The Man in Black/Red/Puce/Fluorescent Yellow

If you asked football fans across the world, from San Jose in California to Nagoya in Japan, I have no doubt that they would tell you at some point over the last two seasons, at the very least, their team has been on the wrong end of a cataclysmic error by a match official. Our 21st century coverage of football matches, which has seen a multitude of sophisticated, ultra-sharp lenses recording high-definition footage of every square yard of the pitch, has resulted in referees and assistant referees’ performances being analysed and dissected at a far more forensic level than at any time in the history of the game. Indeed, even as recently as twenty years ago, most matches in the Scottish football Premier Division were not covered by any of the respective sports broadcasters at the time (BBC, ITV, Sky).

Now, even run of the mill league matches are shot in HD, with additional cameras in line with the goal line or 18 yard box and opposite the main camera gantry. The pundits analysing the match can use sophisticated computer technology, which imports information from the recorded footage, and rotate, swivel and pivot contentious incidents through 360 degrees to examine if a particular player was offside or not. They can also look at pictures recorded by powerful telephoto lenses frame by frame to confirm whether a player managed to get one quarter of a stud on the ball before he fouled his opponent in the penalty box, and sometimes even then they can’t make a decision.

The trouble is, match officials’ performances simply can’t stand up to this level of scrutiny without errors being detected. This is because referees and their assistants are human beings, and human beings make mistakes. If you were to analyse every unique decision a player made on the pitch over the course of a typical game, there’d no doubt be dozens of forced and unforced errors to report back on. To take the parallel further, if a guy with a camcorder was to follow you around for one day at your place of work, he’d probably capture scores of instances where you’ve done something ‘a bit wrong’.

Until such time as goal line technology and instantaneous review of offside decision is available to match officials, they’ll continue to use their own eyes and judgement, and a fair amount of the time, they’ll get it completely wrong. As intimated in the previous paragraph, this is because human beings are prone to making mistakes in life, despite our best judgement; that’s why pencils have a rubber at one end, goes the old adage. And that’s fine, if you accept that just like players, managers, commentators, journalists, fans et al, referees and their assistants are going to make a blunder once in a while.

The problem arises when players, managers, commentators, journalists, fans et al, ingenuously or otherwise, isolate an error a match official has made, highlight it, and go on to harangue the individual in question, clamour for the introduction of technology into the game and for the referee to be sent back to the amateur leagues until he’s learned to officiate properly. A good deal of the time, this referee-bashing is simply a smokescreen enacted by the manager to obfuscate how bad his team were on the day. This again is human nature, and is unavoidable. It’s also fairly harmless, and more often than not is forgotten about by the time the next match rolls around. Well, in some countries anyway…

I first started following football in 1989 or thereabouts, supporting Rangers, and it wasn’t long until I became aware that the fans of our cross-city rivals, Celtic, had a reputation for being somewhat ‘paranoid’. A century earlier, Celtic had been set up to help raise funds for Irish immigrants in Glasgow, and to this day continue to draw their support, mostly if not exclusively, from Scots with an Irish Catholic background. There has long been friction between Protestantism and Catholicism across Europe, and it’s particularly pronounced in Scotland and Northern Ireland; it was no surprise then that those Irish immigrants of the Catholic faith met with hostility from Protestant Scots who were already struggling to make ends meet.

Into the 20th century, Catholicism remained a minority religion in Scotland, and despite Irish Catholic immigrants developing strong links with Trade Unionism and the nascent Labour party (the party that would go on to dominate Scottish politics in the last hundred years), Scotland still appears to many to be a predominantly Calvinist nation. According to Glasgow City Council, as of 2003 some 74% of Celtic fans would identify themselves as being Catholic, as being a minority religion in a country where historically there has been ill-feeling towards that religion. Does that explain the alleged ‘paranoia’, that referees continually give ‘strange’ decisions against Celtic? Perhaps. Does it prove that Scottish football is institutionally biased against Celtic Football Club? No, I don’t think it does.

The fact of the matter is that Celtic are one of the two biggest club sides in the Scottish game, and can be evidenced the world wide, bigger teams get more decisions their way in games against smaller teams than vice versa. One only has to look at complaints of visiting managers to Manchester United to witness this. In addition, any supporter of any team in Scotland can provide a list of refereeing decisions that have gone against them when playing Celtic, including supporters of Rangers. Indeed at times supporters of other Scottish teams display similar levels of mania about shadowy conspiracies that Celtic fans have often been accused of. What does this all prove? It proves that, at times, Scottish football officials make massive cock-ups on a fairly regular basis.

For example, many Celtic fans will have been fuming about the penalty awarded in last week’s Old Firm game. And I would be inclined to agree that it was very soft, and that Broadfoot made the most of it. However, I’d also argue that I felt Anthony Stokes should have been sent off in the opening minute for his foul on Saša Papac, and Georgios Samaras arguably committed three yellow card offences, the third of which might have seen red in of itself. ‘But’, Celtic fans might counter, ‘Stokes’ tackle was no worse than Lafferty’s challenge on Hinkel last season’. A tackle that most observers seemed to think was worthy of a red card, not a yellow?

We could go on like this for hours. My point is that judgement of refereeing in Scotland is very rarely impartial, and all too often clouded by club loyalties. I don’t think constantly accusing officials of making ‘strange’ decisions is particularly helpful.