The Long Read: Scottish Football’s Ill-Disciplinary Process

by | Sep 22, 2018

To paraphrase Shirley Bassey, “if there’s a wrong way to do it, a right way to screw it up, nobody does it like…the Scottish Football Association (SFA).”

This week’s answer to the perennial question “WTF have the SFA done NOW?” concerns their implementation of changes introduced this summer to their ‘Judicial Panel Protocol’ (JPP). On September 14th, they had to issue a clarification/justification statement on new disciplinary processes which had “generated numerous enquiries in recent days,” and, an un-named SFA spokesperson understated, “much discussion and debate.” These were processes for dealing with “unseen offences of serious foul play, violent conduct and spitting,” and for appealing red cards via a ‘fast-track.’

For unseen offences, “three-person panels” now review “whether a sending-off offence occurred,” and only if they unanimously agree that one did will matters go further. Clubs appealing dismissals must prove that an “obvious refereeing error” has been made, lodge their intention to appeal before 1pm on the first working day after the match and submit their case within a further 28 hours. And the hearings are video conference between trained, independent judicial panel members. A sort of “VAR (Video Assistant Referee) after the event,” Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes suggested, correctly.

Seven weeks into the season, there’s been several VAR-esque controversies. Hence the SFA’s semi-desperate statement. Panels, it confirmed, came from “a pool of former Category One referees who remain active in the game and therefore up-to-date with the many modifications to the Laws of the Game and current coaching guidance.”

The changes were discussed “on numerous occasions” by “two separate working groups comprising representatives from clubs, managers and players. The SPFL Competitions Working Group, which includes representation from all four leagues, were also consulted. The changes were approved by the SFA board and all member clubs received details…in writing at the start of the season.” So, not exactly “agreed by the clubs,” as some have suggested in response to the controversies. Because even if that was ever entirely true, it isn’t now.

Mistrust in the process came quick, especially as the first cranky decision was enormously pro-Rangers. Twelve minutes into their opening game, at Pittodrie, on 5th August, Rangers’ striker Alfredo Morelos kicked his Aberdeen marker Scott McKenna, after McKenna barged into him, both actions as far from the ball as they were from the realms of common sense. Retaliators have been harsher punished than instigators throughout football history. So there was little new about McKenna, the demonstrable instigator, going unpunished, while Morelos saw red for ‘violent conduct.’

Rangers fast-tracked appealed. And Morelos’s red was quickly fast-tracked to yellow. However, the decision perplexed on almost every level. Morelos demonstrably kicked McKenna (if the Colombian had hit his 88th-minute shot against Celtic at Ibrox last March that cleanly…). And however blue-tinted your specs, it would be very hard to see how Rangers could prove a refereeing error at all, let alone an “obvious” one.

“I was of the understanding that if you kicked someone on the pitch, its more than a yellow,” the then-St Mirren supremo Alan Stubbs shrugged, on 9th August, correctly suggesting that if “another club” had “someone that kicks out at a player, if you’re putting your case forward, you’re going to show that.” He sounded less correct to suggest that “everybody will get off for it.” But, so far, “everybody” has.

On 11th August, Hearts’ Steven Naismith kicked/stamped on Celtic’s Jonny Hayes and loomed menacingly over him, screaming invective, while Hayes lay injured. “Hayes blatantly attacking Naismith’s boot with his arse. Shameful” tweeted ‘Old Firm Facts,’ captioning a picture of the incident. The SFA appeared to agree, as Naismith went unsanctioned, despite widely admitting his wrong-doing.

On September 2nd, Rangers keeper Allan McGregor kicked-out Celtic’s Kristoffer Ajer while Ajer lay injured. McGregor, too, escaped sanction, despite Rangers boss Steven Gerrard, otherwise busy blaming match officials for a loss for which his own tactical ineptitude was responsible, calling the offence “blatant.”

As per the new process, SFA Compliance Officer (CO) Clare Whyte consulted a three-ex-ref panel (only the SFA would make a ‘C Whyte’ Compliance Officer so soon after Craig Whyte tore Scottish football compliance asunder). But there wasn’t “unanimous agreement” from the panel. And speculation on their reasoning has centred on McGregor not using the “excessive force or brutality” to which pertinent Laws of the Game refer. This was because Ajer was too far away for McGregor to kick him ‘properly’ (though players can be judged excessively forceful “regardless of whether contact is made”).

Meanwhile, the previous afternoon, Aberdeen’s Michael Devlin saw red for hauling back Kilmarnock’s Eamon Brophy, five minutes into their match at Pittodrie. The Dons appealed. The fast-track system ‘worked’ to the extent of being ‘fast.’ But Aberdeen’s “media team” had to fast-track an official statement, on 5th September, expressing “extreme disappointment” that Devlin’s dismissal was upheld and saying they would make “no further comment.” Since when, they’ve barely stopped commenting further.

On September 11th, McInnes was quoted in Aberdeen’s local Press and Journal newspaper that “supporters, journalists and people in the game” were “all baffled by some of these decisions,” citing “the incompetence of these panels” and insisting, possibly JUST too late, that “I don’t see bias being shown towards any club.” Three days later, the club officially statement-ed that the SFA’s unpublished “explanation” of the decision was “unacceptable,” as “the evidence presented was overwhelmingly compelling in (Devlin’s) favour.”

They called for the SFA “to establish consistency and transparency in the appeal and referral process,” And with “technology making a significant and positive impact across sport,” they called for VAR “to be considered” to help “regain trust in the process,” and “enhance the game’s integrity, greatly assist referees, improve the game for fans and, ultimately, the perception of Scottish football.”

Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke probably saw little “consistency” in McInnes going unsanctioned for his “incompetence” reference, after Killie’s Gary Dicker saw red for “serious foul play” at Rugby Park on 25th August. Clarke was “sure that Gary will get off on appeal” and “disappointed with an experienced match official (Willie Collum) who couldn’t wait to get the card out of his pocket before he’d assessed the situation.”

Gary didn’t get off. And Clarke read, and Killie’s website reproduced, a prepared statement to a 31st August press conference. It said that a process which “excludes the people involved from putting forward their case face-to-face with the adjudicating panel will sometimes be open to strange and inconsistent outcomes” and repeated an age-old mantra: “Maybe smaller clubs like ourselves are fair game.”

But he grabbed headlines by being “in no way surprised at the outcome of our appeal,” because when he “heard that (Collum) had been appointed to take charge of the first Old Firm match of the season before our hearing had taken place I, and many other people, knew that the decision would go against Kilmarnock. There is no doubt that the perception of most and certainly of our club is that the hearing was pre-judged by this appointment.” So, it was “in no way” surprising that his “support for Scottish referees,” (“these sometimes-maligned figures”) and his insistence that “despite issues like this, they will continue to have my full respect and support,” fell on deaf ears.

There was a touching naivete (if naivete it was) about the BBC’s Jonathan Sutherland asking why an independent panel “would take into account Collum’s next match.” But it was in no way surprising that the SFA charged Clarke and Kilmarnock under SFA disciplinary rule 72, covering criticism of match officials by club officials, which “(indicates) bias or incompetence.”

Clarke has hired a lawyer for his 25th October hearing, insisting: “I stand by everything I said.” And he lambasted the SFA on 14th September after they published the charges: “I thought it was disrespectful that they spelt my name wrong. I won’t use the word amateurish but certainly unprofessional…We just want consistency in decisions, in who you charge and who you don’t charge. The same for every club.” Which neatly returns us to Steven Gerrard.

“It seems like the world is against us today,” Gerrard claimed after the Aberdeen game. “It’s been happening for seasons,” he added, as fans all over Scotland and beyond howled with derisive laughter. And he concluded that “It looks like some more decisions will go against us as the season goes on.” If it was hard to see how Gerrard escaped sanction for his forecast of future refereeing bias AND incompetence, it was impossible after Clarke was censured.

Thirty-six hours after Gerrard’s comments, the Daily Record newspaper somehow knew that “SFA disciplinary chiefs have looked at (Gerrard’s) comments and are not going to take any action,” yet couldn’t say why not. So, it was in no way surprising that much-sanctioned Hibernian boss Neil Lennon said last week that he couldn’t “understand” how the SFA “differentiated” between Gerrard’s and Clarke’s comments. “You think, ‘Is there an agenda here?’” he mused, loudly.

Lennon’s use of the A-word came the day after Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon used the A-word for which “agenda” is often a euphemism, criticising the “strange system” because, inter alia, “you never know what (panel referees’) allegiances might be.” An unworthy intervention, if surely worthy of sanction.

But whether agendas are at play or not, the problems with the new processes, as with VARs, are less with the processes themselves than their ill-application. In seeking to rectify “obvious refereeing errors,” panels have made “obvious refereeing errors” and have appeared inconsistent, in the absence of public explanation of their reasoning.

Kicking an opponent (or a team-mate for that matter) is surely by definition ALWAYS ‘excessive force’ in ‘limited-contact’ sports such as football. And Morelos demonstrably kicked McKenna. His only conceivable defence (inevitably, if for once correctly, cited by Gerrard) seemed to be that he was “barged twice quite clearly.” Yet if Morelos’s red card turned yellow because of this, why didn’t Devlin’s when his shirt AND left arm were demonstrably pulled before he committed any foul?

An “official” SFA explanation for the Morelos decision briefly appeared on its website, and in the Record on 14th September. But it was little wonder that it was soon taken down as it could credibly have been posted by an on-line troll. Rangers claimed that Morelos “flicked out a leg at his opponent but only as he tried to recover his footing, his opponent having barged into him twice.” And he “should have been cautioned for unsporting behaviour (not) sent off for violent conduct” because the contact was “negligible” and McKenna “was not injured by it.”

The panel bought this demonstrable cods, claiming that Morelos did not use “excessive force or brutality,” a startling, surely erroneous, admission that you CAN kick an opponent without “excessive force.” They added more demonstrable nonsense of their own, taking into account the “earlier barge” on Morelos (an approach utterly at odds with that of the Devlin panel) and Morelos’s “follow-through.” Worse, they said the referee was “unsighted” and the Assistant (singular) had “a limited view,” and somehow still saw MORE than the panel claimed happened?

Nevertheless, the Dicker panel were arguably correct, within their specific remit, to uphold his dismissal. His full-stretch tackle was studs-up, at some pace, playing man and ball. Did the panel think it was a red-card offence? Possibly not. But unless all panellists saw an “obvious refereeing error,” Dicker’s red stayed red. As with VAR, the question isn’t “was the decision correct?” but “was it obviously incorrect.” As with VAR, this point is too-frequently overlooked.

But the errors with the new processes have merely added to criticisms inspired by the widespread, longer-term mistrust of the SFA, with critics unwilling to give the SFA a clean slate because of unrelated past perceived misdemeanours. So, it is in no way surprising that the SFA have attempted to address that mistrust. But it is no way surprising that they’ve loused that up too.

On 18th September, the “Offshore Game” (TOG), responded to a spirited defence of the SFA by the BBC’s Tom English, who called the International Football Association Board (IFAB) “the real culprit,” a point part-undermined by the SFA being 20% of the Board’s constituent membership.

In a mini-twitterstorm, TOG asked: “If the IFAB’s failings are the key problem, why has this issue really only come to a head in Scotland?” And they invited readers to “consider” whether the SFA were “uniquely incompetent” or if “the atmosphere in the Scottish game is one of such distrust of the authorities, that the response to bad disciplinary decisions (which might happen everywhere) has been completely different in Scotland.”

One “completely different” response arrived on 8th September, when the Herald newspaper’s Steven Thompson, an ex-player, let fifty shades of rip. The “SFA must explain decisions or be open to ridicule,” he suggested, via headline, adding: “Every time I have looked at one of these decisions, I have come to the opposite conclusion to the SFA. It seems that the SFA are completely out of step with the majority opinion too on every single incident.”

The SFA dug themselves more holes with their non-response to five pertinent questions from the Times newspaper on September 13th. The SFA refused to answer, as they couldn’t “comment on individual cases.” A stock answer, which is often fair enough. However, only two of the Times’ questions WERE about individual cases.

And they kept digging. Last week, newspaper stories ‘emerged’ that they were seeking their own clarifications on what a “Hampden source” told the Record was “uncertainty over the wording of some of the most recent rule changes. New wording has been brought in and we need a greater degree of clarity.”

The SFA have sent video clips of the most “contentious” incidents to the IFAB. But the source undermined their attempts to blame the Board by suggesting there was “an issue” with “the use of the word ‘brutality,’” even though the “issue” with the Morelos, Naismith and McGregor incidents was whether they used excessive force OR brutality. Not necessarily both.

The Record had reported on 6th September that “the idea that the laws have changed” came from BBC Radio Scotland pundit and ex-SFA communications officer Darryl Broadfoot. In the Record report, Broadfoot made two mistakes in seven words “FIFA set the rules of the game.” And his claim that “the guidance has changed this summer” was similarly ‘mistaken.’

IFAB technical director David Ellery told the Record’s Keith Jackson on 19th September that “there hasn’t been any change to the wording for at least two years. We added one paragraph, partly at the request of the SFA. But there’s been no new wording this season in terms of violent conduct.” Not the SFA’s best week of addressing mistrust, then.

The changes to the JPP are workable ones. Hell…some of them are even quite. erm, ‘good.’ But mistrust of the SFA will outlast any solutions to any problems, especially as, up to and including last Wednesday, they continually provide reasons to demonstrably mistrust them. Nobody does it like them alright.