1 December ~ Scottish football’s latest crisis passed last weekend, once again with little credit to be dispensed. When Dundee United hosted Celtic on October 17, Celtic’s Gary Hooper seemed to be fouled in the penalty area. Referee Dougie McDonald gave a penalty but changed his mind after consulting with touchline assistant Steven Craven. After the match McDonald told Celtic manager Neil Lennon that Craven’s comments via earpiece had instigated the change. Despite Celtic winning 2-1, the issue refused to die, and finding himself served up as scapegoat Craven broke ranks and denied he’d influenced the decision. A few days later McDonald admitted this was true, but refused to resign.
Lennon’s combative playing nature hasn’t diminished in management where he’s constantly stoked arguments over contentious decisions, including the following week’s Old Firm derby. Before that match Craven had resigned his position after reporting threats to himself and his teenage sons. The Old Firm referee Willie Collum received death threats hours after denying Celtic a penalty.
Lennon is central to the issue, but it is wider. Other managers also sport chips on both shoulders, and while the Scottish FA claim to support referees, it’s very much lip service in the face of other considerations. Hooper, lest we forget a Scunthorpe player last season, proved he’d ingested a full dose of Parkhead paranoia in commenting that referees want to persecute Celtic as one of the world’s big clubs. The final straw for referees appears to have been Celtic chairman John Reid declaring that a referee who’d lied to his manager had no position retaining his post and should resign. Given these principles, one presumes as a cabinet member Reid held Tony Blair to the same standards following the Iraq invasion.
Matters peaked on November 21 when referees announced they would not officiate the following weekend’s fixtures, claiming their integrity was continually undermined. Let’s look at ourselves here. When our forward blooters a sitter over the bar, we groan or maybe swear. When a referee is presumed to have made a wrong decision the abuse continues all match, and for days afterwards in the cases when he is actually wrong, which is often not the case. And we’re the reasonable fans, not those who phone death threats.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the affair was the SFA’s sordid scrabble to solicit referees from abroad without fully informing them of the reasons for the strike. Irish and Scandinavian officials turned down the opportunity to be abused in Scotland, and when Portuguese and Polish replacements were confirmed the SFA declined to name them. The Poles announced a day later they wouldn’t be travelling, while the Portuguese contingent actually set foot in Glasgow airport before returning home.
When questioned by reporters Alan Hamer, the referee from Luxembourg who took charge of Celtic’s match with Inverness, admitted he’d not known why he was required, and had he known he might not have participated. Other Saturday SPL matches were covered by officials from Israel and Malta. They passed without major incident, and the SFA were spared further embarrassment as the weather put paid to Sunday fixtures. On Sunday McDonald announced his immediate retirement, aged 45. Frank Plowright