Steven Craven, the SFA and refereeing

7 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   November 1, 2010  |     18

The controversy over the non-penalty award at Tannadice a fortnight ago, and the SFA’s alleged cover-up thereafter, has gained fresh impetus with assistant ref Steven Craven giving his side of the story to the press this weekend, now that he’s resigned and is free to speak.

A quick recap: referee Dougie McDonald awarded Celtic a penalty in their game at Dundee United and then, after a brief conversation with Craven, changed his mind and restarted play with a drop-ball. (Most – though not all – observers thought the correct decision was reached eventually as United’s ‘keeper Dusan Pernis seemed to deflect the ball away before colliding with Gary Hooper.) After the game it was stated that Craven had called McDonald over to correct his mistake; Craven and his family allegedly received abuse for it from some of the knuckleheads among the supporters; and he resigned as an official citing not the abuse but apparent issues with or lack of support from the SFA. It also transpired that the version of events given in the aftermath of the game was incorrect, that McDonald had initiated the conversation between them, having immediately doubted his own decision.

On Friday the SFA announced the results of their own enquiry into the incident, as a result of which McDonald was given a warning for giving inaccurate information in the post-match debrief, but was otherwise exonerated and allowed to continue. They also backed up the final decision not to award the penalty.

Then yesterday, Craven’s story appeared in the Sunday Mail, accompanied by all sorts of journalese about rocking the game to its core etc etc.

The first part of his story confirms pretty much what we knew – McDonald had given the penalty, the went over to Craven of his own volition and said he thought he might have boobed and asked for Craven’s opinion. Craven said that, although he was further away and hadn’t been going to overrule, he thought he’d seen the ‘keeper touch the ball first as well. Accordingly, they decided between them it was not a penalty, and the game carried on.

It was after the match that things got messy. Between them, the two decided to tell the SFA’s match observer, and the managers and thus in due course the press, that it had been Craven’s decision to call McDonald over to discuss it. Craven says this was McDonald’s idea, McDonald denies this and says it was Craven’s suggestion. This is obviously contradictory – but I don’t think unreconcileable, and I’m prepared to accept that both are now, at least, telling the truth as they see it. (The second assistant, Charlie Smith, has backed up McDonald on this point.) Whoever’s idea it was, it led to head of refereeing Hugh Dallas giving out the wrong version of events to the press.

Later in the week, when this had failed to take the heat of the situation, McDonald spoke again to Craven and suggested they come clean, which he was relieved to agree to, and each of them in turn then spoke to Dallas by ‘phone.

It’s at this point that Craven – or at least, the Sunday Mail who ran his story on their front page yesterday – makes the most serious accusations. “Dallas tried TWICE to get him to repeat what he knew to be a lie” is the sensational tagline, and of course it’s the one that’s been picked up on by those looking for Dallas’s head, and has left the SFA defending itself against claims of a cover-up. But, I’ve read the story through a couple of times and I can’t see anything in it that backs up such a claim – at least if the claim is that Dallas wanted Craven to continue to lie about it in public. Even in Craven’s / The Mail’s account of this conversation, all Dallas does is repeat the original version back to him as if he is still struggling to understand what actually happened.

If Craven really did think, as the Sunday Mail implies, that Dallas was asking him to continue telling a version of the story that he knew to be untrue then he attributes no direct quotes to him to that effect. Dallas has categorically denied all the accusations this evening.

Craven then makes further, more general accusations of bullying and harassment against both Dallas and referee development office John Fleming, which had already made him decide to quit in December.

Clearly, there are serious allegations here, both in general and specifically, and made by someone with direct experience of the system. Few bosses are universally liked by people working under him, and I may already have expressed some scepticism above about the claims being made in this incident, but this should not be brushed under the carpet. Nor should McDonald’s initial decision to lie about the chain of events – regardless of how and at whose instigation that came about.

The important thing, however, is that any such investigation and debate is conducted in a reasonable and rational manner. Inevitably, that’s not happening. Instead, it’s loony-time. Much of the press and every football fan across the country with their own axe to grind about refereeing has jumped on this incident as if it backs up all the worst things they ever thought about refs.

First up, Celtic fans feel vindicated because they don’t think they’re responsible for Craven’s resignation. This misses the point, Craven says he feels he was left to “take the flak” for overturning the penalty. Given that the SFA have once again clarified that this decision was perfectly correct, there’s only one reason why there’s any flak to be taken – because being associated with a high-profile controversial decision against one of the Old Firm, even a perfectly correct one, is an unpleasant experience. But let’s be completely clear that it’s the clubs and their fans who make it one, and not the SFA regardless of their failings in handling the situation.

It also leaves Celtic as a club to go thinking they have some kind of a point in their very public complaints about refereeing last week. The criticism I made of Neil Lennon on this topic last week still stands – but he’s been comfortably bested by this appalling article on the Hearts website yesterday, which openly calls into question the integrity of the whole refereeing community and even talks of the possibility of match-fixing. Again, there is nothing in any of the allegations made this weekend – even if they were to be accepted in full – to justify such nonsense.

That’s the sad thing about this. McDonald and Craven made a very poor misjudgement. It was intended to take the pressure off them, but instead it’s given leeway for Hearts, Celtic and every other club or fan with absurd delusions about reffing incompetence or institutional bias to confirm in their own heads that they were right all along – and that of course has only increased the pressure not just on the people involved but on all refs across the country.

I repeat, I do not want to see these allegations simply brushed away, they do need to be reinvestigated. But any and all such investigations should take place in a calm and reasonable manner and not in the midst of the current feeding frenzy of press and supporters. McDonald’s misjudgement came in the context of the daft amount of pressure under which refs operate that, and the solution to that does not involve using the incident to jump on them and further increase that pressure. If we really want to improve refereeing standards – indeed if we really want people to continue to referee at all – it needs calm and rational debate. All we’ve got just at the moment is bloodlust.



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.

  • November 2, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Para Noid

    No mention of Dallas’ PR offensive where he claimed that Lennon agreed with the decision, in fact Dallas is on record repeating the false version of events even after he knew them to be false. Hopefuly Celtic have the bottle to pursue this to the very end, no doubt guys like yourself will continue to put your fingers in your ears.

    To blame Celtic and their support for any abuse a ref may or may not get after a match is completely unfair as well and smacks of deflecting the blame from where it lies. Craven’s resignation had nothing to do with Celtic or its fans according to himbut still we are to blame.

    You couldn’t make it up except you just did.

  • November 4, 2010 at 9:20 am

    jocky bhoy

    Wow. Well that is as comprehensive a missing the point as I have seen in a long time Gavin.

    The fact that deliberate lies have been told in an official capacity to cover-up what is still a very questionable decision (the SFA said it was ok – the SFA hjas said it’s ok to lie to cover-up a contentious decision – how can we take them seriously!), lies that were agreed to by the very highest levels of the refereeing fraternity, lies which were then were disseminated through the media and to the public through official channels – all the time with those responsible for policing the game knowing they were lies – and you see fit to criticise teams such as hearts, celtic, dundee united (let’s not forget Houston’s rant at mcdonald after the game) for questioning referees’ integrity?

    “They” have been caught out this time, you think this is the only time there has been collusion amongst referees to cover errors or even deliberate cheating? Wow. 100% exposure rate for discovering falsehood? If you believe that I have a bridge I want to sell you…

    You propose that the footballing establishment should have time to “reinvestigate”? They investigated once, agreed and accepted there were deliberate lies, and let the perpetrators off scot-free (no pun intended). Then they got found out. And you want to give them the chance to cover up AGAIN? And even more bizarrely, without the media glare (which was at best luke-warm last time, preferring to believe craven resigned because of “death threats” presumed to be from celtic fans). That’s crazy talk.

    Everyone involved in this should either resign (Dallas) or be fired (McDonald) for gross misconduct/bringing the game into disrepute. They have shown they are capable of lying to suit their own agendas and as such cannot possibly been seen as fair and impartial.

    Once those proven to have lied or been complicit in those lies have gone, only THEN might teams and fans give the refs and SFA respect – respect that must be earned not demanded.

  • November 4, 2010 at 11:54 am


    The only ones caught lieing are McDonald and Craven – the suggestion in both those comments that Dallas told a version he knew to be false is, unless he made some other statements than the ones I’ve seen widely reported, simply not true.

    No I don’t think that’ll be the only time refs have agreed such cover-ups after the game. Though it’s interesting that McDonald himself felt bad enough about it to decide to come clean the following day, before any of the subsequent outcry – that doesn’t suggest to me that it’s something he does every week. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. And Craven has made further allegations since last week’s initial inquiry which also need investigation.

    But none of this means we need to indulge anyone in their paranoid fantasies about wider reffing biases against certain clubs, or about Dallas’s alleged bias during his own career, or any of the other various things that have been wheeled out lately.

  • November 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    jocky bhoy

    So the only two people “admitting to lying” are McDonald and Craven and their testimony implicates Dallas in the same.

    The two people who have “come clean” (your words) have implicated Dallas are actually implicating him for no good reason? They have admitted their misdeeds, which inherently implicated an otherwise innocent man?

    If Craven’s testimony is suspect (is anyone’s testimony in this whole debacle NOT tainted?) why would McDonald state this?

    McDonald coming clean BEFORE the susbsequent outcry? The outcry started the minute the penalty HE awarded got rescinded by HIMSELF. He knew he’d get found out and decided to cut his losses! The idea that you portray his actions as that of “an honourable man” is, to be frank, barking.

    He got caught, they got caught. You still can’t accept that the refs did something wrong can you? It’s Celtic’s fault for asking! For you everything is still rosey in the SPL, SFA Scots Refs (lost the will to even look up the acronym tbh), yet the rest of the world is incredulous. It’s interesting (and for me, massively incriminating) that the English press are the opes leading the calls for resignations and sackings whilst the Scottish press is “business as usual, nothing to see here, honest mistakes….”

  • November 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm


    To clarify that – there was an “outcry” rigtht away insofar as Celtic got a decision they didn’t like so of course it was controversial. But to the best of my awareness (and I’m willing to be corrected on this) the particular allegation that McDonald had lied to the match observer and to Lennon after the game didn’t come out publically until later in the week – after McDonald had already admitted as much to Dallas.

    I simply don’t accept your interpretation of the facts in your second paragraph there I’m afraid. Neither man has accused Dallas of saying anything he knew to be false, and nor did he actually do so, as far as I can see. Craven has, however, accused him of asking him to (continue to) lie. That’s a serious accusation and as I said in the article I don’t think it should be brushed aside lightly.

    I have not said everything is rosey, nor have I given an opinion on whether or not McDonald and / or Dallas should go. I don’t really have an opinion either way on that, as it stands. This article was intended to be more about the atmosphere and context in which the debate is taking place.

  • November 5, 2010 at 10:01 am

    jocky bhoy

    OK, let’s just deal with the facts as they are laid out – forget the fact that Craven has gfone on record saying Dallas encouraged him to lie and Dallas said he didn’t.

    I think we’re both agreed MacDonald called Dallas post match and confessed (according to the refs’ uniopn head, Craven AND McDonald, though Dallas said it was the other way round), “Dougie, on leaving Tannadice, immediately realised that’s not the way he wanted it to be conducted… He informed Hugh Dallas of that fact. Hugh, quite rightly, was very upset at what he had heard and instructed and informed at that point that all of the match officials tell the truth”.

    However, subsequent to that conversation Dallas released a statement saying “Neil Lennon took the time to go to the referee’s dressing-room about 40 minutes after the match was concluded. They had a discussion and Neil accepted that the decision was correct… He received a full explanation, which he found acceptable after the match.”

    You say neither man has accused Dallas of saying things he knew to be false, but at that point Dallas knew Craven hadn’t been called over and he knew Lennon had been lied to and he knew there were lies in the match report. Surely if you repeat something you know to be untrue that is a lie?

    Simple question to Dallas – why didn’t Dallas comne clean and nip this in the bud? Why did he propagate this lie? Perhaps because they’ve got away with it before?

    The reality is Dallas as chief of referees and he has been seen to, at best have covered up deliberate falsehoods to a manager and to the public at large, making him complicit in the lie*, at worst encouraged and expanded on the falsehoods already made.

    Dallas’ position is one requiring being seen to be impartial and to apply rules equally without fear or favour. He has fallen short of that requirement and should resign.

    *An individual is complicit in a crime if he/she is aware of its occurrence and has the ability to report the crime, but fails to do so.

  • November 5, 2010 at 4:05 pm


    Okay. I do at least see where you’re coming from.

    Dallas was very careful in that statement to say nothing untrue (and he didn’t, as far as I can see). He did, admittedly, skirt over the issue of who had initiated the conversation between McDonald and Craven, but I don’t see that as a big deal – did you expect him to come out and draw everyone’s attention to that and publically criticise them for it? I wouldn’t expect any (good) manager to do that to their staff, myself. But if you’re saying the failure to correct the earlier version was effectively a lie by omission then probably I see your point, whether or not I agree. (I think the allegations subsequently made against him by Craven are more serious.)

    Again, I’m not suggesting it be brushed under the carpet. I’ve no particular beef to defend him or McDonald and have no real opinion on their futures. (I suspect McDonald especially is going to find it very difficult to come back and my guess is he’ll retire early after a discreet interval.)

    But again – and I’m repeating myself here so I’ll make this my last – none of this justifies most of the crap that’s been talked in response to it. Even if the worst of the allegations are true, even if both have to go, there’s nothing to back-up any of the allegations of bias for or against any clubs that have been aired or encouraged not just by the usual suspects among the press but – most disgracefully – by a couple of the clubs. (Hearts being the worst offender.)

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