wsc303Mark Poole on the controversy which should lead to the SFA updating their disciplinary procedures

Video evidence is all the rage. It seems that every time a manager or pundit is unhappy with a decision they ask why we cannot use video evidence, at least to retrospectively punish the opposition. The Scottish Football Association (SFA) are addressing the issue.

Last year they employed a full-time compliance officer and implemented a fast-track tribunal system to judge and punish players for misbehaviour or cheating. But last month, referee Steve Conroy resigned. His decision to award Rangers a penalty in December had sparked the most controversial case under the new system. Other countries considering using video evidence would do well to heed the lessons from Scotland's experiences.

Last season the limitations of the SFA's antiquated and opaque disciplinary procedures were exposed in arguments between the governing body and Celtic. The new tribunal system is part of the ongoing attempt to modernise and clarify the SFA's procedures, and make their decisions more transparent. Retrospective disciplinary decisions are now made much more quickly. Punishments for diving – or, in the case of Hibs player Leigh Griffiths, for giving the finger to every man and his dog – are clear.
Inevitably, the system has attracted criticism, particularly after Conroy awarded Rangers winger Sone Aluko a penalty in a narrow victory over Dunfermline in December. It seemed a marginal decision. A couple of days after the match, the tribunal "offered" Aluko a two-match suspension – the system's quaint terminology is its least modern aspect. He appealed, but the tribunal's decision was upheld. Rangers manager Ally McCoist called it an "absolutely incredible decision" and complained that the tribunal had labelled Aluko "a cheat and a liar".

Aluko questioned whether it was appropriate to have a compliance officer who was not a former player: "If you don't play, you won't know what has gone through a player's head. You get used to expecting knocks or kicks. As soon as you feel something, you think ‘that's what I was waiting for'. But the compliance officer, with all due respect, has not played football. He is not going to see it that way." Aluko also said he thought the system put additional pressure on referees. He is a good player and comes across as intelligent and fair-minded, but the panel's decision seemed correct and Aluko's attempts to defend how easily he went down were unconvincing.

With some justification, McCoist compared Aluko's case to that of Hibs striker Garry O'Connor, who successfully appealed against the two-match ban he was offered for a similar fall against St Johnstone. O'Connor seemed lucky to win his appeal, but it does not follow that Aluko should win his too. It is important that a system like this should be consistent, but as SFA chief executive Stewart Regan says, "there will always be those who don't like the outcome" of any disciplinary system. It is not clear if McCoist would have been any happier if O'Connor's ban had been upheld too.

More important than managers' perennial perception of inconsistencies and injustices is ensuring that a new disciplinary system does not undermine referees. Conroy had been a top-level referee in Scotland for 12 years and had taken charge of almost 100 SPL matches, including a New Year Old Firm derby, before he unexpectedly resigned on March 16. Dunfermline's visit to Ibrox was the eighth top-flight game he had officiated this season. The tribunal's decision to suspend Aluko clearly implied that Conroy had been wrong to award Rangers a penalty, but the referee's supervisor on the day had complimented Conroy's overall performance.

The SFA should have stressed that the job of a referee is difficult and that they will sometimes make mistakes, while supporting Conroy and stressing his abilities. Bizarrely, they instead declined to offer him any more top-flight games. After 14 weeks of being overlooked, Conroy resigned. He declined to comment on his decision, while rumours circulated that other referees are also unhappy with how they are being managed.

The hunger for football controversy can blind people to the advantages of innovation. Most people will be pleased that players are being punished for diving and the new system may even help deter would-be divers. The SFA should be congratulated for trying to clamp down on cheating. Consistency is important, but absolute consistency is almost impossible to achieve. However, it is possible to provide more support to referees who are justifiably worried that retrospective judgement could undermine their authority. Hopefully the SFA – and any other associations considering implementing similar disciplinary systems – will learn this lesson. 

From WSC 303 May 2012

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