Scottish Refereeing: The Battle For Hearts And Minds (And Compensation)

12 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   December 1, 2010  |     22

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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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • December 1, 2010 at 9:24 pm


    Obviously, seeing that the Scottish footballing minds blame Celtic football club for the events of the last 7 weeks it seems to me that if Celtic were to sign a contract agreeing to never again question or criticize any Scottish officials all the problems would disappear, am I right?

  • December 1, 2010 at 11:56 pm


    I don’t know how much digging this author did, or whether he has just taken the Scottish media spin to be true, but the fact of the matter is that for years Celtic along with most clubs in Scotland have been on the wrong end of strange decisions from the refs which for the most part profited one side, namely Rangers, it has been a problem for many many years but since Rangers financial trouble has come into view the amount of decisions going their way has been unbelievable, and the thinking from most fans of all other clubs is that Rangers are being helped to this end and not very subtly I may add.

  • December 2, 2010 at 12:24 am


    But why would Celtic sign such a ludicrous agreement. Waving their right to a voice? It would never happen. No club anywhere would sign such an agreement, much less one that has been quite clearly been victim of a pro rangers bias in the scottish game.

  • December 2, 2010 at 4:32 am

    Daniel Docherty

    Why not make everyone happy SFA Clearout
    makes all but one SPL club happy

    Kick Celtic out of the SFA and all of the other clubs the SFA and referees will be happy sfa can broker a deal with EPL and we will be happy as we can leave the septic tank where the victin is blamed for the crime

  • December 2, 2010 at 8:22 am


    There were a couple of unspoken assumptions in the article, and perhaps I should have made at least one of them explicit – I regard the accusations of a pro-Rangers / anti-Celtic bias as being entirely baseless, at least in recent times. Not because of “media spin” but just my own watchings of Scottish football over the years. “Most fans of other clubs”, in my experience, regard Celtic and Rangers as being, equally, the major beneficiaries of dubious reffing in the country (and I think that has a little bit more to it, though the effect is hugely overstated, and not deliberate).

    david – I’m not sure Pat’s was a serious suggestion, but just in case it was: as I said in the article, limiting the problem to Celtic misses the point. As the refs know, the issue is much broader than the current spat.

  • December 2, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Peter White

    All these problems just because Celtic FC and their supporters want a level playing field! Not special treatment, just a level playing field, and as an aside honest referees, which translates into referees who do not tell lies!

  • December 2, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Albert Kidd

    ‘Equal beneficiaries of dubious reffing’
    Are you being serious?
    Celtic will get an ‘honest mistake’ throw in on the half way line, a free kick 46 yards out or a corner when we are already 3 up. You could count anything in our favour on one hand. I don’t even know where to start when it comes to ‘honest mistakes’ in Rangers favour.
    Lazy journalism made up from bits and pieces taken from red top chip wrappers will just about sum up this piece.

  • December 2, 2010 at 10:52 am

    jocky bhoy

    Well at least you are admitting MacDonald’s position was untenable but I, and most Celtic fans, agree that Hugh Dallas’ position – given he also knowingly lied and, at the very least, rubber stamped a falsified match report – was equally so.

    Most Celtic fans think he should have been sacked for those offences – the fact that these sectarian email(s) have obscured the issue of lying and conspiracy (and make no mistake – Dallas & MacDonald CONSPIRED to lie & give false evidence) is to the detriment of the core discussion.

    There is talk in the blogoshpere up to 20 doctored match reports, ie. reports that have been changed between the match ending and subsequent filing. If these reports are true (remember the blogoshere broke the stories of lying and sectarian emails – they are well ahead of the Scotish press, as the Media Guardian reports on Monday) what action should be taken. Should this be “the line in the sand”?

    The English refs are employees of their football associaiton (or the EPL?), whereas out referees are self employed, and apparently unaccountable. Would them being employees help the matter?

    The referees threatened strike action 2 years ago and managed to get a 50%-plus pay rise, at a time when fans and managers of all teams were saying standards were getting worse. The SFA caved that time, under the ill-fated reign of Gordon Smith, ex-rangers player and TV pundit turned Chief Exec much to everyone’s surprise (including his own apparently!). Their demand was unattainable – “we’d like more respect”. How can that possibly be achieved without being “mutual”. Who gave them advice on this strike action?

    Lennon is up before the beak – Lenny keen to give his side of the story. As I am sure is Hooper, a man who knows a thing about Scottish refereeing standards:
    Scunthorpe Games 89; Yellow Cards 2
    Celtic Games 10; Yellow Cards 3 ( all in the last 4 games, after he said Dougie Dougie should go).

    Will be interested to see what action is taken – seems there’s a hell of a distance to that line of sand…

  • December 2, 2010 at 5:55 pm


    Albert – Perfectly serious.

    jockybhoy – yeah, I didn’t want to go through the rights and wrongs of the Steven Craven thing again. I’m a bit in two minds about it. I can see why, given the atmosphere in which they operate, they don’t want to invite abuse by highlighting their own fuck-ups, but clearly – whether it’s happened once or another twenty or another two thousand times – any such “white lies” or cover-ups shouldn’t happen. I agree that if the SFA had a problem with that they should have acted on that, rather than sack him for something else that no one seems to take very seriously in isolation.

    Where I disagree with Celtic fans is in the suggestion that any such after-the-fact dishonesty provides any sort of support for their allegations of on-pitch dishonesty, still less bias for or against particular clubs.

    But yes I do support reform, greater openness and accountability – not because I think there’s any problem with bias, but because there’s no reason not to. There should be nothing to hide and no reason to give anyone cause for suspicion.

  • January 22, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    Ian Ferguson

    I took part in a fun sport quiz on holiday. One part of it was to decide the outcome of ref’s decisions. Included as ludicrous decisions were various old firm decisions. ALL WENT AGAINST CELTIC. I have never been a supporter of the bias theory until then.
    I have since looked at various decisions on facebook etc. and the bias is there to see. I can’t see how Gavin can say he can see no bias when a ref lets bugghy off with SEVEN OTHER bookable offences in ONE game AFTER being booked. The Brown sending off in the same game was ludicrous, although I admit he is like a heidless hen, but how that was a sending off baffles me. By the time I had seen Maloney’s booking for diving I was convinced, Scottish ref’s are biased or so unsuited to referee they should be sacked. It would follow that the various SFA Office holders who continue to cover up for them are not fit for purpose and need to be replaced. The SFA requires a root and branch clearout and a complete modernisation. Since I have admitted to achange of heart the quiz-master e-mailed me an article on James Farry and celtic THE MIND BOGGLES!

  • January 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm


    Well of course you can find a series of bad refereeing decisions that all went against Celtic, you can do the same for any club if you’re looking for them – what does that prove?

  • May 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm


    If you look hard enough you will find decisions that go against the club you hold dear. Infact go watch your fav team and you can gurantee you will be screaming for a free kick/Penalty, because of this everyones views will always be biased…Last months 2-1 Victory over celtic i found 12 Decisions that Rangers should have got and found 3-4 celtic decisions. Peoples Views are blinded by thier emotions. Live with it(y)

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