So, after further scrutiny of laboratorial proportions, Sunday’s game at Tannadice only enhances further the viewpoint that officiating at Scottish football matches seems to have deteriorated markedly over the past couple of seasons. Whilst there can be no doubt the Sky cameras – and the intense thirst for every angle to be covered – make the job an ever increasing minefield, there can be no question that if so many mistakes and bad decisions were not being made, the cameras would not be picking them up. Sunday’s disastrous performance from the officials is the latest in a long line of high profile incidents that are either missed, or worst still, spectacularly wrong. Cup finals, semi-finals, crunch matches and high profile games rarely pass these days without incident. Work your way down through the divisions from royalty to ramshackle and you’ll hear the same thing reverberating through the corridors of the SPFL grounds.
Standards are dropping. Players, managers and coaches at all levels are all saying and seeing the same things, but to my mind there is very little acceptance of that within the secretive and protective corridors of power. The longer we bury our heads in the sand and continue to ignore what everyone else can see, the longer it will take to return standards to an acceptable level.
Whilst I understand it is a difficult job with the advent of media intrusion in football and fans expectations at an all time unrealistic high, I still believe everyone in the game has a right to expect better. Matches are ruined and career paths can be changed on the back of one blatant offside, missed handball or a goalscoring opportunity catastrophically denied. If it were only one, there would be no issue. Human nature dictates that mistakes are made, but where else are there continual, glaring errors and rarely does anyone seem accountable? The answer to that is an easy one. Nowhere.
Player & Management/Referee & Official relationships are at an all time low. The ‘Respect’ campaign pays lip service and shows a united front, but clearly at ‘on pitch’ level, the cracks that have been appearing for many years have now reached Grand Canyon proportions. The trust amongst players and officials has all but gone on the back of some dubious high profile cover ups and tribunal decisions, and even more high profile mistakes on a weekly basis and the only way to get that back, is to start getting more of those decisions right.
I have to say here and now that I think our match officials are honest. The majority of bad decisions made are done so without favour. It is no coincidence that over the years, both Celtic and Rangers feel that referees favour one against the other. The truth is, both these bigger clubs have ALWAYS got more decisions, largely due to the influence of a large, vociferous support. To think they are not swayed by that, is to deny the blatantly obvious. However, my biggest gripe of all is that the officials don’t know the game. There are instances on a pitch that at times baffle me how a referee cannot see what’s gone on. The shot that has come off the defender with the goalie going the other way and a goal kick is given. The last ditch tackle were the defender clearly plays the ball. You can tell by the direction the ball has travelled that he clearly got a touch on it, and yet, only the ref didn’t see it. As a coach, in recent years, the officials had almost become unapproachable, aloof and arrogant and I know from speaking to many guys still in the game now, the feeling among many is still the same. It may well be a protective mechanism and there is no doubt some coaches and managers’ behaviour over the years does nothing to foster harmony, but unless there is a mutual mellowing of the ‘us and them’ mentality, there could be many more years of poor decision to come.
I also have a theory that one of the reasons for the decline, is the previous rule that referees had to be retired to the glue factory at 47. This meant that guys who were clearly at the top of their particular game; Rowbotham, Dougal, Dallas, Young et al, were phased out before they needed to be. Everyone will have their beef with each of these individual people, but there is no doubt in my mind, this was the last crop of officials, who made fewer big mistakes over the course of a regular season. Who do the present group have to aspire to? Surely it can’t be good for them, seeing the perceived top men making bad decision after bad decision. This has resulted in a fresh crop of officials, who have been rushed to fill the void left by their predecessors, without the knowledge, experience or know how to do it. I have also learned, that since the scrapping of the ‘overage’ rule, referees are no longer judged by age but by fitness. Are we to believe then that any referee over the age of 40, is being decided upon whether or not they are fit, rather than if they are fit for purpose? Unfortunately, in many cases, it looks that way.
So what can we do to extricate from this impasse? Well to my mind, the first and most obvious solution would be where applicable to use video evidence. The referee can still do the corners, throw ins and general decisions on the pitch, but key moments; dives, penalties, offsides that result in goals MUST be decided at the side of the pitch. 30 seconds to the fourth official replay and back again. In this age of technology, it can’t be difficult. Next, there MUST be accountability. At the moment, players and fans don’t see enough officials being punished for consistently poor performances. Sure, one or two are demoted for a couple of games, but does that really make any difference. We had the absurdity of our officials who made such a glorious hash of things at the weekend, refereeing in top games in Europe this week. Drop them for a month, and then phase them back in gradually, and pay must be altered accordingly. There should also be a system where they are removed from future UEFA games as punishment. It may sound over dramatic, but there are people’s livelihoods genuinely at stake on the back of some of the most spurious decisions. If nothing else, it will at least let the fans see that people are taking note of poor performance levels. My final recommendation would be that the referees watch more football. Attend practice matches, training games and league games at all levels, but don’t watch the referee, watch the players. How many of our officials are only ever at a match they are officiating in? How can they expect to see the obvious deflection or leg breaking tackle if they don’t know what it is (but make no mistake, they should).
There can be no other explanation as to why on so many situations, the only person in the ground who hasn’t seen the handball is the man in the middle. This may well sound like a rant, and in many ways it has turned out that way, but football runs through my veins, it is why I was at Celtic Park last Wednesday, why I was in Coatbridge on Saturday morning watching a kids game and why I was at Easter Road on Wednesday night. I wonder how many of our officials could ever say that about the game. I wonder how many have the passion for the game, you and I as a fan have. I wonder…
Finally… After having my say on the vagaries of our referee’s, it would be remiss of me to allow the situation to pass without comment on player behaviour. There is no doubt that players, on occasion, can help the officials with regard to their on-field behaviour. Surrounding the referee like a pack of hungry wolves does nothing to enhance the image of the game and nor, in my opinion, does it do anything to influence or alter a referee’s decision. Indeed, if I was officiating, I think I’d be more inclined to rebel against the madding crowd and prove that I was not one to be coerced into making any favourable decision. Feigning injury was a slight on your character back when I played and showing that your opponent had hurt you was a sign of weakness, not just as a footballer but as a man. A return to those type of principles among the players would certainly go a long way to righting some wrongs and teaching our young players some good habits for a change.
Diving has also become a scourge to our game, but I have a radical solution that I think may just rule out the propensity to throw yourself to the ground in one fell swoop.
If a player is deemed to have dived, the referee should be able to book the player and give a direct free kick in the same position at the other end of the pitch. So if a player dives in the box, a penalty is given at the other end and if a defender was to dive in his own half to get himself out of impending trouble, then the free kick is given right were the infringement took place. Of course, the referee would have to be sure, but surely the punishment alone would be deterrent enough to stop any striker from diving to gain a spot kick or dangerous free kick if the ball was shifted directly to the other end for the opposition to potentially score. It may be revolutionary and radical and no doubt slightly flawed, but without at least trying to erase this cancer from our beautiful game, and continuing to accept it, we are just as culpable as the players who perpetrate it.
Footnote: I started this blog after watching the Celtic-Dundee United game on Sunday and looking on at the aftermath throughout the week. I was almost finished it yesterday, when events from Hampden started to unfold and the sheer disbelief at what I was hearing started to sink in. I’ll give you my quick take on the incidents and leave it at that, but I have to say after the results of the appeals started to filter through, I felt so disillusioned I was going to pull it altogether. What’s the point, I thought. I can’t make a difference and it feels like I would be banging my head against the wall, but I owe it to myself to put my thoughts out there. I have not altered this piece since then, so here goes:
Van Dijk and Butcher: Both equally guilty, however, in my view, a yellow card would have been sufficient, but having given Van Dijk a red, Butcher should have been cited. Having not cited Butcher, it was inevitable, as I hinted at midweek, that Van Dijk would be rescinded to ‘even it up’
Connolly: Unequivocal dive
Cifti: Unequivocal and deliberate kick
Paton: Completely innocent
Brown: Reckless tackle, definite yellow, however under current rules, had the referee given a free kick, some may well have given a red and, had this initial incident been dealt with and play stopped, the whole sorry episode may well have been consigned to the annals of time.
So there you have it.
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