After an indifferent performance from the referee in the Scotland versus Germany match, I think the time has come. The one you’ve all been waiting for. The guy we love to hate and the one person you can’t play football without; our beloved referee. A man whose self masochism is so great, that he CHOOSES to put himself in a position where he is there to be abused, reviled and ridiculed. Many of them don’t even need it. Professionals with well paid jobs – doctors, lawyers, solicitors, bankers – are all refereeing part time in Scotland and in most instances, being fairly well paid for it. Why? It’s not a question I have an answer to. Maybe its greed or an ego that needs inflating or maybe some of them even enjoy it, but if it’s the latter, then masochism it surely is.

I have known and been friendly with many referees over the years, and always found the majority to be accommodating and very open off the pitch, but on it, as the years went by, it became more and more difficult to communicate and have a relationship with them. Indeed, by the time I was coaching, it had become almost impossible to talk to, never mind joke with the guys. This was due in no small way to the introduction of referees having directives from above which told them they had to apply the letter of the law implicitly (giving no room for common sense). In truth, I felt sorry for them when it was introduced, as it meant the days of having a laugh or a joke was a thing of the past. This made their already hazardous job, a much more difficult one.

The Men in Black

It will probably surprise you to hear, but in my opinion, the best two referees of my time were Willie Young and Hugh Dallas. How Willie passed all those fitness tests over the years I’ll never know. It must have been a bit like having a brother who manages a garage and your car never fails its MoT. Many of the bad decisions Willie made were because he was 40-yards away at the time and had to guess what had happened. But he was always fair, and most of all he liked a laugh and a bit of banter. He tells a great story about an Old Firm game where Paolo Di Canio felt he was having a particularly bad game and said to him “why don’t you just put on a Rangers jersey and play for them too.” Willie’s retort was “I think you’ll find I’m in a much better place to influence things in their favour where I am.” Most of today’s referees would probably have booked Paolo when he reached “why don’t you…”

Hugh was different to Willie, much more strait-laced, but a very good referee. Strict, but fair, he wasn’t one for taking any nonsense but as the years went by and he made his way up the FIFA ladder, he became a little more aloof and more difficult to talk to. It didn’t detract in any way from his refereeing though. He knew the players well and his relationship with them was strictly professional. He was on his way up and done things the ‘FIFA’ way and nothing was going to stop that. It may have been one of the reasons the fans seemed to dislike him so much, but in truth, he was the best there was. Today’s referees would do well to look at them as role models and a combination of both would make the perfect arbiter.

The Men in Yellow

So what of today’s group in their fancy coloured shirts sponsored by Specsavers (oh the irony). Metronomic in their approach, they all look the same on the pitch, but my biggest criticism is they don’t know the game. A deflection which was clearly a corner, a penalty where the defender clearly got the ball, a tackle which wasn’t even a foul never mind a red card, a goal from a corner which should have been a goal kick. How come fans and players alike can all see these decisions are wrong, but very often the referees can’t? We’ve all seen the ref even it up by giving a foul on the goalie, but is that right? Whatever happened to two wrongs don’t make a right? A lot of it could be stopped if they just took an extra couple of seconds to blow the whistle. A lot of decisions on the pitch actually referee themselves; players will turn and go into their natural position if it’s a throw-in or a corner, or even a free kick in the other teams favour.

Something else that irks me, do referees practice? I don’t mean blowing the whistle, or how to make a signal. Do they actually watch the “game?” I’ve always felt that it would help referees if they came and viewed training and practice matches, not to watch the referee, but the players, the tackles, the deflections, the fouls, the attitudes. I’m certain it would help them understand more, see more and get more decisions right. In 28 years of playing and coaching, only once has a referee ever come to observe a training session I’ve been involved in. It’s no wonder player-official relationships are at an all time low. To add to this we have the 4th official, whose presence in the technical area does nothing other than antagonise an already pressured situation. You have 10 players and officials from each side in a small area; do we really need to add bullets to the loaded gun? They are another unnecessary Blatter brainchild, nothing else.

Seeing Red

However, there is no question that players can also help officials. In my day it was a slight on your character if you dived or feigned injury. If I was tackled by an opponent, I’d have done anything possible to get back up; I never, EVER wanted him to know he had hurt me. I’d have prodded, nipped, intimidated, stood on toes and whispered in their ear what I would do if they took too many touches, but to get an edge on my opponent, feigning injury wasn’t for me.

I was only ordered off four times in my career in over 300 appearances, twice in the first team and twice in reserve games (I probably played in about 300 of them as well) and on each occasion, the red was fully deserved.

The first came in a reserve match at Norwich City. Ruel Fox, who went on to become an England international, was playing directly against me on the left wing and a searing diagonal was switched to him that bounced about six yards before him. I travelled at full pelt, knowing that if I timed it right, I could clatter him, the ball and anything else in its path as he cushioned it with his chest down to his feet. I didn’t reckon on the crafty Fox seeing what was coming and control the ball from his chest UP the way. I had nowhere to go and by the time the ball reached his feet he was already on the track. It wasn’t deliberate, I hadn’t gone out to commit a foul, but I gave the referee no option as I lifted Fox back up from the gravel and turned to see if I would be given any grace. Rightly, there wasn’t an earthly.

The second time was in a reserve game at Pittodrie, two fouls committed and two yellows meant an early bath. And the third, on my second appearance at Ibrox, through naivety and poor positioning, I found myself square on to Dale Gordon who was running at full pace through on goal. I maintain to this day he ran into me, but it looked bad and having been booked in the first half, the inevitable red was flashed. It’s a lonely walk with 47,000 baying for your blood. The final one was something I am not proud of and still haunts me to this day.

At Hibs we were playing in the 4th Round of the Scottish Cup at Montrose. It was a “banana skin” of a tie, but we played very well and controlled the match and with 20 minutes to go we were cruising 2-0. Then came my moment of madness. I controlled a pass, overran it and their tall, rangy midfielder came hurtling toward me. At that moment, the player in possession is in danger of being hurt as he has lost control and will need to stretch to regain the ball, so I slowed up and waited for his tackle. It never came. He pulled out and my foot rolled over the ball and caught him on the shin. I was trying to protect myself as I really thought he was going to injure me, but in all honesty, I had ‘topped’ him. I never even had the guts to look at the referee, got up and walked straight off. It was a poor tackle. I had a reputation for being a tough tackler and a fairly aggressive player, but it was the one and only time I ever went over the ball deliberately. I certainly wasn’t a coward on the pitch, I was hard and mostly fair, but that was a coward’s tackle. Thankfully, it was the last time I ever saw red.

One thing I am very proud of though is the fact that in 18 years of first team and reserve team football, I was never once booked for dissent. Not easy for someone with as big a mouth as mine on the pitch. I also always felt that I was a little bit of a better footballer than I was sometimes given credit for. And when people met me off the pitch, they were always surprised at how different I was to the player they had played against, it was all a persona. I did an article prior to the 1993 League Cup Final with David McCarthy, now of the Daily Record and the headline read “Quiet man Farrell sees red in Green.” I think that summed it up quite nicely….

David Farrell

1 thought on “MEN IN BLACK

  1. Referrees seem to be too close to the play now; often in the middle of the players amd unsighted from incidents as well as getting in the players way.
    What happened to running the diagonal and letting the linesmen help in their corners?
    When the refs went on strike, I watched an Israeli give a masterclass of precisely this style of referreeing. He also managed to give us a penalty too!


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