Almost six years ago Scotland’s referees embarked on drastic and never-before-seen course of action to recapture the news agenda and show the country, and the wider world watching on, that systematic and relentless undermining of an official’s integrity would not be tolerated. Non-availability day it was called by the officials. In layman’s terms, they went on strike.
The incident that seemingly sparked the action took place in a Premier League match between Celtic and Dundee United at Tannadice. Referee Dougie McDonald, an experienced official within the game, awarded a penalty kick to Celtic before changing his mind. When Neil Lennon wanted answers for why his team had a spot-kick withdrawn, he was told McDonald had reversed the call on the advice of the linesman. It wasn’t true. McDonald had already made up his mind to reverse the call before consulting with his assistant. Once it came to light that Celtic were told an incorrect version of events, the club were incandescent and heavily criticised the officials.
Things soon got out of hand. Contentious calls in the coming weeks added to the bubbling pot. Prominent figures in the game questioned the integrity of referees, clubs were openly critical, and managers weren’t shy in letting their opinions be known after matches. It was building to a crescendo. Referees in Scotland could no longer go about their daily lives without fear of reprisal for what they may or may not have got right on a football field.
Some view the McDonald incident and subsequent fallout as the reason for the strike. It wasn’t. It was just the tipping point. Something had to change in this country and referees took decisive action.
“Things are definitely better since then,” insisted John McKendrick, former spokesman for the Scottish Senior Football Referees’ Association and still a member of the union’s committee. He’s also still a category one referee. “That was a particularly poor phase we were in there. The disciplinary system from the SFA wasn’t quite as responsive as it is now. Because things weren’t dealt with quickly, I think managers could have the viewpoint where they weren’t punished for what they said last week. It allowed them to do it again and gave them a license to do it.
“That was exceptional action. There was not a referee that enjoyed it. I was closely involved in it and it was not a pleasant time. It’s not the type of thing you want to be involved in, but it was required.”
Officials on the whole still appear to be treated like a scourge on the game, rather than a vital part of it. Abuse rains down from the stands, managers act like tantrum-addicted toddlers on the sidelines, and players scream in their faces. It’s behaviour unbecoming of one human interacting with another and yet we accept it because, well, that’s football. And do you know who’s fine with that? The referees themselves. They understand it’s a part of the game. They just don’t want it to escape the confines of the stadium.
“For most of the season we’re treated the way we should be: not ignored, but not the story either, because that’s not what football is about,” said McKendrick. “There will be time every season, a few weeks where referees are harshly treated. I don’t doubt it for a minute. It could be an individual referee but it’s more likely to be a couple of referees where they complain about the standard of Scottish refereeing in general. We’ll be harshly treated by people writing the stories, we may be more harshly treated by the players because they are more likely to react, and we’ll definitely be more harshly treated in the street because people will think we’re wrong. That’s what happens.”
There’s evidence from the last three seasons to back up McKendrick’s observation. Last year the criticism occurred early with Stewart Regan and the SSFRA having to release statements as early as September 1. Two officials had been criticised in a single weekend, with Hearts boss Robbie Neilson revealing he’d prepared his players in anticipation of a red card from match official Willie Collum which, he said, they knew would come, a comment people took to be an insinuation the referee had a vendetta against the club. This finger-pointing juxtaposed the previous campaign where criticism peaked after the referee and additional assistant behind the goal missed Josh Meekings’ infamous handball in the Scottish Cup semi-final between Celtic and Inverness CT. In 2013, Andy Walker and other pundits slaughtered referees in the press after a couple of red cards were overturned on appeal.
The waves of criticism would be fair, but only if they were true. This isn’t even a case of defending our officials by looking at the bigger picture in context, where we point to the population as an excuse for our football woes. Five million people isn’t a huge population and it is a commonly-held believe that in the age of football globalisation this affects our ability to produce a consistently competitive national team. If this was a legitimate factor, we could use the same reasoning to apply to our whistlers too. Instead, the reality is that our referees do terrifically well in spite of the shallow pool from which to select them.
There are 28 referees on UEFA’s list of elite officials. These are the guys that are handed fixtures in European competitions and considered for the Euros and World Cup. There are 18 different nationalities. This is hardly surprising: the governing body want a wide range of officials from around Europe, and while Scottish fans probably don’t think about it too much, this would probably be their answer if asked why there are two Scottish referees among the top group. However, there are only six countries with more than one referee in the top 28. Scotland is one of them. The others are England, Germany, the Netherlands (all with two), along with Spain and Italy (both with four). Those countries make up the elite of football in Europe, minus France, who only have one official in the 28. Scotland is better than France. If only our national team was as “terrible” as our referees, we’d be a much more successful football country.
“We always seem to do well at the top level of competition,” McKendrick pointed out. “Hugh Dallas was fourth
official at a World Cup final. Craig Thomson refereed a World Cup final at youth level. Willie Collum is at the
Euros. These are not run-of-the-mill games. These are massive appointments.”
It is nothing more than insularity which stops us from recognising the fact that our referees are not among the worst in the world, and that the real culprit is the nature of football itself. The season before last, former Hearts full back Adam Eckersley was interviewed on fans’ podcast We Have No Cares. Having played in Belgium, Denmark and England prior to his time in Scotland, he was questioned about the standard of refereeing in Scotland, and whether he agreed they were “incompetent”. “There’s been some interesting decisions this year, but I’ve seen some interesting decisions abroad as well,” was Eckersley’s political answer.
“English fans think their referees are terrible as well,” insisted former category one referee Mike Tumilty. “Having been at Old Trafford as a season ticket holder the last two seasons, I can tell you that English fans don’t have any more respect for referees than Scottish fans do for theirs.”
A common demand of referees is that they explain their decisions. If a mistake is made, supporters and managers want to know what happened. They want to know what a referee was thinking when he crushed their hopes and expectations. While this is understandable in the case of supporters – after all, when you’re feeling incredulous, words like “why?” and “how?” are the first things that spring to mind – it is ironic when trotted out by football clubs. Surely fans also want to know why and how a defender cost the rest of his team with a back pass from hell, or when the midfielder put his side down to ten men with a ridiculously over-the-top foul, or when the striker put the ball over the bar when it seemed easier to miss. Yet, when it comes time for these villains of the piece to face the media, unless the players specifically request otherwise, they are protected by their clubs. If a 25-year-old professional footballer needs protecting from uncomfortable questions, why doesn’t a referee?
“In an ideal world a referee should explain their decisions,” admitted McKendrick. “There have been times where I’ve been desperate to talk to the press to explain my decision, but the reality is journalists only want to talk to referees when we’ve made a mistake. They’re not interested in finding out the right interpretation because that’s not the story. The story is the controversy, the mistake, the error, the person with his job on the line. They are the stories, not the rational explanation.
“What most people want is for the referee to come and apologise for a mistake that he made. They say they want a referee to explain his decisions but mostly aren’t really interested. They’ve made their mind up.”
Journalists – this writer included – have been complicit in the ill-treatment of referees, partly because officials don’t speak to the media. We’re reliant on managers for stories. This not only applies to post-match press conferences or previews of big games, it also goes for other aspects of the job. A manager can give a journalist he trusts a heads up about a player about to be signed, and so forth. There is no such relationship with referees. If a manager criticises a referee unfairly it would take a brave writer to challenge him on it. Besides, it’s the business of news reporting. If a manager calls a referee “useless”, that is news, regardless whether he’s right or wrong. It has to be reported.
This occurs mainly in the print media, so what about live broadcasts? “Some journalists are phenomenal. They’ll explain it and ultimately try and articulate what the referee has done,” says Tumilty. “There are others who are just disparaging, whether it is right, wrong or indifferent. Then there are others who just play back what’s been said and don’t attempt to intervene or point out any fallacies.”
Then there are those who either don’t fully understand the rules of the game or don’t appreciate a referee’s role. Incredibly, a number of those are ex-player pundits, men who operated on the same field as officials their entire careers and should have a greater sense of empathy toward the man in charge.
The football rule book is extremely vague when it comes to fouls. For instance, there isn’t any mention in the laws of the game of “playing the ball”, which is one of the most commons phrases in all of football. Instead, the rule book tells a referee to call for a foul if a player “trips, kicks, jumps at, charges, strikes, pushes or tackles” an opponent in a manner which is “careless, reckless or uses excessive force”. You can scarcely get more ambiguous. A group of referees could look at one incident and have a 50/50 split on whether it constitutes a foul or not. Instead of this being a part of the football consciousness, we always try to make things black and white. Is it a foul? Yes? No? There is no maybe.
“There should be no empathy if the referee is in the wrong place. Part of the referee’s job, part of his DNA, is to get in the right position on a consistent basis to make a decision,” said Tumilty. “If that’s not right then there should be no empathy, but ultimately if you’re in the right place at the right time and it’s just so difficult [to make the right call] that’s when you’re looking for empathy, for sure.
“It’s almost an impossibility for a referee to go through 90 minutes without making an error. The volume of decisions that you have to make, regardless of the size of the team of referees, it’s just mission impossible,” McKendrick added. “Referees need to be empathetic as well. We always need to try and give the correct decision, but we understand that when a team is dropping out of the division or whatever, that the fans are going to get more upset and show an overreaction, even if the referee has got the decision right.”
That’s the overall takeaway that comes from talking to two experienced officials. They don’t even want much to change. Football players shout, swear, harass, crowd and – sometimes – do their best to intimidate the man in the middle. Onlookers see the disturbing behaviour and compare it with that of rugby, where referees are fully respected, and say ‘why can’t it be like that?’ Perhaps one reason is the culture of both sports. Partisanship in football is higher than it is in rugby and that brings heightened emotion. And when tensions are running high it doesn’t take much to tip a supporter, player or manager towards either unbridled joy, deep despair or vitriolic anger. The referees don’t want that to change because, above everything else, they are fans of the game. It’s not a profession you can get into if you don’t have a deep love for the sport. Why would they want it altered? Instead, they stand up to the abuse, remain confident in their decisions, explain it clearly to those who are willing to listen and get on with their jobs.
“You need to be thick-skinned as a referee, especially at the top flight,” stated McKendrick. “You need to have confidence in your ability and understand people’s reactions to what you’re doing. Most of the abuse is 90-minute abuse. Even players who, to the punter in the stands, is being aggressive towards the referee, 99 times out of 100 the same player is shaking your hand at the end of a game.”