The faults of others
The spring of 1991 was a trying one for Celtic fans. The team’s promising start to the SPL season was all but over as the dominant and big spending Rangers side of the era stepped on the accelerator and left the Hoops miles behind. For a long time it looked as if the Scottish cup might offer Celtic the only route into European football the following season. The supporters did glean some joy from a double header with Rangers in the SPL and cup as Celtic won both matches. The semi-final tie in the Scottish cup with Motherwell took on added significance as Rangers were no longer in the tournament and a cup win seemed a realistic hope. The defensive frailties which had torpedoed Celtic’s league hopes returned in an SPL match at Celtic Park just before the cup tie which Motherwell won 2-1; Tom Boyd scoring against a Celtic side he would later lead to glory.
Celtic headed to Hampden and before a crowd of almost 42,000 endured a tense game in which they looked far better going forward than they did defending. Motherwell were something of a bogey team for Celtic in the early 1990’s with Dougie Arnott in particular prone to punishing the Hoops’ defensive lapses. The game ended 0-0 and Celtic fans remained optimistic that they could make the final. The replay the following week was one of those matches which turned on a particular incident. Celtic started well and took an early lead. Predictably a defensive mix up let Arnott equalise before Rogan had Celtic 2-1 up. Then Celtic had a corner which was partially cleared before the ball was knocked back towards the goal. As the Motherwell defence raced out the ball spun to Paul Elliot who slammed it into the net. Despite Colin O’Neil being on the post and clearly playing Elliot onside, the linesman raised his flag and Celtic were denied a 3-1 lead which may or may not have been decisive. Celtic seemed to lose heart at that and went on to lose the game 4-2. In truth Motherwell with players like O’Donnell, Boyd, Arnott and Nijholt were the better side in the last half hour. They would go on to win the cup in an exciting final with Dundee United and few grudged them their moment of glory.
That memory came back to me after reading a host of complaints in the media and online from fans or various clubs about the penalty awarded to Celtic at Fir Park on Wednesday night. For me McGregor was barged over and the defender was very foolish challenging an attacker so robustly when he was heading away from goal and posed no scoring threat at that moment. Radio and TV Pundits talked about a ‘laughable’ decision and generally laid into McGregor for ‘going down very easily.’ A few such as Michael Stewart and Tom English revised their opinions when other angles were shown of the incident. One in particular shows the angle the Referee had and is convincing proof that McGregor was indeed fouled. Motherwell released a statement following the match which read in part…
‘It is disappointing to see high profile decisions affect Wednesday night’s match and the Betfred Cup final in the way they have. To that end we have made contact with the Scottish FA’s head of Refereeing to express our views and seek feedback.’
There is no doubting their disappointment at losing the League Cup final and being denied a rare win over Celtic so late in a game but a dose of realism is required when complaining about refereeing decisions. In games against Celtic they have had some big calls go their way. Most impartial observers agree that the shocking tackle by Cedric Kipre which injured Moussa Dembele in the League Cup final was worthy of a red card. The Referee didn’t even give a foul. Dembele Tweeted that evening, ‘Another game, another win. Almost lost my leg there but we’re still unbeaten!’
The narrative that Celtic gets all the big calls is utterly laughable when examined in any detail. Consider Nadir Ciftci about to Score at Fir Park when a defender punched the ball away from him in a most obvious manner. Decision: Play on. We also had an utterly horrendous challenge on Kieran Tierney at Celtic Park by Bowman of Motherwell which could have seriously injured the full back. We awaited the inevitable red card and to the astonishment of most in the ground he received a yellow.
We had a Johan Mjallby’s shot which was well over the line and the Referee waved ‘play on.’ We saw a Motherwell player strike a Rangers player in the face with his elbow to such a degree that it broke his nose in this season’s League Cup semi-final. No action was taken by the referee.
Celtic has been on the wrong end of some very poor refereeing calls in recent times which cost them important matches. The most obvious being the Meekings hand ball in the Cup semi-final with Inverness which would have seen Celtic awarded a penalty and the defender sent off had the referee given the correct decision. He didn’t much to the astonishment of everyone else in the stadium who saw what 5 officials managed to miss.
We had the Duberry handball at Perth, the extremely dubious Penalty given to Hearts in a Scottish cup semi-final, the ‘Dougie, Dougie’ nonsense at Tannadice and other calls which left us mystified.
All of these examples demonstrate that Motherwell’s whingeing in recent days is at best ill-advised and at worse poor sportsmanship. Their physical approach to the game and sheer effort against Celtic has made the last two matches between the clubs close affairs but at the end of the day Celtic are undefeated in 66 matches for a reason; they’re the best team in Scotland by a long way.
Football is a fast, fluid and unpredictable game and human error certainly plays its part in refereeing decisions. Anyone who has refereed a game at any level knows how difficult it is to get every decision right. This is especially true at professional level where players of all clubs are out to pressure or even con the referee. Throw into the mix the clannish and often spiteful nature of Scottish football as well as the strong cultural identity some clubs possess and you have a recipe for suspicion. There is no doubt that historical injustices were done to Celtic by certain figures over the years. One only has to read books like ‘Celtic Paranoia’ to see incidents like the ‘Flag Flutter’ of the 1950s or the inexcusable Farry-Cadete affair of the 90s. In modern times football officials are scrutinised far more closely. Incidents like the amateurish handling of the Rangers meltdown of 2012 or the Dallas anti-Catholic email still cause concern but Celtic has grown into a confident and powerful club who wouldn’t be slow to make their side of any debate known.
The modern referee has a dozen cameras tracking every decision he makes amplifying every error. Social media takes clips showing such errors and they spin around an amplified echo chamber of like-minded fans giving an impression of institutional bias that isn’t quite fair.
Motherwell’s bleating in recent days has been to say the least unedifying. There are always tough 50-50 calls to be made by referees in the heat of games which could be given either way. Incidents happen in a split second and have to be called without the benefit of constant replays or multi-angled analysis. Players play acting doesn’t help and Motherwell have their share of con men like all clubs. Perhaps Motherwell should be looking at more constructive suggestions such as better training for Referees and assistants or the use of video reviews for big decisions or better still consider some of the big calls which have gone in their favour over the years and have a more balanced outlook.
Hypocrisy is pointing out the faults of others while conveniently ignoring your own. Motherwell has indulged in that this week.