BBC Scotland sports journalist Tom English, one of the best of a much-maligned breed, tweeted a very good point this week: “Sunday was a great result for Neil Doncaster. With all this thunder about Steven McLean it almost seems like last Wednesday never happened.” English was referring to the aftermath of Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s 3-2 win over Celtic in Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final and in particular the reported inability of three of the match’s officials, including referee McLean, to see a clear handball by Caley’s Josh Meekings. This aftermath has, momentarily at least, drowned out the outrage at SPFL CEO Neil Doncaster’s behaviour last week .
Celtic and Celtic fans have a long-held reputation for paranoia over Scottish football officialdom. I have never fully bought into all that. Yet many decisions against Celtic, on and off the pitch, have had “proper” explanations with scarcely more credibility than those of conspiracy theorists. Last Sunday was a case in point. A Leigh Griffiths header was travelling towards unmarked Celtic colleague Kris Commons in the six-yard box. Meekings threw his right arm out horizontally and the ball struck it just above his wrist, clearing it from danger. He then threw his head back in what resembled an attempt to suggest the ball hit him in the face.
It was a punishable handball according to the laws of the game. And had it been given, Inverness would have been one goal and one man down, one minute before half-time, with the ball on the penalty spot. In such circumstances, their terrific victory would very likely not have happened. The Official ICTFC twitter account tweeted: “Celtic fans booing the ref but in fairness that is a cracking save from Josh Meekings.” And the fact that an official site could joke so openly and immediately about the decision exposed just how unusually bad it was. It even became clear that McLean, assistant Frank Connor AND goal-line official Alan Muir should have had unobstructed views of the incident. Muir was five yards away and reportedly (initially) did see it but was apparently fooled by Meekings’ head movement.
However, McLean claimed he saw nothing untoward whatsoever. And if he couldn’t see the ball striking a horizontal arm from his position (I’m sure Sky’s Monday Night Football geeks could have demonstrated how clear his view was), you’d wonder what he could ever see in crowded penalty areas.
Thus infuriated Celtic fans were left with two explanations. (1) the conspiracy theory of officialdom having it “in for” Celtic; or (2) three officials looking straight at a handball and not seeing it for various reasons. Even those who dismiss (1) find (2) scarcely more credible.
As Danny Murphy said on Talksport radio station: “How on earth has he not seen that? It was one of the most obvious ones you’ll see… it was that bad, it makes you think, there must be something else going on.” Former Celtic striker Chris Sutton, (in)famous for his conspiracy theorising around Celtic’s last-day loss of the 2003 Scottish title, said Muir “must be an idiot not to see it.” He admitted “it’s not a conspiracy, it’s a rubbish and inept decision,” but added “Celtic will be harbouring grudges for some time, and rightly so.”
Had Neil Lennon still been Celtic manager, he would surely have landed himself in the hottest of disciplinary waters. But Ronny Deila, Lennon’s successor, is a calmer man, whose reaction was measured enough to indicate huge frustrations while acknowledging Celtic’s own failings on the day. He said: “I don’t think I have to say much about that. Everybody saw what happened…referees make mistakes as well, but this mistake was very hard to take…we’re very disappointed as we had control at 11 versus 11 and should have killed the game off.” And on Monday evening, Celtic issued a formal statement. This “first and foremost… absolutely” congratulated Caley “on reaching the Scottish Cup final. They are a fantastic club and reaching the final is a great achievement.”
But “given the level of reaction from our supporters and across football,” Celtic felt “duty bound to seek an understanding of what actually happened.” And without “any other specific explanation so far” wanted “simply to understand the circumstances… and why such an obvious error was made.” The statement carefully avoided sour grapes or paranoia. Inverness got due credit. And Celtic rightly limited their “duty” to asking what all who saw the incident would surely have asked. However, the Scottish football media is over-populated by, and gives too many unchallenged column inches to, sensationalist morons (a Scottish Daily Express headline writer found My Hoops were cheated in semi-final loss in Deila’s comments above). So Celtic might as well have said “the ref’s a mason and we demand a replay.”
In another Express story, by Scott Burns, temperately headlined Sulky Celts should be punished says Caley Thistle legend, Barry Wilson claimed Celtic were “bringing the game into disrepute,” and that “it is total sour grapes” because “plenty of 50/50 decisions…have gone in their favour.” “They’ll be wanting the game replayed next,” he added. You’d hope this was tongue-in-cheek, despite his interpretation of Sunday as a “50-50 decision.” Rangers boss Walter Smith also implied darker, ulterior motives, without evidence or challenge: “If a club was to write a letter to the SFA asking for an explanation then they must think there’s something else involved in it.”
In the Herald newspaper Graham Spiers wasn’t so coy. He asked: “Is anyone suggesting something more sinister…went on at Hampden? Well, alas yes they are,” using Celtic’s statement as evidence and equating the “terrible refereeing moment” with “janitors (who) sometimes ring the school bell one minute late.” He even cited Legia Warsaw’s breach of Champions League rules last August. “Understanding the circumstances…” wasn’t an issue back then for Celtic,” Spiers noted. Well, no. The “circumstances” were clear, Legia did rather more than seek “understanding” and the issue was Legia’s as, unlike McLean and co, they were punished. That apart, the analogy was perfect. And Spiers stated: “They all failed to spot Meekings’ blatant infringement.” So. Sensationalist. Moronic. And factually wonky. Good effort, Graham.
Dim Daily Mail professional sensationalist Adrian Durham claimed that Celtic wrote to the SFA “crying about the penalty”, that they “think they are so gigantic they have a divine right to get to the final” and that they “need bringing down a peg or two.” He also interviewed Caley’s winning goalscorer David Raven, whose quote “it’s definitely taken the gloss off for me a little bit” Durham magnified into “Well done Celtic, your extreme arrogance managed to spoil the highlight of an honest pro’s career. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Raven, though, was clearly reliant on Durham’s dishonest interpretation of Celtic’ statement, given that he wondered what Celtic “hoped to get out of” writing to the SFA, when the statement answered that question clearly and concisely. And he added that “For a club that size to write to the SFA is a bit much,” without suggesting the “size” of club for which such action was acceptable.
Meekings was cited by the SFA for denying “an obvious goalscoring opportunity by deliberately handling the ball.” But in a story temperately headlined Inverness go to WAR with SFA in bid to overturn Josh Meekings’ cup final ban, the Daily Record’s Michael Gannon wrongly said Celtic had “erupted in the aftermath…and demanded an explanation” and added in the next paragraph that the “(SFA) Compliance Officer Tony McGlennan studied the footage and offered the ban…” thereby conflating the two instances. The legendary Wilson certainly made the connection, declaring: ““If they ban Josh it will be because Celtic made this big song and dance.” Nothing in Celtic’s statement fits the description “song and dance.” But Burns passes up the opportunity to demonstrate this. Meekings could only receive retrospective punishment if none of the officials saw the incident. Yet, as already noted, the fifth official did see it. Indeed, Griffiths, whose header Meekings blocked, noted in the Herald that “I asked the ref why he didn’t give the penalty and he said the assistant behind the goal said it hit him in the face.”
A responsible press would have followed this up. Instead they slavishly gave free rein to the authorities’ narrative. “Scotland’s referee’s chief” John Fleming claimed in Glasgow’s Evening Times newspaper that “I don’t think there was anyone in the ground who would have thought it was 100% a penalty and sending off until they had seen the replay.” However, it wasn’t clear whether he thought Muir saw the incident: “For him to see properly…he would have had to see through the head of the player. So I can see why in real time it looked as though the ball hit his face.” Meanwhile: “Steven [McLean] could see through the gap in play as the game unfolded but there was a millisecond, a click of the fingers when his view was not 100%.” This, we were left to assume, was the “millisecond” during which Meekings outstretched his right arm and blocked the ball.
BBC Scotland’s Richard Wilson followed suit: “We have to presume that the (officials) did not see the ball strike the Inverness defender’s hand, since the clear, unambiguous consequence was to award a penalty kick.” And he added: “It is reasonable to expect at least one of three officials to be well-positioned enough to spot a clear handball inside the penalty area,” before preferring to claim that “…a game” could not “be reduced to a single moment” to any questioning of the officials’ failure to meet expectations. Meanwhile, a more philosophical Smith than during his Rangers days, believed that: “From anybody’s point of view it’s a straightforward error. It’s a penalty kick, the officials missed it and I think everybody has to accept that’s the case.” It seems that “everybody” in the Scottish media did.
Instead, Celtic were the bad guys, simply because a team of officials made a game-changing error (acknowledged by both sides playing in said game) and they sought an understanding of why it was made. Meekings will, correctly, not be suspended for the final because the handball WAS seen, despite four days’ media insistence otherwise. Muir’s “ball-to-face” claim was in the referee’s report, something which escaped journalistic scrutiny. And the officials’ collective myopia was deemed “an honest mistake,”- precisely the label Celtic fans have attached to many decisions about which they have been “paranoid” down the years. This exposes much of Scotland’s football media as dishonest, both for pushing an unquestioned narrative about unseeing match officials and for misrepresenting Celtic’s attitude and involvement. The real story remains the officials’ incompetence. This, however, is what the headline to Wilson’s BBC Scotland piece called “part of football’s unpredictability,” even if many Celtic fans found it all-too-predictable.
That’s how Scottish journalism “works.”
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