The Ref’s Notebook: Time to Declare an Interest

It hasn’t taken long for referees to be the centre of attention this season. Here’s a bit from NTV 278 on why they should declare what team they support.

“We’ve all been there, we’ve all come to Ibrox and said ‘why do Rangers get everything?’”

The above quote is from a Scottish Premier League manager. If you can’t guess who it is attributable to I’ll reveal all at the end of this piece.

Coming from a Celtic fan like you or me it would simply be filed as tinfoil hat paranoia. Despite mountains of evidence in support of the assertion (see NTVs passim) it’s clear that there is simply no convincing some people that there is a deep rooted malaise at the heart of the Scottish football establishment that has to be addressed. But let’s begin with a premise that we can at least support with some justification, namely that over the course of recent seasons there has been a definite drop in the standards of Scottish refereeing. Were that not the case then we would see some of our favourites officiating at major tournaments. No longer is this the case.

What we see with our own eyes week after week in the SPfL – and not just this season – is too many referees making incorrect, or dubious decisions, that more often than not tend to benefit one club. More worrying is the fact that it appears to be the same referees over and over again. Whether this is down to incompetence or bias lies at the heart of the issue.

It’s both tempting and intellectually healthy to be sceptical about conspiracy theories, and Celtic fans, like any other set of supporters are hardly objective. Yet it’s hard not to nod cynically every time “the greatest Scottish institution after the Church of Scotland” gets the benefit of yet another favourable decision.

Maybe it’s a matter of perception? You might perceive, for example, that a match official who referees a Glasgow derby during which he makes several decisions in favour of Sevco then goes to have a few pints in his local blue-nosed hostelry might be a bit one-sided; or that an Ibrox season ticket holder might want Sevco to beat their hated rivals; or indeed that an official who yellow cards a footballer for blessing himself might be suffering from a serious psychological problem. If your perception differs then you might think this is all part of the game, the way the PE teacher ref in Kes picks all the best players, shoots downhill with the wind and awards himself nonexistent penalties.

The fact is that referees have to be above reproach if they wish to be respected.

This is self-evident and unquestioned throughout the football world. No one in their right mind would expect a referee to officiate in a competitive international game involving his own country, Yet here in Scotland the SFA and Scottish media think it’s perfectly acceptable to have referees and assistants having control of a game involving ‘Rangers’, even though they have admitted to being Rangers supporters.

The FA in England take a somewhat different approach. It is a system drawn up by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited and it has been embraced by the SFA the way Count Dracula used to embrace crucifixes.

It begins with the very simple premise that referees will not be appointed to officiate matches that the team that they support is playing in.

The rationale behind the system is outlined here:

To make their lives easier in other words.

But is it necessary? Can’t a referee simply put whatever innate bias he has to one side and just ref the game in a professional way once the match starts?

This is ex-referee Mark Halsey on his experience of refereeing games involving his favourite club:

The excuses as to why we cannot adopt the English model here have been as diverse and inventive as they have been numerous.

“We are too small a country.”

“We won’t have enough referees if we ban people from refereeing a team they have supported from boyhood.”

“This suggestion questions the integrity of referees!” (quite!)

“Celtic and their supporters should forget this silly idea and move on.”

Around the time of the infamous referee strike, when the idea of refs having to declare what team they supported was mooted in the Scottish media, ex-whistler Kenny Clark briefly became one of the go-to rent-a-gubs advocating the case against. Back in the day he blamed Celtic for the refereeing strike – a quite risible suggestion – but he had also been critical of the SFA at times, such as over the Shame Game hearings which cleared Bougherra, McCoist and Diouf on serious misconduct charges.

His comments (and we can assume they wouldn’t have been a million miles from those of his former bosses) were ridiculous though.

Clark seemed to believe, as perhaps some still do, that putting in place measures to ensure our game is clean would somehow make it the opposite: “If the SFA were to start deciding appointments on the basis of the PGMOL criteria then it would become virtually impossible to avoid some kind of perceived problem,” he said. “Once we send out a signal that we’re not sure about the integrity of our officials then, I’m sorry, it’s the road to ruin.”

What absolute shite that is and it is one of the reasons we never get proper reform at the SFA – too many people living in a bubble, thinking that any criticism or scrutiny itself implies corruption.

They refuse to see that this kind of measure would actually reduce mistrust, and would actually benefit officials and keep their reputations good.

(As an aside, the only thing Clark’s intervention achieved was another round of Youtube videos and evidence of Kenny Clark boasting of cheating on the lucrative after dinner speaker circuit.)

If there is an earthly reason not to adopt the English system I have yet to hear someone put it forward.

When someone like Walter Smith can sit in front of the media and say that bitterness and hate are motivating factors for fans and for players, how can it be alright for, say, a Sevco fan to referee a match involving Celtic or his club? Is Mark Halsey unique among referees in finding it difficult to get emotionally involved when his team are playing?

Even with the best will in the world, you can’t be wholly neutral with that sort of atmosphere swirling around, and Scottish football, because of the Victim and Survival Myths, is going to have to live with that kind of stuff for a long, long time to come.

Perhaps Clark means there wouldn’t be enough top class officials to take control over the club’s games if these rules were put in place; which begs the question of why there are so many potentially conflicted supporters of one or two clubs in the refereeing ranks.

When you look at the standards they are incredibly poor (if we’re being generous.)

Are we to believe that we really do have the cream at the top here?

Or is something else going on?

Let’s face it, a lot of supporters throughout Scotland are already convinced that at least some of our refs are biased or bent. These regulations will do more to dissuade them of that concern than anything else the SFA can do. It doesn’t cast aspersions on anyone’s honesty.

Quite the opposite.

It treats everyone equally for a start.

It maintains the overall integrity of our sport without making broad, sweeping assumptions.

It assumes nothing about any specific individual, but acts to protect fans and officials alike.

A suspicious mind might wonder what these people were so scared of us finding out. That three quarters of the Grade 1 officials in our country are Sevco fans?

This is nothing we’ve not long suspected. It wouldn’t lead to riots in the streets.

What it would do is ensure that none of them were allowed to manage games involving the club.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

The SFA and the Scottish refereeing community have spent decades thinking that it is.

We are not wrong to wonder why.

“We’ve all been there, we’ve all come to Ibrox and said ‘why do Rangers get everything?’”

This was ex-Rangers captain Terry Butcher when he manager of Inverness commenting on Craig Levein’s rant at Mike McCurry’s performance during a Rangers v Dundee United match. But the Sinister Minister is a different story…


NTV 282

August issue out now. Includes 40 page paper copy and 100 page PDF.


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