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.