Calum Murray: Finally, The Perfect Referee for Glasgow Derbies.
In recent times we've seen Celtic as a club and indeed the rabid, uncontrollable element of their support look upon the refereeing options as a menu. Dougie McDonald – after being abused and subjected to missiles thrown from the IRA Away Social Club – was found to be beyond the pale and the palate and thus dismissed from the restaurant, in the style of Masterchef candidates who aren’t buxom or glamorous females. The next course was the Religious Education teacher from a Roman Catholic secondary school, who has a crucifix on his whistle. He made the silly mistake of giving a penalty against Celtic at Parkhead (where’s Senator McCarthy?) and now Willie (Billy) Collum is reduced to duty in the ‘H’ kitchen. But butter my rolls and pass the greasy spoon plastic cutlery if the forces of clarification and probity haven’t found a tasty morsel. Calum Murray is a human being and it’s worth remembering that. And worth forgetting he was born in 1967! Joking aside, being a referee is often a thankless task. A lack of respect from players, managers and fans alike, and although it is certainly the case that the remuneration is more acceptable than in bygone days and the opportunities for the top whistlers to travel abroad and attend major tournaments is a big selling-point, being the man in black (or whichever colour is in fashion) isn’t for the faint-hearted. For a Scottish official, taking charge of the Glasgow derby is a career high – but it is also a test. Over the years many players – some with big reputations – have come to Glasgow and flopped in these games; others with considerable talent and character have taken a while to find their feet in the fixture. Some have entered the arena and froze, overawed, like a rabbit caught in the proverbial lights. That this is true of players is undisputed – but it is also the case with referees. Initial reactions to the performance of Calum Murray in last night’s match were broadly sympathetic and generous: Sky praised him and Radio Scotland felt he had done well in difficult circumstances. It’s worth pointing out here that those particular branches of media had an advantage over those of us in attendance – they had access to replay and couldn’t be excused the requirement to call it with the greatest evidence at their disposal. But they seemed to believe the ref did well. How one chooses to handle potentially combustible games is often key to proceedings, but it is also the case that officials can ill afford to enter the field of play with preconceived notions of ‘taking control’ with daft early bookings that come back to cause problems later. Once you set the benchmark for a cautionable offence then hell-mend you if you aren’t consistent. Some over the years have failed badly at this and encouraged conspiracies or left us with little in the way of a footballing spectacle as their logic has forced them to remove pieces from the board in a regular fashion. Last night we saw early cause for Murray’s leniency – Samaras’ barge, Ki’s late lunge and Papac’s cynicism were all cause for, at best, a quick word and on we went with the game. Ki’s in particular would have likely been cause for a caution in other games, or even at a later stage of this very match, but as the game progresses there is always the suspicion that some poor sod is going to bear the brunt of the earlier willingness to avoid recourse to the book and soon enough this was indeed the case. Steven Whittaker’s ‘offence’ which brought him his first yellow present of the evening was both completely non-descript in terms of the game as a whole and an unbelievably harsh action: the clear result of Murray worrying he had been too soft. Consistency is a referee’s greatest tool to avoid criticism but if the players often lose the head in the heat of a football battle so an official often makes a decision they’d later like to have again. Having earned a caution it is to Whittaker’s discredit that he made a foolish challenge so soon thereafter, bringing with it a second yellow, an early exit, and the chance for commentators to indulge in their favourite phrase: “He gave the referee no choice.” It’s not Murray’s fault that Rangers approach was so limited and this expulsion made it even more so but it was a major error and not, alas, the only one on the night. Before we go any further, it is fair to say that Murray wasn’t exclusively awful to the detriment of Rangers: quite why Scott Brown entered his notebook is a matter for wiser men than I. But nothing on the night was as important as the effect of the Whittaker error. And by the time we get to Bougherra’s second booking – a fine tackle – it had all begun to unravel for Rangers and for Calum. When even the mild-mannered Steven Davis is booked for dissent – “Every decision” was the mantra escaping from his lips – you know that something has gone wrong. The decision to award a corner to Celtic - when Izaguirre had already turned to retreat to his position in his own half - was a comedy moment to illustrate how bad it got: only nobody was laughing. The level of diving on display – chief culprits Kayal and Commons – was disturbing but not as much as the manner in which the cowed Murray seemed to melt under the pressure of the home ground baying for blood, with every instance of contact the cue for appeals from the crowd for more free-kicks and more cards or, as in the case of El Hadji Diouf and clearly audible on the Sky coverage, regrettable instances of repeated racist abuse. But in the simplest terms one cannot blame the partisan supporters – they are there to make it difficult and the referee cannot allow the noise and the ferocious bile to influence him as seemed to be the case at times last evening. As an aside, when details of the Lennon comments towards Diouf are made public it will be interesting to see why there was such a reaction – not only expressed in the fury from McCoist and the player but the looks of shock on the Celtic bench as their coach stepped over the line. It’s certainly not the case that the referee’s performance cost Rangers the match. Nothing so wild or out-of-proportion should be claimed or can be sustained. But it is the case that Rangers are entitled to a sense of feeling hard-done by, especially over the Whittaker case. That some in the media almost seem reluctant to even countenance the notion that we as fans or the Club as a whole are entitled to question the performance of the officials is revealing, especially in light of the nonsense emanating from Celtic Park earlier in the season. Referees get one look at an incident – no replays – and in instances where managers, coaches or players have been up to no good off the ball he often has only his fellow officials to rely on for guidance and help, while those watching at home can rewind, pause, upload, lip-read and re-run to their heart’s content. Reaction in the media today has moved away from any real discussion of Murray, choosing instead to concentrate on the antics of Messrs. Lennon, McCoist and Diouf, although amid a rambling and inconsequential jargon-filled statement Stewart Regan did find time to praise the officials. One can hardly expect the SFA head high yin to suggest his referee was abysmal, and certainly not in light of recent – and in many ways ongoing – concerns within the fraternity over the support given to them by their bosses. Many laughed when Lennon and co ranted and raved about refereeing and conspiracies. But it imbued in their already unstable hardcore a sense that their Club was with them and they were speaking with one voice, something managerial support for the wild excesses of the Green Brigade has done little to quash. It seems unlikely that the conspiratorial forces have been so easily defeated so we may conclude that Celtic are now happy with officials, largely because they have 1) Played better since New Year and 2) Their threats and tantrums have planted a seed which is now blossoming. But I ask a very simple question, and one which should be very easily answered: when was the last time a referee in a Glasgow derby made honest mistakes (to the benefit of Rangers) which were not then subject to intense media scrutiny and hounding of the official concerned? Consult your books and study the menu carefully. Celtic has the food they ordered.
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