Re-refereeing Scottish football

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Referees will often talk to the players before a match and state their expectations on how players should behave and highlight any behaviour or acts that won’t be tolerated in that match. To the viewing public, the style of the referee and how he will handle the game is usually clear within the first few minutes. Some refs may opt to let things flow and some will exact firmer control from the get go. In short, despite the rule book being the same, the interpretation will vary between officials and between matches and occasions.

In an ideal world the referees would be robots; cold, consistent, repeatable. But variations are tolerated because we're dealing with humans. That's just how it is, so it has to be accepted. On top of that it also adds a bit of interest, another dimension, in having referees with individual styles or personalities. However, what is important is that the referee is consistent within any given match. That way the players know where they stand, and the viewing public know too. That ultimately sets the context of the match and it cannot be dissociated from the decisions made within it. By that I mean that were an event to unfold and be dealt with in that instance and the referee will naturally, subconsciously or not, factors in other incidents and his handling of the game. Decisions could be "levelled up" or scores allowed to be settled within that game.

One such scenario would be the McGregor on Ferguson tackle in the recent Aberdeen v Rangers match. McGregor, arguably, pushed his luck and caught Ferguson under the pretence of protecting himself. The referee saw this and made the call to let it go with a warning. Minutes later in a similar play Ferguson drew some revenge and kicked at McGregor. The referee booked Ferguson. Both were arguably red cards, possibly even more so for Ferguson. But it was dealt with within the game. For the Compliance Officer to then take it out of that context is wrong. The referee clearly seen both incidents and dealt with them. The incident is no longer in isolation. You simply cannot start going in and picking individual incidents unless they are particularly violent or unsporting or clearly unseen.

Certain members of the press trumpeted the two game ban handed out to McGregor and reassured everyone that it was a victory for justice, that the besieged Compliance Officer had at least got something correct and therefore the system works (a stopped clock). Justice, the noun, means just behaviour or treatment, and it sits in a family with fairness, parity and even-handedness. As an example, if nine people commit an offence and they don’t get highlighted, cited or banned (when evidence exists), but McGregor does, then that isn’t justice. In fact, it’s patently unjust.

My understanding of the CO role is that it exists as arbiter for the laws of the game, who will deal with red tape, appeals and such like, whilst also picking up punishment on incidents that the referee missed or didn’t see (blatant diving, cheating or violent acts) or comments (of disrepute) outside the 90 mins of the match. This should give a level of consistency across the board that referees alone cannot achieve, keep the wider world of football in check and to anchor it to some solid common foundation. Of course, the latter role only works if said person or team sits down and watches the six Premiership games for that weekend and applies the same framework and filters to each.

As a minimum you must surely review the entire game to understand the context of any highlighted incident. Was Morelos out of control in the Rangers vs Celtic match? Or was it a well contested match where he was involved in physical tussles with opposition players who gave as good as they got, and who could also easily be cited if there were desire to do so?

But a full review does not happen. As it stands a black box exists between the point that incidents occur, and the moment the public get informed that a player has been cited (notice of complaint issued) and a ban is proposed/offered. Which is where it leaves itself wide open to conspiracy chatter. And the lack of transparency is a concern. What is there to hide? The intention is only to enforce the rules of football in a fair manner, that should be it. It’s hardly high-level government secrets. There needn’t be a shroud of mystery. All of which leaves us to draw our own conclusions and form opinion on whatever evidence exists i.e. through our own eyes from watching the football matches, as football fans, and the statistics related to those matches and processes.

And the statistics are baffling. Nine Rangers players have been cited in the past year or so with zero Celtic players reported. I believe the last Celtic player cited on the pitch for foul play was Glenn Loovens back in 2009. What makes this incredible is that we all saw Leigh Griffiths smack an opposition players head against the turf and Scott Brown kick at an opposition players face who was lying on the ground.

I think it's important to say I have no problem with Rangers players being punished when they push the limits but to not even issue those incidents with a notice of complaint is questionable. To further drive this home Scott Brown (again, i know) jumped in and caught Candeias on the lower leg with his studs. Textbook late, dangerous and reckless play. He repeated this act against Hibs, against a backdrop of maximum compliance officiating: (Scott Brown's tackle on Mark Milligan 'could have been a red' - Scott McDonald, BBC Sport). Then in this weekend’s match at Rugby Park he felt suitably comfortable and emboldened in his surroundings to do it again.

This gives us three tackles endangering the safety of his fellow professionals in six weeks. The referees opted to hide behind a safe yellow whilst the CO opted to look the other way, at this stage for the first two at least. As did our consistently predictable media - a yellow card for earlier challenge was as far as the BBC's match report was prepared to discuss it. Kilmarnock 0-1 Celtic: (Scott Brown scores then is sent off - BBC Sport). Now this might have some commentators dismissing these points as whataboutery, and they’d be correct, because that is exactly what justice and parity are. The same people said McGregor and Morelos pushed the CO too far with similar examples of foul play - when does Scott Brown receive the same attention and 'justice'?

The other problem we now have is that "trial by Sportscene" appears to be a reality. whereby the CO responds to the influence of the media and not to the merit of the incidents. The problem here is that bias does exist. Anyone that listens to Chris Sutton or Tom English knows they are biased. They apply different rules to Rangers, and others clubs, and Celtic. Be it for entertainment, attention, or sensationalism, under orders or just inherent visceral prejudice - they are biased and perform their media duties in that fashion. There is a trail of evidence proving such which I wrote about recently on this site.

The referees have a tough job, no-one will deny them that. But at least the referee is out there, under the eye of the crowd, and the cameras, knowing the game (and his career) depends on some level of competence and professionalism with no super-slo mo replays from various angles. A lot their job is quick instinctive decisions based on that experienced practising of the rules and you’d hope there is no time or desire to discriminate. However, it is up for debate if they can be swayed or influenced to make that the call that makes their life a bit easier – the safe yellow that keeps the tabloids or public broadcasting company from their doorstep. As with the CO process the recent statistics for the referees throw up some anomalies that should cause Rangers fans to raise an eyebrow. Is the shorter fuse on Rangers bookings or red cards a direct result of media pressure? Therefore, if it can be a factor one way or another should the media not be held to tighter standards in this regard? Shouldn’t the SFA/SPFL as the governors of the game put integrity, where it can be compromised, above slanted sensationalism from their licensed broadcasters? When one of your main clubs calls out one of said broadcasters then there surely should be a debate?

Personally, I believe that the last three compliance officers have questions to ask over their impartiality. Who chose them? Who vetted them? Does previous employment throw up a conflict of interest? As again the veil of secrecy and lack of scrutiny naturally draws suspicion. But even if they shoot 100% true and professionally, it appears that the process they operate is being fed input from a known biased source; therefore, the larger process is compromised and not fit for purpose.

And if these professionals are aware that the system is flawed and yet accept it then that must also be a problem. If the rules or process are inadequate, flawed or open to abuse, then stop and change them, surely? After all they are the legal arbiters. They work within the rules and have a responsibility to iron out any glitches where they see them. Or at the very least open the process up to the public, e.g. tell us who has been placing most of the complaints? After all it is only football, I’m sure there is nothing to hide.

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