Saturday, 22 April 2017

The ones you don’t notice

The ones you don’t notice

With Celtic due at Hampden for a vital Scottish Cup Semi-Final on Sunday I got chatting to an old friend who reminded me of the long list of refereeing decisions down the years which he felt had gone against Celtic and cost them the game. He’s not the sort of man who goes in for conspiracy theories but when he laid a few facts out it did seem the Hoops had had more than their fair share of poor calls against them. He listed the bizarre display by the Referee in the 1970 Scottish cup final which saw Aberdeen awarded a penalty after a driven cross struck Murdoch on the shoulder, a goal from Lennox disallowed after the goalkeeper dropped the ball at his feet and a clear penalty denied after Lennox was chopped down by Martin Buchan when through on goal. He cited John Hartson’s ‘goal’ in the 2003 League Cup Final which was wrongly disallowed for offside, Josh Meekings hand ball as Celtic led Inverness 1-0 in the Semi Final and the Ross County player with his arms clearly wrapped around Craig Gordon at a corner which led to a headed goal for the Staggies. He then listed a host of incidents in Old Firm games from Cadete’s disallowed goal to a succession of non-awarded penalties. He asked me to give him examples of big decisions which went Celtic’s way in cup finals or semi-finals. I struggled to name any. Just as I thought he had exhausted his list of perceived injustices he brought up the 1986 League Cup Final.

For those of you too young to remember that game it was a match packed with controversy played out in a raucous atmosphere in front of 74,000 fans. Rangers had Graham Souness in charge for his first final and English Internationals Chris Woods and Terry Butcher had arrived to signal the big spending days had started at Ibrox. Celtic came into the match a few days after a bruising encounter with a Dynamo Kiev side which was brilliant and brutal in equal measure. That Kiev team contained 9 of the Soviet Union’s starting 11 including the world class Oleg Blokhin but were not shy about leaving the boot in. One savage tackle left Tommy Burns out of football for six months and he would be missed in the League Cup Final.  

The Referee at Hampden was David Syme and for the most part he let the game flow although his booking of players for innocuous offences led to problems later in the game. Celtic looked the better side for much of the match and Mo Johnston struck the inside of the post in the first half. Rangers scored after a ball broke to Durrant in the box in 62 minutes but Celtic then pressed them back with McClair hitting the bar before the same player fired an unstoppable shot high into the Rangers net. It was goal of almost poetic beauty. He picked up a pass 25 yards from goal before unleashing a shot like the stone from a sling. The ball arrowed into the top corner of the net with diving Woods well beaten, it looked like Celtic would have the ascendency going into the closing period of the game. Then with 5 minutes to go Rangers were awarded a penalty. Aitken was adjudged to have fouled Butcher as he defended a cross. It was one of those decisions the Ref could have given either way as they pushed and jostled each other in the box. While Aitken did tug Butcher’s shirt, the big Englishman was no innocent party. That decision left Celtic feeling hard done by but things took a bizarre turn when Mo Johnston was sent off for a clash with full back Munroe. It was one of those head to head confrontations which were not uncommon in the more physical world of 1980s football. The Referee gave Munroe a yellow and Johnston a red; as he jogged from the field he blessed himself in an act more designed to annoy Rangers fans than signify his religious fervour.

The official was then seemingly struck by a coin from the crowd and bizarrely turned around and red carded the nearest Celtic player, Tony Shepherd. The stunned young player refused to go and argued quite correctly that he didn’t touch the official. Syme lost all composure and held the red card high as he repeatedly and rather theatrically pointed to the dressing room, demanding Shepherd leave the field. Celtic players were aghast at this and Shepherd himself picked up a coin from the turf and showed it to the Referee who realising that he had made an utter fool of himself changed his mind. That incident with Shepherd is very telling; the Referee was prepared to send a Celtic player off for an offence he couldn’t have seen as it didn’t actually happen.

The game ended in uproar and Celtic manager Davie Hay was utterly furious at the actions of the Referee. He said in the aftermath of the game…

‘If it was up to me our application to join the English game would be made tomorrow. It always seems to be that when we play the top teams the controversial decisions go against Celtic.’

The tabloid press had a field day lambasting Celtic’s ‘indiscipline’ and while Mo Johnston was foolish getting involved in with Munroe, the team hadn’t been particularly out of control. They had merely reacted as any human being would in circumstances where they feel they are being treated unfairly. Davie Hay was fined by the SFA for his comments about the Referee. Rangers' manager, Souness had his first trophy as Boss at Ibrox and commented after the game…

Celtic was slightly the better team but at the end of the day it’s all about the team which scores the goals.’

For the Celtic fans leaving Hampden the manner of the winning goal and subsequent actions of the Referee left a feeling that an injustice had been done to their side.

That feeling that the prejudices Celtic faced in the early decades of the club’s existence still lingered has never really ended for many supporters, Willie Maley in his fine history of Celtic (1888-1938) writes on more than one occasion of players being aggrieved at the less than fair officiating of some of their games. The ‘Flag flutter’ of the early 1950s was another episode during which the footballing authorities seemed to be denying Celtic natural justice. Jock Stein was positive that some match officials were anti-Celtic and wasn’t slow to tell them. Supporters point to incidents over the years such as Jim Farry’s inexplicable hold up in registering Jorge Cadete to play at a vital period in the season. Farry was eventually sacked for gross misconduct but only after two internal enquiries had cleared him. It took the doggedness Fergus McCann and his QC to get the truth out in the open. In more modern times the Dallas email, containing an anti-Catholic joke cost him his job and then there was the strange case of Linesman Steven Craven who quit after the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ incident at Tannadice. He later stated that the Referee had instructed him to lie to Neil Lennon about a controversial penalty incident involving Gary Hooper. Scottish Referees went on strike shortly after this incident and it was noted with some irony that the Israeli officials who handled Celtic’s game in their absence were excellent.

Such incidents reinforce the so called ‘paranoia’ of some Celtic fans. Supporters of other clubs will argue that incompetence rather than bias is at the root of many Refereeing decisions. Pointing out that in the week Celtic were denied a win after Schalk’s preposterous dive at Ross County that Motherwell were awarded a goal when the ball clearly didn’t cross the line. In the parochial and clannish world of Scottish football it can be hard to convince many supporters of Celtic that the blunders they see aren’t part of a general disdain of the club from some officials. In a recent TV Documentary, Terry Butcher stated that he was the first Rangers Captain who wasn’t a Mason. Images surfaced online in the wake of this admission of a Rangers' Captain of the past greeting match officials with what was claimed to be Masonic handshakes. All of this further fed the flames of suspicion which is unhelpful to the Scottish game.

Each of us must make a rational judgement about the reasons Celtic has had some rough calls against them in big matches. My view is that historically officials were products of the society around them. There was certainly much prejudice against the Irish Catholic community in Scotland in the past, even the Church of Scotland demanded their expulsion at one point in a 1920s report entitled ‘The menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish nationality.’ Celtic, seen by many as the most visible representation of the Irish in Scotland was unlikely to escape prejudice on occasion. This prejudice undoubtedly lingers on in some dark corners of Scottish society although much diminished from previous times.

The modern Referee is scrutinised by a dozen TV Cameras and judged by watching officials in the stand as well as a critical and unforgiving crowd. To dispel any lingering doubts about impartiality they should whenever possible embrace modern technology to help them with big calls. Few fans would grudge a momentary hold up in a game while a fourth official checks a TV monitor and informs the Referee especially if the right decision is reached. It works well in rugby and ensures that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. I have refereed school football and made a few mistakes with decisions. It’s a tough job, more so in the fast paced professional game where some players are willing to cheat and con the Referee.

Whatever happens tomorrow at Hampden, I hope we remember the game for footballing reasons and aren’t debating contentious decisions which altered the outcome of the game. I hope it’s a game remembered for good football, goals, exciting incidents and of course a Celtic win.

As my old man used to say, ‘The best Referees are the ones you don’t notice.’

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