Scottish Refereeing: The Battle For Hearts And Minds (And Compensation)
After a week of chaos in the world of Scottish football, and with an enforced rest coming up due to the weather, it’s time for all parties to take a step back and take stock of the situation. On the SFA’s side, the two men at the centre of the controversy have now gone – one sacked and one resigned, although in the latter case it’s difficult to see that referee Dougie McDonald had much option, the only issue was about the timing. Opinions varied on how serious was his offence in telling his “white lie” to both Neil Lennon and to the refereeing supervisor. I’ve give my own opinion in previous articles and don’t intend to go through it again; but whatever the initial rights and wrongs, it was clear that his continued presence, and the continued media focus that would accompany his every match and his every mistake, was becoming a hindrance to the cause of his colleagues.
Hugh Dallas, on the other hand, was one of a number of SFA staff sacked for circulating an email containing a visual ‘joke’ about the pope and the Catholic child abuse scandals, at the time of the Papal visit to Scotland in September. Again, there are wide variations of opinion on just how serious an offence it was. I certainly don’t regard it as trivial, but I don’t recall any previous occasion when so many outsiders were so concerned with the SFA’s enforcement of its IT policy. By and large – and I don’t think I’m being unfair to anyone here but I’m open to being disagreed with – those who thought it was an offence worthy of sacking seem to be those who already had prior issues with Dallas and wanted him out anyway. I find it difficult to believe there would have been such a media outcry or indeed any sackings had the incident not come to light in the context of other events.
Indeed, that’s what everyone thinks. The SFA can insist as much as they like that the decision was taken in isolation, but no one believes them. From every corner, the perception is that Celtic have got their man. Even the Celtic fans I know think so (and if the club of course haven’t said so, they were playing Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” over the tannoy as Radio Scotland made their first report from Parkhead before Saturday’s game).
Meanwhile, the referee’s strike went ahead over the weekend, amid much embarrassment for the authorities. (I’ll continue to use the word “strike” as shorthand, but strictly speaking it wasn’t one – referees are all self-employed and were simply exercising their right to refuse a particular piece of work offered to them.) The SFA had managed, after extensive scrabbling round, to get hold of four teams of officials from Luxembourg, Malta and Israel to cover Saturday’s SPL games. They did not, however, cover themselves in glory by the manner in which they did so – some of the officials had allegedly been told it was part of a refereeing exchange programme. Given that Portugal has had its own strikes in recent weeks over pay, perhaps the Portuguese FA even hoped that this would turn out to be true, but when their officials arrived in Scotland they got no further than the airport before discovering the true situation, and flying straight home again. By that stage, the Polish officials who had also been lined up had suddenly realised they had other commitments.
The inevitable postponement, due to weather, of the remaining Scottish Cup replay mitigated the embarrassment, enabling the SFA to switch those officials to Easter Road and cover the SPL, but even some of those referees who did stay to do the games said they would not have done so had they been fully apprised of the circumstances at the outset. Whoever was responsible for the apparent communication errors here (I’ll be polite and call it that), it doesn’t cover the SFA in glory and they have almost certainly now burnt their bridges should they need emergency cover again: in the event of a further strike later in the season, the full set of fixtures will be off.
To some extent this strengthens the referees’ hand. On the other hand, they will also be aware that Celtic are perceived to have won the battle over McDonald and Dallas, and if they feel that a club is seen to have got their way from precisely the sort of behaviour they are complaining of, they may want some sort of reciprocal action to take against the club. It depends in part on to what extend they supported the two individuals concerned, which is very hard for us to tell – public statements may have been supportive (notably not including Steven Craven’s accusations of bullying) but that doesn’t mean anything. McDonald indicated in his resignation statement that he felt referees were not getting the support they needed from the SFA’s General Purposes Committee. Indeed, the general assumption prior to the strike was that you could say pretty much what you liked about them and they would just have to take it on the chin. That has, hopefully, now been dispelled but whether they will be happy to start with a clean slate from now or want action taken against recent offenders remains to be seen.
But it also depends on what they feel the mood is amongst the rest of Scottish football. It’s all very well them having us over a barrel, but they won’t want to end up having to take, or threaten, further action if it doesn’t carry support and will only make them unpopular – ultimately that would only make their own jobs harder. To that extent, it’s not just a battle for power within the offices at Hampden, but a PR battle amongst clubs and supporters across the rest of the country.
Here again, opinions are many and varied. When the action was first announced, my general impression (from totally unscientific soundings) was that, outside of Parkhead, most people backed them and were inclined to blame Celtic for the situation. By later in the week, that had shifted somewhat, particularly by the Thursday when the implications of it became clear – that the SPL games would go ahead while the SFL, who felt they were not a party to the dispute, would be the ones to lose out. This generated a palpable anger, and while some continued to direct it at Celtic, others felt the referees were missing their target. Furthermore, clubs were powerless to do anything about it, this was not a strike with specific demands or any action they were asking anyone to take to try and avert it.
The anger is still there this week, particularly as the weather wiped out any attempts to reschedule the games on Tuesday, and the clubs concerned are now looking for compensation. This will be fraught with difficulty – not just because of the problem of holding anyone accountable (I’ll come to the issue of blame in a moment), but because it will be difficult to show the games would have gone ahead anyway. The four SPL games may have done so, but these had undersoil heating, while the Scottish Cup replays and virtually the entire non-league programme were wiped out. It’s highly probable that at least much of the SFL would have fallen by the wayside too. However, Montrose have an artificial pitch, Greenock tends to avoid the worst of the weather, while Raith conducted their own inspection, with a club official who is an ex-referee, and insist their pitch was playable. They will, accordingly, press ahead with the claim, but if this should come to nothing then their anger will only increase with any possibility of it happening again.
There also seems to be – still – a general lack of understanding of the nature of the strike. Motherwell manager Craig Brown was one who broke ranks and criticised the refs, while Walter Smith was more sympathetic, but both of them reached the same conclusion – that they should name the specific clubs or individuals they have a problem with. This misses the point, as does all the talk among fans of whether to “blame” Celtic or the referees for the situation. This action did not arise through a straight fight between those two. It’s certain that recent events have brought matters to a head, and it’s probable that the strike would not have happened without John Reid’s comments at the Celtic AGM the previous week, but to lay all this at their door would not get to the root of it. The referees tell us that harassment in their personal and professional lives outside football has got worse in recent years – that hasn’t happened just in the few weeks since the Tannadice incident, or in the fortnight since Reid’s comments. It’s part of a growing trend, a “culture of abuse” as this website attempted to highlight last week.
To name specifics, and thus allow anyone not named to go thinking they had no part in contributing to this culture, would be worse than useless. Many managers might say they’ve never personally criticised refs and they might of course be right, but in more general terms the whole game is responsible for this culture. Which is why the SFL should at least think twice before looking to blame others – not only are there some among them who have themselves been offenders, in their own less high-profile way, but the whole sport has to examine the way it has tolerated or indulged the culture within it. The referees themselves were careful not to single out Celtic, and there was good reason for that other than simply being diplomatic.
So where does this leave us? Firstly, whether or not action need to be taken against some clubs for misdeeds past, all sides at some point (very soon) need to be able to draw a line, start afresh, and get round a table and talk. There are specific issues to be addressed – firstly, on the reffing side, the governing body needs to be reviewed, and Dallas’s replacement, whoever it should be, should fit into a new structure that makes referees accountable to the game as a whole and not just to themselves. On the clubs’ side, maybe a clearer code of conduct, but much more importantly some leadership and some positive intent from the SFA to show that this will be properly enforced, with points deductions if need be.
It would be much better still to do without that. Sanctions should be imposed if they have to be, but they run the risk of increasing resentment further. Far better would be for everybody concerned to take better account of their responsibilities towards referees, to start making efforts to change that culture and to treat referees with the respect that, despite ongoing snipes to the contrary, they very much deserve. To quote from the referees’ own statement in explaining their action
[The decision to strike] was not a ‘bargaining chip’ aimed at soliciting ‘quick fixes or deals’. It was instead a genuine call for a moment of reflection by all who love the game in Scotland and a desire to see a real and fundamental reappraisal of football’s and society’s relationship with its referees.
With so many people within the game still pointing fingers at one another, I fear they have some way to go yet to get this more general point across.
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