In the second in the series of issues relating to abuse within the sport, Rob Freeman looks at the causes of this weekends proposed strike amongst Scottish referees.

Yesterday, the Scottish Senior Football Referees’ Association (SSFRA) notified the Scottish Football Association (SFA) of the intention of the nation’s referees to strike over the forthcoming weekend. This came after a vote among the thirty-two category one referees backed industrial action in the wake of increasing criticism, pressure and questions about the integrity of the game’s arbiters north of the border.

The Scottish Premier League’s (SPL) view is slightly surprising with chief executive Neil Doncaster expressing disappointment, suggesting that it will be the fans of the clubs that will be hit by the strike, and vowing that the weekend’s games will go ahead by attempting to secure scab labour. This scab labour would come from lesser qualified referees in Scotland, or even go abroad for referees for the SPL’s six games this weekend. Scotland’s fourteen Category Two referees have agreed that they will not cover the games at the weekend, and at the time of writing, referees from the Republic of Ireland and Scandinavia (who both have Leagues that run in the summer and therefore don’t have fixtures this weekend) are alleged to have been approached. This is a disappointing reaction, with the League more interested in minimising it’s own disruption – even at the risk of enflaming the situation – rather than trying to intervene with the dispute, or even backing the men that allow the SPL games to go ahead every other weekend of the year. Instead, Doncaster has stated that he will leave it to the SFA to try and resolve the situation, while he organises Plan B. The SFA have also made it clear that, should there not be a resolution by the weekend, then they will back scab labour, rather than their referees.

Gavin has covered the Dougie McDonald and Steven Craven controversy elsewhere on the site. While McDonald and Craven’s conduct was far from ideal, the abuse that assistant referee Steven Craven received went way beyond the bounds of the acceptable, especially when his family are also the targets of the abuse. That the abuse from Celtic fans over the penalty incident did not cause him to quit does not mean that the abuse was fair. Craven has also confirmed that Celtic fans were not the only ones to have targeted him with abuse in the past – this is neither a one club nor a one game issue. The SFA’s failure to support Craven led to Craven resigning as an official, not to mention a bad taste in the mouth, and Celtic’s calls for McDonald to resign, go too far. However, the criticism of Scottish referees has not stopped at the penalty incident at Tannadice – indeed that has merely been the catalyst for further criticism from some quarters, as well as the revelations of what officials in Scotland are forced to put up with. As well as the suggestions of abuse towards their families, former referee Kenny Clark has claimed that referees have been victims of criminal damage, and have received letters containing razor blades through the post. The Sunday Mail has also claimed that only five out of thirty-one referees passed a refereeing test taken on a Spanish training course earlier in the year, and even MP Pete Wishart has called for referees to publicly state which team they support – a call which could lead referees open to even more suggestion of bias, in cases where a referee take charge of a game in the same division as the team he may support. South of the border, officials have on occasions revealed their allegiances when they have felt that they have been accused of bias – after appearing to celebrate a Liverpool goal after playing an advantage, Mike Reed revealed that he was an Aston Villa fan, and when Mark Halsey was accused of celebrating with Manchester City fans after he’d refereed their Second Division play-off victory against Gillingham, he declared that he was a Queens Park Rangers supporter. However, these revelations are few and far between, and should be voluntary.

That it has to come to a strike is depressing, but too many high profile incidents where criticism of referees and referee’s assistants has gone over the top into the realms of mistreatment have forced the men in black into a corner. As the lowest paid participants in the game, and least interested in the outcomes of the games they officiate, they feel that they are not only falling short in terms of the respect they receive, but it has come to the point where they feel they are not getting any respect at all. Regardless of your view of referees within the game, one thing is certain – at the top of the game, they are essential, and the game cannot go on without them. Accusations of bias, and criticism outside of the ground goes beyond the bounds of what anybody within the game should have to expect – and if the fans cannot control what they dish out, and the SFA fail to back their officials in the face of such an onslaught – then maybe one weekend without officials is not enough.

Still to come this week: Booing your own team & more.

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