Who would referee an Old Firm game?
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.