Who would referee an Old Firm game?

7 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   October 26, 2010  |     14

Referee Willie Collum made his Old Firm debut on Sunday, and as reported by various media outlets, he – and his family – had suffered death threats by Monday. Such is the way of the world. Indeed it would hardly have been such a big story had the pressure on referees not been thrown into focus a couple of days earlier by the resignation of Steven Craven – a linesman in Celtic’s previous match at Dundee United.

Craven had been one of the officials involved in a penalty incident, as Celtic looked for a winner in the second half. Referee Dougie McDonald at first awarded Celtic a penalty, before going across to talk to Craven, following which the decision was reversed and play re-started with a drop-ball. It’s almost universally agreed that the decision eventually arrived at was the correct one – United ‘keeper Dusan Pernis got a clear touch of the ball before making contact with Gary Hooper – but, a little bizarrely, that didn’t stop both managers criticising the officials after the match. United’s Peter Houston suggested McDonald had been too eager to give the penalty in the first instance (although he turned down several other appeals during the course of the game), while Neil Lennon was critical – well, just because a mildly controversial decision had gone against them, and sometimes managers seem to feel duty-bound to have a whinge about it.

A few days later, after much needless public debate over the decision, and during which both Craven and his family are said (in some reports) to have suffered unspecified threats and abuse, Craven tendered his resignation to the SFA. There is more to this than meets the eye – it hasn’t been officially confirmed, but it would appear that the ultimate reason for his resignation was not these threats themselves but what he considered to be a lack of support from the SFA in their treatment of the incident. It seems that Craven actually played little part in overturning the decision, and that McDonald himself was the one who immediately doubted the award and changed his mind. If that is indeed the case, then the version of events given to the press in the aftermath by refereeing chief Hugh Dallas was incorrect – he indicated that it was at Craven’s instigation that the decision was overturned, thus leaving him open to the public attention (and criticism) he suffered.

If the SFA have failed to provide proper support to an official in such circumstances, that is of course a cause for considerable concern and means some questions need to be asked. But none of that, of course, absolves those who heaped on the pressure in the first instance.

And yet here we are less than a week later and we’re at it again.

Willie Collum is a very good ref and he had a rather better game on Sunday than a number of Celtic’s own debutants. I’ve seen him a few times lately and been very impressed with the way he controls the game and handles players, and that was in evidence again here. It threatened to get feisty early on, with each team having a player booked in the opening five minutes, but Collum kept the game under control and largely prevented any further trouble.

Inevitably, there was the odd decision that might have gone the other way, and there were some that were potentially significant. The first went in Celtic’s favour – the challenge for which Anthony Stokes was booked in the opening minute might have been deemed a red. Later in the first half Rangers’ Lee McCulloch – the other player booked in those early exchanges – brought down Giorgios Samaras in a situation that had looked vaguely threatening and he probably couldn’t have complained if Collum had deemed it worthy of a second yellow. Most conspicuously, in the second half, once Rangers had overcome a half-time deficit to lead 2-1, Collum awarded them a soft penalty when Kirk Broadfoot tumbled over a clumsy challenge from Daniel Majstorovic. I say soft, but I don’t say not a penalty; Majstorovic had missed his challenge and clipped the man, but to use the usual euphemism, Broadfoot “went down rather easily”.

None of these decisions was definitely wrong but each might have gone the other way on another day, and who knows what difference they might have made to the game. But as it panned out there’s little doubt the better team on the day won. Celtic were comfortably beaten in the second half and should be worried that they were unable to muster any significant spell of pressure even when they were chasing the game.

Lennon, to be fair, acknowledged his team’s failings after the game, but he also had a pop at Collum for the two decisions that went against them. And if that formed only a part of the interview then he should know perfectly well that it’s the first thing that’s going to be picked up one. Furthermore, while it’s too easy sometimes for managers to make indiscreet comments immediately after a game, Celtic have piled on the pressure since then by making it public that they were writing to the SFA, for the second week in a row, asking for an explanation.

Even if such letters need to be written – and let’s be clear that they don’t, on either of these occasions – there is no need whatever for such a thing to be made public, particularly given the circumstances in which, as Lennon well knows, a referee who falls foul of Old Firm fans will find himself.

It will happen anyway, of course, to a fair extent. No one is pretending that fans will not form their own opinions, and that the silence of a manager will prevent it occurring to any of them to be critical of a match official themselves, or for the very small number of nutters amongst them to take that too far. But managers have a responsibility not to fan the flames, and given his experiences in Northern Ireland, Lennon should know as well as anyone that the repercussions of those flames – particularly in the context of the Old Firm – can have consequences for peoples’ lives that go beyond football.

I’m not going to accuse him of paranoia, nor am I going to accuse his club (as some do) of having a persecution complex. I’m not even going to accuse him of intentionally ratcheting up the pressure to help influence decisions in subsequent games (though I’m  a bit suspicious) – I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and put it down to inexperience. But it’s inexperience that needs to be put right. He has already been criticised by Tayside Police for his behaviour during that game in Dundee (mostly for his overenthusiastic celebrations to their last-minute winner) and he needs to be taken to task here too.

Unfortunately, I’m not confident. Ross County manager Derek Adams had a rant at the weekend about double-standards with an obvious reference to Lennon, and he has something of a point – Adams himself is currently in the middle of a six game touchline ban, which is probably going to be lengthened somewhat after the latest outburst. It would be nice to imagine that Lennon would be treated equally but it’s unlikely, and in any case it would probably only serve to make the club and their support even more critical of the SFA. Ultimately, the discipline has to come from within.

Until it does, the pressure on match officials will only get worse. This week, and regardless of what contribution was made to the situation by the failings of the SFA, the game has lost a top flight official because of that pressure. That isn’t going to help anyone.



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.

  • October 26, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    jocky bhoy

    Lennon isn’t the only manager to have complained about refereeing/linesman’s decisions, though (unlike Smith) he hasn’t suggested it was anything to do with the offical’s surname implying a “different” demographic to the one he would like! Lennon has said nothing other managers haven’t said before “please get the impoprtant decisons right”, how is that controversial?

    The context of Lennon celebrating the last minute winner, after 3 penalty shouts turned down and two fouls missed in the run up to Dundee U’s equaliser, should be taken into account – and if Tayside police are seriously considering writing a letter abut his behaviousr (have they done so yet?) about “incitement”, then I suggest they have too much time on their hands. If managers can’t celebrate a win, are we banning passion? And I would take issue that the decision was “unversally accepted” it appears Dallas’s comments that Lennon accepted it was incorrect for a start.

    Houston’s remarks were if anything more critical of mcDonald after the Arabs game, why the focus on Lennon “pressuring” refs?

    Craven has resigned – as you say, apparently because of how the SFA were scapegoating him, NOT because of pressure. And either McDonald lied to Dallas about his decisions at Dundee Utd, or Dallas was complicit in a cover-up, either way heads have to roll if we are to have any integrity in our game.

    The fact that “honest mistakes” has so quickly become a euphemism is indicative of how prevalent the problems are in Scottish refereeing circles. And if these guys are really “top flight” god help us all.

    Final point: Lennon’s experiences in Northern Ireland are a curious point for you to raise – he had death threats from Loyalist (sic)paramilitaries, complete with code words, that had zero to do with stoking flames and all to do with him joining Celtic. He was also physically assaulted and knocked unconscious by two drunk Rangers fans in the street in Glasgow – I think he is very aware of the focus he is under but I believe he has a right to stand up and say what he feels without being intimidated.

  • October 27, 2010 at 4:11 am



  • October 27, 2010 at 4:33 pm


    No, Lennon is not the only manager to critcise refs, and I agree Houston was out of order too. But Celtic are the main subject here because they’ve compounded the error with their attitude since, and because of the consequences. And yes, of course the abuse of fans is the ultimate reason for Craven’s resignation, even if the SFA are also at fault for opening him up to it.

    I did say “almost universally accepted – it now appears one of those who doesn’t accept it is one of the other writes on this very site ….

    As for reffing generally, I wasn’t aware that “honest mistake” was a euphemism. My own experience is that reffing in Scotland is mostly excellent. As everywhere there are mistake, sometimes bad ones, and if there’s a pattern it’s that those mistakes tend to go in favour of bigger sides. Very much including Celtic.

  • November 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    jocky bhoy

    Are you going to update this Gavin, in light of the most recent round of revelations.

    That it most certainly wasn’t abuse that drove Mr Craven to resign.

    That Celtic, rather than being villains of the piece for asking for explanations, rather than kowtowing to the SFA & Ref’s Association conspiracy (and it most certainly was) aided and promoted by a painfully complicit media should now be lauded for having the courage to shine a light on the underbelly of the cozy world of Scottish refereeing?

    The fact that Hearts (arguably the third “biggest” club in Scotland) have come out with a more provocative statement than anything Celtic have done shows the deep-rooted resentment amongst the “bigger” sides at the referees questionable interpretation of the rules.

    And again, these issues are about the Dundee Utd game that Celtic won – so no sour grapes there. The fact that subsequent mistakes (how honest they are is anyone’s guess) occurred in Celtic’s next two games to Celtic’s detriment is not even the issue here.

  • November 1, 2010 at 2:02 pm


    I’ll be posting an update on Craven’s Sunday Mail piece and on Hearts (dreadful) statement later on today, yes.

  • November 1, 2010 at 2:38 pm


    (Mind you, you’re still not going to like it … )

  • November 1, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    jocky bhoy

    That may well be the case, but that’s the nature of debate Gav. At least there is a debate now and I would hope that you’ll be a wee bit more objective and perhaps ask some questions YOU think need answered, rather than just going “they Celtic fans are paranoid that there’s conspiracies against them” (c. every scottish media outlet).

    BTW did Tayside police ever send that letter as was widely reported? Will the SFA act on it, given the apparent complicity in the events of that day?

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