The Ref’s Notebook: A darker Shade of Black

In his book The Man in Black, a history of the football referee, Gordon Thompson devotes a chapter to what he terms ‘the dark side’. Some famous Scottish names get a mention as you can see from this extract… 

Although it is widely – and correctly – accepted. that British referees are more partial to a book full of names than a pocket full of dirty money, the offer of the odd sneaky back-hander is thought to have tempted a few.

This is UEFA’s Directive for Referees concerning standards of behaviour: “Referees and linesmen must refuse firmly but politely any exaggerated and too generous form of hospitality. Acceptances of valuables is strictly forbidden.” 

In 1978 Scottish referee- John Gordon and linesman David McCartney fell foul of the small print. They were suspended for their part in AC Milan’s UEFA Cup second round match with Levsky Spartak of Sofia, though their crime was stupidity more than anything else. 

While on a shopping trip in Milan prior to the game, Gordon and McCartney popped into a fashionable menswear shop to check out the latest Gucci gear. Unfortunately the tight-fisted duo landed themselves in hot water when the Milan officials accompanying them stepped in to pick up the bill for £800. Very generous. 

AC Milan were fined £8,000 and offered a rather feeble explanation of the events, alleging that the shop wouldn’t accept pounds and that the Scots didn’t have any lire with them at the time. The club’s sports director Sandro Vitali later added: “We didn’t ask for the money back later because we wouldn’t dream of behaving that way to any guests of ours.” 

Milan’s president, Felice Columbo, was more honest in his interpretation of the incident. “It was a naive gesture of courtesy,” he said. “UEFA fined us, I think, recognising our good faith but meaning to tell us that we must not have this kind of relationship with officials.” 

John Gordon should have known better. He had been a registered FIFA ref since 1967, but then Italian clothes can do strange things to a man.

And so too, in a rather more benign fashion, can Scottish knitwear. The former top Welsh referee, Clive Thomas incurred the wrath of Hibernian football club lor having the gall to allow Leeds to beat the Edinburgh side in a 1968 Fairs Cup fixture. An official from Hibs had met Thomas at Waverley station. and subsequently offered to ‘present’ the referee and his linesmen with a set of tartan blankets that had caught the Welshman’s eye during a sojourn around the local knitwear stores . But when Thomas failed to stand between Leeds and their victory (Hibs lost 0-1)) the club steadfastly refused to produce the freebies: “In the hotel after the game, the charming young man who had ordered the blankets refused even to acknowledge me,” said Thomas, “with the result that I lost my temper… but when we left the following morning there was still no sign of the blankets.”

Poor old Clive.

If Real and Barca are, as has been vociferously claimed, the favoured teams of Spanish referees, then in ScotIand it’s undoubtedly Celtic and Rangers (NB They were still alive when this was written – helpful Ed) who face the charges. If you believe the press, the portals of Ibrox and Parkhead have for years provided shelter for hordes of relerees who repay their generous tenants on the pitch by ensuring that the rest of the Premier League teams get nary a sniff of the action.  As if the minnows don’t have enough problems without, as their fans see it, refs siding with the Glasgow cabal. Yet in a city of football fanaticism where sectarian divisions and discriminations have long been a facet of life, rumours and paranoias are to be expected. Any refereeing blunder instantly provokes cries of ‘foul play’ from the injured party. No rumour has ever been proven yet it is still a conspiracy theory the locals love.

One instalment in the saga came in Rangers’ final home game of 1997-8 against Kilmarnock with just a couple of points separating the Glasgow teams in the tide race – a game known among Celtic fans as the ”Bobby Tait Testimonial Match”.

Tait, accused on the terraces of being more than just a little partial to the occasional strange handshake and rolled trouser leg, had requested to the SFA that he be allowed to take the game at Ibrox as some kind of valedictory appearance as a referee. It was indeed, his last appearance as a Premier League official. 

It was heavily implied in some sections of the Press, that Tait had attempted to provide the home side with a much needed victory by allowing eight full minutes of injury time at the end of a game Rangers were drawing. However, disaster struck for Rangers when, in the 95th minute, Ally Mitchell scored for the visitors and Killie held on to win 1-0. Rangers lost their title to Celtic the following week.

Celtic’s main concern during the 90s was an empty trophy cabinet. While Rangers amassed all the silverware, Celtic fans kept themselves busy putting together an extensive dossier on bluenose referees which they hoped would prove once and for all that it hadn’t in fact been the signature of a succession of low grade strikers but rather bent officials who were really responsible for their unceasing misfortune. To the Parkhead faithful, their side’s dismal record against the Gers in the early to mid-90s suggested one of two things: either Celtic bottled the big games or Rangers had an extra man on the park.

Jorge Cadete, Celtic‘s one time Portuguese striker, landed himself in hot water after making highly libellous allegations against an official following two contentious derby match penalty incidents. Meanwhile, a group of the club’s more industrious fans decided to take matters into their own hands by hiring a private detective to stalk another referee, Jim McCluskey of Stewarton, in their quest to uncover what they saw as his obvious Masonic tendencies. It was often said among the Celtic faithful that McCluskey’s twin loves were disallowing Celtic goals and gifting Rangers late match-winning penalties. 

McCluskey retired in 1998, but before turning his back on the famous Glasgow drama, he found time for one last cameo role. 

Celtic and Rangers were due to play at Parkhead on 19 November, 1997 with McCluskey refereeing, But before the game he withdrew himself citing a mysterious ‘injury’. After the game the public houses of Govan were alive with rumours that he had been removed by the SFA in the light of  widespread allegations of his bias toward Rangers. The real drama, however, came in the match. McCluskev was replaced  by John Rowbotham, a man most familiar to Celtic fans (and other Premier League teams) for his part in what the conspiracy theorists viewed as another Rangers ‘stitch up’, this time against Aberdeen in October 1995. 

The two games became inextricably Iinked. It was Rowbotham who failed to send off Paul Gascoigne in the Aherdeen match when England’s clown prince capped a thuggish performance by first elbowing Stewart McKimmie in the face and then head-butting John Inglis. Rowbotham was an inexperienced referee, but this fact didn’t prevent his inaction being widely interpreted in the media and on the terraces as a blatant case of favouritism towards Rangers.

When TV evidence showed the true extent of Gascoigne’s misdemeanours the player was suspended and Rowbotham’s reputation was irrevocably tarnished, Celtic fans’ fears that yet another referee was lost to the Ibrox cause was, much to their surprise, not realised. Rowbotham made amends in their eyes when he stepped into McCluskey’s shoes and became the first referee to dismiss Paul Gascoigne on Scottish soil…

Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, was not inclined to comment on McCluskey’s mysterious withdrawal from the Celtic game but nevertheless made it easy enough for Celtic fans to read between the lines when he spoke out on the Gazza dismissal: ”I don’t feel that anything that happened in the game is entirely the referee’s fault, ”Smith began, cutely veiling the condemnation that would follow, “Because there is no way he could have refereed that match in an impartial manner. He did what he did to Gascoigne under the pressure of that previous Aberdeen match. I really don’t think he should have been appointed to the game.”

For the record, Celtic equalised in the last 10 minutes of the match… After Gazza had taken his early bath.

One other addition to the saga has a peculiar literary slant to it. When bestselling cult author Irvine Welsh published his second novel “Marabou Stork Nightmares” in 1995, it featured a scene in which a group of Hibs fans are airing their views on a referee, a character called David Syme, and particularly regarding his involvement in a disputed penalty claim during a Hibs v Rangers Cup game. 

The referee was fictional, or so Welsh’s editor had been led to believe. That was until he received a phone call from Mr. Syme’s lawyer who was rather perturbed at the libellous references to his client’s sporting allegiances.

The referee, a well-known Scottish Premier Division regular, was portrayed in the novel as being, shall we say, more inclined toward the Glasgow side. The book’s description of this inclination was scattered with Welsh’s full quota of trademark four-letter words, not to mention suggestions of Masonic machinations at work.

The matter was swiftly settled out of court with a tidy sum going to Syme and his lawyer: subsequent paperback editions of the book had the offending paragraph removed. Some would gladly pay for tile privilege of a walk-on part in one of the celebrity author’s novels. Syme chose to be paid for not appearing.


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