The role of a football referee is often scrutinised by supporters the land over, to a similar degree that a manager might pick apart the performance of his star players in the post-mortem of a game. It is one of the charms and curses of football, that the performance of the man in the middle can overshadow the efforts of the 11 players on either side. Whether it be controversial cards, penalty decisions (both for, and against), disallowed or “missed” goals, refereeing performances can fuel debates and discussions in the pubs, press and online fan-forums covering the week between games and beyond.
The 2010/11 Scottish Premier League season is one example of when the role of the referee can overshadow an entire season of football. On Saturday 17th October 2010, Dougie McDonald quite correctly overturned a decision to award a penalty to Celtic in an SPL league match at Tannadice against Dundee United, following striker Gary Hooper’s dive in the penalty area. Despite the justification in overturning the decision, Celtic were clearly aggrieved by the whole fiasco and launched an assault on refereeing standards in Scotland. Following further perceived controversial decisions against the Parkhead club, including allegations of a cover-up in the “penalty-that-never-was”, Celtic pushed full throttle on a targeted campaign to overhaul the existing infrastructure of officiating in the Scottish game.
The pursuit of the SFA was relentless and in the short term, lead to the resignations of two leading officials, both of whom were central to the penalty controversy against Dundee United. The approach from the Glasgow club was reprehensible and brought the entirety of the SPL as a competition into disrepute. The clear feeling of victimisation echoed throughout the club, with players, coaching staff and boardroom staff alike all commenting on the poor quality of referees within the country. This sentiment is hardly unique to Celtic Football Club, with players, managers and fans of clubs throughout the world having focused their anxieties on referees at one point or another. Indeed, ask most fans in Scotland who support one of the clubs outwith the Old Firm and they’ll preach about how officials are biased in the favour of the Glasgow giants and that referees are terrified to give decisions against them. This sentiment of decisions going in favour of “bigger clubs” has been discussed at length in leagues all across Europe with the argument falling on two sides of the divide: (1) that officiating is hampered by a dishonest man in the middle or that (2) officials are hampered by their human limitations of reaction and sight. Where much scrutiny of referees comes from analysts being able to watch video replays and slow-motion frame by frame progressions of incidents, one must bear in mind that this is not a luxury available to referees and linesmen during a game in progress. The perks and pitfalls of such technology is another oft-discussed topic which won’t be covered here, but the logical conclusion of most is, that mistakes by the officials are likely and over the course of a season, decisions will go both for and against every single club.
However, for some, there remains an unshakable belief that the system is intentionally corrupt and perceived injustices are deliberate and malicious acts against clubs, players or in some instances, entire countries. This mindset certainly seems to have dominated the witch-hunt that followed that fateful October day. Following a week of press-based accusations and hounding from the Celtic camp, William Collum, one of Scotland’s top referees, took charge of the first Old Firm game of the season. Again, this was marred by perceived injustices against Celtic which lead to further critical comments on officiating quality from manager Neil Lennon. In the wake of this game, Collum was to receive death threats from a section of the Celtic support, threatening the safety of both him and his family. The issue was well and truly escalating to an uncomfortable level, with referees voicing their discontent about a lack of safety in their roles.
Yet, in spite of this, the onslaught from Celtic continued, with Lennon, backed by the Celtic boardroom, fixated on improving the quality of officiating within Scotland. The Scottish Senior Football Referees’ Association and the roster of matchday officials reached an impasse, where they no longer felt in a position to undertake their duties safely. On the weekend of the 27th/28th of November, the decision was taken to withdraw refereeing services from the SPL and Scottish Football League, with replacement referees being flown in from all across Europe, to ensure that football was still played. The season ultimately finished with Rangers winning the SPL, but undoubtedly, the season is remembered for the scandal surrounding the officiating.
Figure 1: Yellow Cards per Club per Season (Dunfermline, Hamilton, Falkirk and Gretna are omitted due to incomparability). Data courtesy of Scottish Premier League (2012)
As we move toward the end of the 2011/12 season, yet again off-the-field issues will dominate the history books, with the financial plight of Rangers Football Club leading the headlines. The spiralling chaos of the situation at Ibrox also threatens to draw attention away from precisely what impact the refereeing crusade from last season has had upon the SPL. A quick analysis of the SPL disciplinary records from the previous few seasons (Figure 1) throws up some interesting statistics indeed. During the 2010/11 season, Celtic received 64 yellow cards over the duration of the season, which was the average across the league for the season. Analysing the data for the 2011/12 season (though the author appreciates the incomplete nature of the data by comparison) and Celtic have thus far received 29 cautions, which is a full 20 less than the league average. A further analysis of the 2011/12 season statistics (Figure 2) to date shows a further interesting pattern in the fouls/card ratio for each of the 12 SPL sides.
Figure 2: Fouls to Card ratio for the 2011/12 SPL Season to date
Celtic players have been booked, on average, after every 10.1 fouls. Comparing this to the league average (which equates to a booking per 6.5 fouls) and Celtic’s disciplinary record for the season raises some serious questions, with many clubs in the league getting booked with almost twice the frequency of the Glasgow club. Indeed, comparing the fouls/card ratio of both Rangers and Celtic, the following question must be asked – despite having committed only 5 fouls more than their great rivals, why have Rangers received almost twice the amount of yellow cards as Celtic? Indeed, this is not exclusively an argument between Rangers and Celtic, with many clubs receiving yellow cards after an average of 5 fouls. Nearly double the frequency with which referees are taking action against the Parkhead side.
The record of Celtic this season is an obvious outlier in the league data, whereby 66 players have been booked whilst playing Celtic this season, though only 29 Celtic players have been booked to date. The data suggests a variant of success from the Celtic campaign against officials last season, where there is a quite clear reluctance to take action against the Parkhead side. Although this data remains incomplete for the season to date, there are obvious questions which must be asked about the impact of Celtic’s vocal pursuit of the SFA and their disciplinary body.
Decisions will continue to go both for and against every football club the world over – it’s part of the fabric of the game and unlikely to change anytime soon. Referee’s are human and are likely to make mistakes – most people involved in the game accept this and respect the incredibly difficult job that officials undertake. With the constant scrutiny of decisions, claims of incompetence and in the most extreme instances, threats against their safety, it’s little wonder that referees are under increasing pressure, particularly when clubs can live or die by their decisions. However, there has to be a degree of transparency and a willingness by both the referees and clubs to engage in dialogue about decisions. Referees should not be incapacitated from undertaking their duties as a result of fear following the deplorable actions and comments of one club and based on the evident difference in disciplinary enforcement from last season to now, there can be no argument that this is the case.