A few years ago, we had a great feature podcast lined up at 90 Minute Cynic. A work colleagues happened to be one of the leading assistant referees in Scottish football; he’d achieved almost everything you can hope to as an official from Scotland, and had been heavily involved in some of the most intriguing domestic and European games this decade.
A great talker, he could have told some really fascinating and insightful stories about what it’s like being a referee, on the pitch and on a personal level as someone who loves football and has a front-row seat to it. Only one hurdle remained: the SFA had to approve it…
The management person at Hampden who in the end blocked the podcast had apparently gone on the Cynic website and found an article on the front page where we said something derogatory about Partick Thistle (sounds highly likely). And that was it for our chat with the referee.
According to the SFA suits, this assistant referee appearing on a Celtic-based podcast which had once said something less than flattering (probably an understatement) about Thistle in an article could apparently leave him open to suggestions of bias. This, in turn, could lead him to be taken off any Celtic or Thistle games in the future, which is a risk he of course would not want to take. And the most ironic side of it? My colleague was a Thistle fan.
Even in a middle of season like this, with the next refereeing controversy seemingly only days away, context is crucial. Rule changes over the last few decades – back pass, offside and handball laws especially – have all made the game more fluid and less rigid, helping create a lot more attacking and entertaining football. Players are so much faster, stronger and can run further. Referees’ jobs are harder than ever but they are also better trained, better coached, and less influenced by external factors. Quite simply, in a historical context, today’s referees are better than ever.
And even within this context, and acknowledging the undeniable fact that you’ll be hard pressed to find any football fans in any league that are happy with referees, we seemed to have reached a nadir in Scottish football when it comes to the status of referees. It’s a terrible scenario for the SFA, referees, players and supporters alike.
When writing an article about Scottish referees, there are so many angles you could pursue. You could focus on how Scottish games are officiated, especially when it comes to allowing a level of over-the-top physicality. In Scotland there seems to be a higher threshold, and undeniably an inconsistent one, for what is a foul, what is a caution, and what is a dismissal. This does nothing for the development of players and playing style in the country, and simply makes flashpoints more likely and the job for referees tougher.
There are plenty of discussions to be had around professionalism: whether being a top-level referee should be elevated to a full-time job and a career. For decades, NFL referees in the US were also part-time, holding jobs like dairy farming and school headmaster save for three hours on Sunday, before the league wisely went to full-time referees in the wake of some serious controversies.
In Scotland, the lack of clarity and structure in the current appeal processes, compliance officer remits and guidelines to referees are other aspects worthy of further exploration.
Many in-depth columns could be written about the institutional sectarianism that blighted Scottish society and football for many decades, and how that would have manifested itself in the officiating of games in the past.
There are some that argue about the possibility of widespread unconscious bias among referees who grew up supporting one team over another in a football culture that has such a high degree of paranoia, parochialism and obsessiveness built into it. Such cognitive bias is prevalent in all walks of life, and the best institutions and companies acknowledge its existence and then put processes in place to mitigate it.
The above points have and will all contribute to the state of Scottish refereeing today, and how it could be improved. My faith in the Scottish FA being the type of institution that is modern, progressive or competent enough to deal properly with them is unfortunately very limited.
For me, there is a final aspect to the way referees are organised and handled by the SFA that is even more important than anything else: the association’s absolute reluctance (some might say outright refusal) to put in place methods and arrangements that could help humanise referees in the eyes of supporters.
As you can imagine, every Monday in our kitchen at work, that weekend’s refereeing controversy was a hot topic when my colleague would appear to get his morning caffeine hit or when trying to have yesterday’s leftovers for lunch.
He would take the time to explain everything in detail to anyone who asked: how the referee in question would have viewed the situation, what considerations they had to make in a split second, why they took the decisions they did. He was annoyingly good at making even the most baffling decisions a lot more understandable. You still might not agree with the decision, but at least you were left with an appreciation of the situation faced by the referee.
He would occasionally hold presentations at lunch-time about all aspects of being a referee: match-day preparations, showing clips of situations they would have been judged on by the assessors after the game, and one time even bringing in the referee he would usually run the line for – one of the most famous names in the Scottish game – for him to talk to us and take questions.
Through the simple act of having a referee available to explain, to interact and discuss with, our appreciation of the difficulty of the job changed, and it was a lot easier to relate to referees on a personal level.
Perhaps for once, the football authorities in Scotland could try to embrace new ideas and modern thinking when faced with a problem within their game.
Technology like body cameras can help fans appreciate how difficult a referee’s job is on the pitch. A more open attitude to the media would also do wonders for the appreciation of the referees as a person doing their best, and being accountable for their decisions.
Why not commission a behind-the-scenes documentary focusing on Scottish referees? In other countries, refs are, if they choose to, allowed to face the media after a game, discuss situations that happened during the match and explain the decisions made. This can even be done via weekly press conferences or presentations to the media, analysing situations and taking questions directly.
Instead the SFA puts walls up around their referees, who are never allowed to speak, to explain, to argue. They are an organisation eternally scared of its own shadow, keeping its own gamekeepers in a metaphorical soundproof bunker before letting them out to the baying mob every weekend for 90 minutes.
All these ideas come with risks and need to be implemented and handled carefully. But the SFA need to face the fact that the way they are handling their referees at the moment is just not working. It can hardly get much worse.
The Scottish FA must first admit that there is a problem before addressing it. They should start by being a lot more innovative and progressive in how they present and allow their referees to appear in the public eye.
Stop them from becoming face-less, foreign objects filled with horrible bias against my team, and my team only. Let us see and hear the referees, let us get to know them like individuals like we do with players. Show them as human beings, with all the frailties and fortitude humans are capable of. Set them free.