A familiar feeling
Football is the most fluent, unpredictable and often controversial sport of them all. So much of what happens on the field can be decided by an odd bounce of the ball or a referee making a split second decision as play rages at high speed. The difference between winning and losing is often wafer thin and for some fans it can be hard to take when the referee’s call doesn’t go your way.
As a Celtic supporter of many years I have seen my share of mystifying decisions from referees. The 1970 Scottish Cup Final for instance saw Celtic lose 3-1 to Aberdeen in the most frustrating manner. Three big decisions went against Celtic that day and cost them the cup. Firstly a point blank cross from McKay struck Bobby Murdoch on the upper arm and despite having is arms by his side the Referee gave a penalty. Then Bobby Clark the Aberdeen goalkeeper dropped the ball as he was about to kick it from hand and Lennox rolled it into the net. The referee awarded a foul to Aberdeen despite there being no contact between the players. Then as Lennox raced clear into the box, Martin Buchan scythed him to the ground and Mr Davidson waved play on much to the fury of the huge Celtic support in the 108,000 crowd. Jock Stein’s withering comments to the official after the game made it clear what he thought of his performance that day. Jock was no fool, he experienced in his own career and life the sort of hatred that some held towards Celtic and was never slow to defend the club. Bias against Celtic from certain officials was a reality in those times.
Most Celtic fans could give you a large list of games lost in which the officials made calls which were to say the least dubious and directly affected the outcome. In recent years controversial refereeing decisions in the Scottish Semi-final with Hearts and the League Cup Final with Kilmarnock come to mind. When you strip away the layers of disappointment, the searching for a scapegoat and perhaps a lingering folk memory of unfair treatment meted out to Celtic and its community over the decades, what remains? Are we seriously trying to tell the sporting world that there are dark forces working against Celtic? Of course the age old cry of ‘Paranoia’ will resurface as will the ‘it’ll level itself out over the season’ argument.
The performance of referee, Steven McLean and his assistants at Hampden Park this afternoon was to say the least poor. The match turned on a decision he made just before half time when Griffiths goal bound header was deliberately punched clear by Meekings. The reaction of the Celtic players in the box was instantaneous as they roared ‘hand ball’ in unison. To their utter dismay the referee waved play on. With Caley a goal down at that point, losing a player and a penalty could have been fatal to their chances. The referee was in perfect position to call it, the assistant referee was 2 yards away from the incident and yet they didn’t see the hand ball? When you think that the linesman also had a view of the incident are we really to believe that 3 individuals with a triangulation of views didn’t see Meekings punch the ball? The feeling of injustice was compounded after the break when Craig Gordon was harshly but, given the current rules, rightly sent off. As one fan near me commented, ‘Aye, ye saw that wan ya bastard.’ We should recognise that Celtic did not play well today and the plaudits should go to Caley for an organised and determined display but as the Celtic fans left Hampden there was a familiar feeling of injustice.
No doubt the radio phone in shows and press will be full of Celtic fans complaining about today’s refereeing blunder but none of the pundits will ever admit that Celtic get a raw deal from officialdom. Far less will they admit that the mainstream media has been less than even handed in its dealings with Celtic. We’ll be told that we’re over reacting to a poor display or that officials are human and make mistakes. However, we live in a society where referees have been forced to resign for lying about decisions made in Celtic matches. We also saw Mr Dallas leave after sending an anti-Catholic image in an email. We’ve seen Mr Farry hold up the registration of Jorge Cadete for 6 weeks at a crucial point in the season when sending the fax required to clear him to play would have taken 10 minutes. More tellingly, 2 internal inquiries cleared Farry before Fergus McCann brought in his QC and destroyed their case in 5 minutes. We’ve seen a Celtic player banned for diving while others are ignored. Neil Lennon was banned for swearing when it’s audible from players and managers at most games every week. We also see organised deafness from the SFA when thousands sing the Famine song and Billy Boys at matches. We live in a society where a retired referee said at a Rangers function that he was proud to say Rangers never lost a match he officiated at. This is Scotland where a player choosing to play football for Ireland results in him being abused all over the country. In this atmosphere it’s easy to think that some just don’t like Celtic and all it represents but can we say this affects the decisions of referees on the field of play?
In a fluent, fast football match the referee is the arbiter of the rules. His decisions are the only ones which matter and his interpretation of what occurred on the field at a given point are the only one which counts. He makes split second decisions in the heat of the moment and without the benefit of replays from various angles and it is not an easy job. One slip of concentration can mean missing an important incident. Today the referee was perfectly placed to call the Meekings’ hand ball and I remain mystified about why he failed to award the penalty and send Meekings off as the rules stipulate. There are three possible explanations for the referee’s decision to wave play on…
· He judged the ball struck Meekings on the head or body
· He judged that the contact was ‘ball to hand’ (although that is unlikely given Meekings arm movement towards the ball)
· He saw it and didn’t award the penalty for reasons known to him.
If the latter was the case then we might as well give up on the game right now. These recurring ‘honest mistakes’ suggest the training of our referees isn’t all it could be. In an age where most matches are covered by a plethora of cameras it would be highly difficult to deliberately give important calls against a certain club but in those 50-50 calls in key games could an individual lean one way or another? Few sensible people doubt that Celtic has been on the wrong end of some very dubious treatment in the past and the feeling that certain factions within Scottish football detested the club and all it represented was justifiable. It is sad that the echo of those less enlightened times is still heard when the calls go against the club. After today’s events, the so called ‘Paranoia’ will lead some to conclude the anti-Celtic bias still goes on. A 30 second break for an official to look at TV pictures would have seen justice done today but that is too sensible for Scottish football which blunders on. The football authorities should also let their officials explain themselves and if necessary say, ‘Yeh, hands up I got that one wrong.’ Failing to do so just leads to the sort of suspicion and dark mutterings we are hearing now.
Scotland is rightly being praised currently for its political awakening and the openness of its citizens but in terms of transparency in football, it remains in the dark ages.