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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12 thoughts on “MEN IN BLACK 2

  1. Good article

    If the referees have to attend league matches to improve their skills. Surely players, managers and even pundits should attend referee training courses.

    Pundits always have their say on referee’s decisions. Think of the outcry if referees started to question manager’s decisions.

    For me the players are dishonest. Using technology will never change their attitude.

    What is so special about football that every decision has to be correct. What other industry expects perfection?


    • I dont think anyone expects perfection, but they have a right to expect the officials not to get so many big decisions wrong. What other profession gets away with that? Players diving ARE being dishonest, but thankfully, although seemingly on the rise, it is a minority. You also have to consider that any decision made by a match official, a player cannont make him make a good or bad one. Players etc going on refereeing courses will not make the referees any better, it will only make them more aware of the Laws.


      • Think you missed the point there, David. Don;t care about pundits but would players and coaches not benefit from elarning more about what refereeing a game is all about? In fact, get each club captain refereeing a bounce game (but instruct the players involved to make it ‘professionally difficult’ for the ref) and I reckon they would soon filter the message back to their players that the man in black needs more respect.


  2. No, I didn’t miss the point. What your saying is effectively asking the plumber to learn more about what the joiner is doing. Players do not need to know how to referee. Would you ask a referee to take part in a practice match as a player? Its nonsensical. Referees need to be officiating in more of these training/practice matches you are talking about in order that they practice refereeing and gain an insight into the game. Whats a bad tackle and what isn’t. Whats a penalty and what isnt. Whats a dive and what isnt. If they dont do that, standards will never improve and we’ll continue getting the types of decision we are now on a regular basis.


    • Not sure what a ref would learn from bounce games as these will hardly be played at full pace or with decent intensity. But a player would soon learn to understand why decisions are made if they realised just how difficult it was to make them in the first place.

      And using the phrase “standards will never improve” after suggesting referees need to decide what a dive is or isn;t shows just how difficult their job is. Players need to improve in that respect.

      Maybe a player could officiate in a game involving 22 referees…there’s your cup final half-time entertainment sorted!


  3. Good article as usual David. Only thing I disagree with is the introduction of TV replays. Association football is a different sport from others and thrives on being unique. The referee, flaws included, needs to be the sole arbiter of decisions and to call it as he sees fit. 9/10 they get it right. Andy N’s wider point is worth emphasising in that players really should get a grip of the game’s laws, if, for nothing else, to understand the dilemmas facing officials.

    I don’t think standards have dropped. The game has changed (and not all for the better), with tackling virtually outlawed and refs are under pressure to award free kicks for the littlest discretion of the laws.


    • I wasn;t suggesting players don;t know the laws, I was saying that players have no idea how difficult it is to referee and need to accept why wrong decisions are made.


  4. I understand and appreciate your point, I just disagree with it in that we already have an appeals process in place which undermines the referee being the sole arbiter, therefore it makes sense to overrule blatantly wrong and important decisions there and then. On your other comment, i’m not really sure where the perception that players don’t know the Laws comes from? Is there any evidence to back this up?


  5. Issue is all about angles really – referee only has one view & is sometimes ably assisted by an assistant. Most refs – not all – have played the game at some level usually down in the lower leagues – I played till I was 42 at junior & amateur level then took up reffing. Whilst due to age I will never get up to Premiership standard I still get to officiate at a higher level than I played – semi professional.

    It is true that players have themselves to blame for some of the stuff that goes on because they are always trying to gain an advantage & do not care how they do that sometimes it’s blatant diving sometimes it’s making the most of an innocuous challenge in an effort to get an opponent a 2nd yellow or other sanction.

    Video replays are a good idea with amount of money on offer in CL etc but that’s a very rarefied stage & grass roots football will still have same issues. You are correct that serious sanctions need to be taken against culprits whatever their offence as youngsters & amateurs just copy what they see on telly.

    Part of the problem is pundits as well they are the people aspiring footballers are listening to after the games & generally they do not have a clue about the laws of the game. They are the ones who could do with undergoing some referee Training & then officiating at games.

    A lot of the professional clubs already send their young players on the referee course just for an understanding of the laws of the game but you actually need to spend a season or two officiating games in order to get a proper feel for refereeing.

    Excellent article by the way really enjoy reading your stuff. I like you was aghast when Ciftci was not proven & there was TV evidence (Tonevs rasicm proved & less evidence? ?) & was astonished when Brown’s challenge went unpunished definite foul definite yellow in my book. Yes a yellow for VVD & Butcher & Paton did nowt wrong!!


    • Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to comment. Agree with a lot of what you say but my gripe is that I would believe that you are in a minority among refs having played the game to a decent standard. There are a lot of times when a clear lack of knowledge about the game results in poor decisions being made. Its not the angle, or the players fault or a lack of their knowledge of the laws, its just very poor decision making from the ref. Its a difficult job but they have to get more of the big/key decisions correct and at the moment they are not. I’d be willing to bet that with you having played a bit, you’d make less mistakes in a game than many of the high profile guys out there. I’m not talking about in big Cup Fimals, i’m just talking in run of the mill matches. I’d also be willing to bet there are many times, like last week, when you sit and say “I wonder how he has missed that”! Once again, thanks for the praise on my articles. Its fun to do and as long as people like yourself enjoy them, i’ll stick with it. Cheers


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