The Scottish game from the Borders to the Highlands & Islands and beyond
With Scotland's referees set to strike over their grievances, Craig Anderson wonders who's to blame – and what the endgame is
So it appears the referees in Scotland have finally had enough of all the flak that's come their way and are set to strike. But what will it achieve in the long run?
Weeks and weeks of relentless criticism have come to a head and all Category One officials have declared their intention to go on strike ahead of this weekend's schedule of games, which could decimate SPL, SFL and Scottish Cup fixtures as a consequence. Even Sunday's Challenge Cup Final between Ross County and Queen of the South is in serious doubt.
On one hand, you have to look at it and say "fair enough". When you get that level of criticism for doing what is effectively a paid hobby then you start to question if it's worth it. It's easy to forget referees love the game as well.
The public safety of officials has been cited as a reason and, as hard as it is to admit it, it can only be a matter of time before one of these refs meet the wrong kind of individual then it all gets very nasty. No job is worth that, nor is it worth risking the safety of your family.
However – and this is what many are struggling to get their heads round – what will be its ultimate achievement? Managers and players will still criticise in post-match comments and newspapers will still run critiques of referee's performances – something this writer did recently for a national tabloid when Dougie McDonald returned to action at Falkirk vs Ross County.
If anyone can spell out the benefits, please do. Don't get me wrong, I have great sympathy and respect for the officials and the job they do, but I can't see how strike action is a good thing.
I'd go as far as to say change is definitely required somewhere – starting with the referees' fraternity themselves. Where I would start is with the resignation of the man who indirectly caused all this kerfuffle, Dougie McDonald.
That's nothing personal; he is, in the main, a decent referee. But as soon as he confessed to lying over that decision at Tannadice in October, his position became utterly untenable. The football decision was 100% correct, but concocting a story with linesman Steven Craven over how it was reached wasn't clever – and wasn't necessary.
Complete honesty may not be written explicitly in the criteria, but it's surely a given for a referee, who is meant to be above all the divisions. McDonald's clumsy lack of judgement has taken away his integrity as an official and the sooner he realises that the better.
For the record, he shouldn't be sacked – and he won't be: he was judged by a committee of ex-referees (another error) and all he got was slapped wrists. He should be big enough to walk away himself. And whatever the press say, whether it was a "little white lie" or not is irrelevant to the argument. He lied, and lost trust and credibility – not just for him, but by extension for all his colleagues.
END THE DALLAS SOAP OPERANext up would be Head of Referee Development, Hugh Dallas, who has overseen this entire farce and in every passing week has seen his jacket get that little bit more shaky on that dodgy peg. There's no questioning his ability in his days as a referee, but his patriarchal behaviour towards his successors is nothing more than sheer arrogance.
It's been suggested that "The Whistleblower" section of the SFA website, where refs were given a platform to explain decisions, was taken down at his instruction. His failure to acknowledge any refereeing mistakes has upset many and with the news that 80% of refs failed a test relating to the Laws of the Game, something's going wrong somewhere.
It's been well documented that Dallas's work in helping refs obtain optimum fitness has been superb, but has this come at the cost of what should be basic knowledge of the game? Some argue this point by asking how many drivers would fail if forced to retake their driving test, but the Highway Code isn't amended every year.
Under Dallas, there appears to be a siege mentality in place and this feeling of non-accountability for errors and poor decision-making only adds to the bad feeling between the clubs and referees. After all, if he allowed refs to explain decisions by any medium necessary, people may not agree, but at least there is some level of understanding about the decision-making process.
The removal of Dallas would lead to more transparency, and looking to get him binned over a dodgy email is like jailing murderous gangster Al Capone over a tax fiddle – the right result by the wrong means. It doesn't make his other actions right by any stretch, but there are bigger footballing issues to deal with in his department.
CLUBBED TO DEATHReferees don't operate in a vacuum and clubs have their part to play. Celtic's behaviour since the Dougie McDonald affair has been questionable to say the least; the SFA would have been justified in charging them for bringing the game into disrepute. By failing to act, they've declared open season and Celtic have taken full advantage, whether it's been manager Neil Lennon or chairman Dr John Reid venting their spleen.
Many can understand why they were angry over what happened at Tannadice, especially since McDonald revealed he lied to Lennon over the penalty incident. But since then, Celtic lost to Rangers and Hearts – and the Hoops boss has blamed the officials both times.
Against Rangers, Kirk Broadfoot was awarded a penalty when he clearly dived, but ref Willie Collum had his back to it and only gave it based on what he saw out of the corner of his eye. Instead of slaughtering Broadfoot for diving in the first place, Lennon pointedly fumed at Collum's decision.
Against Hearts, Joe Ledley was correctly sent off for a scissors-style challenge on Ian Black. That angered Lennon, as did Celtic not getting a penalty for Ryan Stevenson's handball, but it was the manager's reaction to that got him sent to the stand. While he was well within his rights to be unhappy, his behaviour was ridiculous.
What made it even more ludicrous was Lennon blaming the officials at Tynecastle, while his captain Shaun Maloney made clear it was Celtic's poor performance that cost them, not the refs.
John Reid's comments at the club's AGM last week are believed to have been the final straw for refs considering strike action. At a time when they need support, they were kicked in the teeth by club officials happy to peddle some misguided notion that the SFA have some conspiracy against them.
Dealing with angry managers is one thing for referees, but club chairmen are a different matter – especially ones that are former MPs who have the audacity to lecture on "integrity" despite having claimed parliamentary expenses for a pouffe and a black glitter toilet seat.
The SFA set a precedent when they hammered Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov over comments made about officials, so why is Romanov (slightly) lighter in the pocket while Reid remains unpunished?
REF JUSTICEThe question though still stands: what would refs get from a strike, beside an impromptu weekend off? If it's purely to make a stand then fair enough, but nothing will have changed. Sadly it may just come out as the refs collectively taking their ball home and refusing to play because they're in a huff.
Their endgame has to be something positive and if it comes out of such a turgid mess then most people will welcome it with open arms. Until then, we can only hope common sense prevails and a last-gasp agreement is worked out in the ever-decreasing time before the weekend.
No matter what the outcome, this whole sorry episode will leave a foul stench around Scottish football for a while to come.
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