Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Referee Crisis: A Sorry Saga

If you were still wondering if Scottish football had lurched into crisis confirmation came during an SFA press conference yesterday.

Our old friend George Peat, president of that august institution, denied that game was in crisis. Case closed, we’re obviously in the middle of a catastrophe when George adopts his head in the sand posture.

The referees strike - although, legally, it might be more of a refusal to work - is the culmination of a turbulent few weeks.

Along the way we’ve had some drama, some moments of farce and much sorrowful shaking of heads from people who, and here I include myself, actually, crazy as it might sound, quite like Scottish football.

This is a multi-layered saga. An emotive one as well.

And nobody comes out of it particularly well.

Let us deal with Celtic first. Dougie McDonald lying to Neil Lennon didn’t start this collision course between Celtic and officialdom.

There is no conspiracy against Celtic. They might, like every other team to have played a game of football, have been victims of incompetence. But there is no smoking gun, Hugh Dallas is not scurrying away from the grassy knoll.

If Celtic want improvements in Scottish refereeing, they have gone about it in completely the wrong way.

Back in June, Neil Lennon had this to say about how his players should make themselves, and their opinions, known to referees:

"I did it myself as a player, not to influence the ref but to let him know we weren't happy, “ the Hoops gaffer said.

"Any challenges that were a wee bit heavy, there were two or three of us around the player who did it.”

This was part of Lennon’s drive to put the fire back into the Celtic players. It also signalled something unsavoury about the Celtic management’s attitude to referees. We probably should have predicted the storms ahead.

This is not to condone refereeing mistakes against Celtic. But it goes a long way to explaining what I consider to be a widely held view that Neil Lennon is neither the victim of a wide ranging “anti-Celtic” conspiracy nor an innocent bystander in the controversies that have engulfed him in recent weeks.

For reasons that I don’t fully understand Celtic seem to have ramped up their complaints this season, tacitly endorsing the view that the Scottish football establishment is waging war against the club.

Last week Celtic chairman John Reid told shareholders that the club:

"weren't looking for special treatment for Celtic, and never claimed to be better than anyone else, we won't be treated as less than anyone else. Those days are gone,"

“Those days are gone?” Interesting choice of words for a man who made a career out of delivering his government’s message. Calculated, you might say.

Reid may have been simply pandering to his audience. But he knew that his comments would be widely reported, that they would have a greater impact than simply a chairman addressing his shareholders.

Given the swirling discontent surrounding the issue of refereeing, and the refereeing of Celtic games in particular, I’d argue that Reid was fanning the flames of a controversy that was already threatening to run out of control. I think that was irresponsible and unbecoming of the role he holds.

Reid also suggested that Dougie McDonald should resign for lying and trying to get others to lie on his behalf. He might well be right. But I’d suggest that a man who held no fewer than six cabinet positions during Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war is probably not as qualified as others to make that argument.

To paraphrase Tom Lehrer “it was at that moment that satire in Scottish football died.”

During this prolonged period of uproar, Celtic’s conduct has been misguided, tinged with paranoia and, in recent weeks, both manager and chairman have been guilty of making misguided, even inflammatory, comments.

And that has done them no favours. It’s robbed them of any sympathy they might have had for the poor decisions that they’ve been on the receiving end of. More importantly, it has muddied the waters of a debate that Scottish football needs to have.

I’ve been arguing for long enough that the SFA is not fit for purpose. That’s been crystal clear in the last few weeks.

In the Dundee United v Celtic game Dougie McDonald made a mistake. He then rectified that mistake. And he then compounded the whole saga by telling lies. In a job that demands honesty and integrity that is unforgivable.

It’s an open and shut case that nobody appears to be denying.

Yet McDonald remains as a Category One referee? How is that possible? I don’t know. The SFA new Chief Executive Stewart Regan - who is surely longing for the more sedate environs of Yorkshire cricket - launched an investigation.

But he then had to hand any decision over to the referees committee made up of McDonald’s colleagues in the refereeing world.

It seems senior SFA figures are surprised that McDonald remains in place yet are unable or unwilling to remove him. Surely now they’ve found the excuse they need to revolutionise their processes and systems.

If weekend reports that our top officials are incapable of reaching the acceptable pass mark in a standard test on the rules of the game are true then something is seriously awry in the way we train and assess match officials.

It’s here that Celtic’s ranting and raving - and Celtic’s is the more immediate example and the more media friendly one, although Hearts and Dundee United’s Peter Houston have also been guilty - is nothing more than a distraction.

By either suggesting or condoning a conspiracy Celtic detract from the more real problems of a widespread incompetence.

And, for that, the buck has to stop with the man who apparently must always be called “ref’s supremo,” Hugh Dallas.

Dallas played his own murky role in the McDonald affair. More damaging, however, is the inescapable conclusion that the SFA seem to allow him to exercise a Stalinist level of control over all issues to do with refereeing in the Scottish game.

If Dallas was the right man for the job he’d be across the airwaves right now either backing or condemning the threatened strike.

If he was the right man for the job he’d be putting mechanisms in place to make referees more accountable, the decision making process more transparent.

If he was the right man for the job we’d have fewer bad decisions to discuss and some method of demotion or suspension to deal with the worst offending officials.

But we have none of these things. So Hugh Dallas has to go and he has to take Dougie McDonald with him.

If there is a reluctance within the SFA to insist on that then it can be probably be explained as a refusal to pander to Celtic. Which leads to a cul-de-sac. If the SFA refuse to act because of the way Celtic have behaved then we’re in a rather sorry mess. A plague on both their houses.

And then we come to the latest twist. The referee’s planned strike at the weekend. The final descent into farce.

Not all our referees are irredeemably bad at their job. Many are guilty of mistakes but they are honest mistakes. Even at their worst they retain their integrity - McDonald’s moment of madness after the game at Tannadice aside.

The idea that they turn up for 90 minutes every Saturday, pocket their cash and go home is laughable.

It takes dedication to be a referee. And it takes a thick skin to put up with the abuse they receive from the moment they start out refereeing age group games. In fact it’s hard to think of another job, except perhaps politics, where realising your ambitions will bring such an increase in the amount of abuse you need to put up with. And they do all this in their spare time.

There’s something to admire in their dedication, even if you suspect that many of them probably always volunteered to be milk monitors at school.

But there is nothing admirable in the decision to strike. Their actions have generated bad press for Scottish football at a time when we are hardly the most respected of footballing nations.

They’ve also jeopardised important revenue streams for our clubs at a time when we’re not awash with cash.

And, by refusing to give interviews to fully explain their reasons, they have created a media vacuum that has been filled with speculation and gossip.

At the moment I don’t understand what the strike will achieve. It seems a strike that has little purpose, certainly no definable measure of it’s success. That’s not so much an industrial action as it is a holiday.

When it comes to the strike game they’ve shown themselves to be more Arthur Scargill than Jimmy Reid.

If referees have been subjected to sustained abuse outwith what is normal in the heat of a game, if their families feel threatened, if they have been receiving abuse at their full time workplaces, then that is wrong.

If they feel that any clubs, managers, players or officials are guilty of encouraging that atmosphere with their behaviour or comments then they need to state that and demand that the SFA takes action.

Certainly wiping out the weekend’s fixture list is not going to halt the actions of society’s nutters. And there must better ways of getting the SFA’s attention than enforcing a weekend shutdown.

Where will be when all this is over? Dougie McDonald will still be a referee. Hugh Dallas will still be presiding over his own personal fiefdom. Celtic will still be peddling their complaints. The SFA will appear even more impotent than before.

Weeks of nonsense, weeks of faults and stupidity on every side of the various arguments, will have ended in a farce that has achieved nothing.

And it’s me. And it’s you. The punters who just want to see a game, have a couple of pints while discussing how the players played and the ref reffed who will have lost out. And the rudderless ship that is modern Scottish football will have lurched ever closer to the rocks.

> What? No mention of the Hugh Dallas email? No. Not relevant. Perhaps it calls into question his judgement. It might even call into question his sense of humour. It definitely calls into question his IT skills. But it’s a human resources question for his employers rather than anything else. Others might disagree.