrill for him.
The retired whistler has made no secret of his allegiances post retirement and admits that refereeing his only Old Firm game in 2010 was the experience of a lifetime.
He added: “It was just an absolutely amazing feeling.
“Even though you are mic’d up for the game, it was so noisy. You couldn’t hear a thing over the communication kit.
“The buzz in your ears for days after it because of the noise… it was fantastic.”
That noise in his ears might have been tinnitis, of course.
Despite being a closet Celtic fan, Conroy was able to ref the game in a fair an impartial manner, or as Bathgate puts it…
His hidden bias certainly didn’t have an impact on his game as he controversially chose to only caution Rangers forward Kyle Lafferty following a dangerous challenge on Hoops’ defender Andreas Hinkel.
And upon reflection Conroy admits he got the decision wrong.
This ‘hidden bias’ being overcome amongst the Men in Black is truly wonderful to behold. Thanks goodness we’ve never been on the receiving end of their out in the open bias.
You might actually remember the incident in question. It was as clear a red card as you’ll ever see. Whatever could have been going through Conroy’s head at the time? The thought of not being awarded another amazing, fantastic Glasgow derby? All of those glamour pre-season friendlies at Celtic Park were right there on a plate for him and he screwed up.
Conroy saw it like this:
“There were a couple of incidents and I’ll admit I got one wrong. I should have sent off Kyle Lafferty but I cautioned him.
“It was a straight leg challenge on Andreas Hinkel and it should have been a straight red.
“When you see it on TV, I was in the wrong angle. I was too far up the pitch at that point and I shouldn’t have been there and I probably would never have been in that position in any other game in my life.
“If I had been in my normal position and I had a side-on view I would have sent him off.
“The annoyance for me is that there were two other officials who had that side-on view and I didn’t get helped out.”
Maybe he couldn’t hear them over the tinnitis?
But that wasn’t the only incident in the game where our closet supporter shafted us.
That wasn’t the only controversial moment in the match as Conroy disallowed a goal from Celtic’s Marc-Antoine Fortune for a foul on Gers keeper Allan McGregor.
Conroy was unrepentant about that decision.
But the Hoops fan remains adamant that he got that decision correct.
He continued: “I have watched it hundreds of times and I’m perfectly happy with the decision.
“He didn’t break his arms, but he knocked his arms. If somebody knocks your arms when you are a goalie, you can’t catch the ball.
I look forward to every ex-official being described as ‘the _ fan’ (insert name of ex-ref’s favourite team) the way Conroy is here.
“When I was summoned to the SFA for the debrief I was told by the referee’s supervisor that my decision was “a matter of opinion” and they were going with the opinion of the match observer who had a different opinion.”
Sadly, differences of opinion were to be Steve’s undoing. Bathgate summarises the remainder of his career thus:
That would be Conroy’s only Old Firm game before his retirement in 2012 after the SFA failed to back him for awarding Rangers a controversial penalty kick against Dunfermline in 2011.
In fact Conroy went on to sue the SFA for unfair dismissal, age discrimination and holiday pay.
The penalty decision at Ibrox, when he pointed to the spot after the most theatrical Sone Aluko dive, was so awful that even the SFA’s referee supervisor Don McVicar subsequently banned Aluko for two games for simulation.
Steve lost his lawsuit. He appealed… and lost that as well.
After the Aluko affair, his last top division game, he was banished to the lower leagues. The final straw was when he was given the Third Division fixture between Berwick and Queen’s Park. I don’t know whether he ever refereed a Dumbarton game during his exile.
Big crescendo Doris…
Now I shout it from the highest hills
Even told the golden daffodils
At last my heart’s an open door
And my secret love’s no secret anymore!