Who’d be a referee? It’s a question that has been asked more than a few times over the course of the season in Scotland, but not with the joviality it is usually uttered with. Instead, the debate over referees north of the border has grown toxic. For many the question has now become – are referees in Scotland good enough?
There is not a football fan out there who hasn’t complained about a referee or official, but rhetoric around the men in black in Scotland has reached new heights in recent times. A Scottish Premiership season which has seen four different teams top the table at different points, a campaign which has been the most competitive in years, threatens to be overshadowed by issues far more poisonous.
Everyone has had their say. This week, Brendan Rodgers, irked by John Beaton’s performance in the Old Firm derby last month, called for the Scottish FA to turn their referees professional. “They’re being judged as professionals and they’re not,” the Celtic boss said. “To improve and standardise everything, I think being full-time would certainly help. You can devote your time to it, you can analyse, you can have different relationships. It would be a starting point.”
Others have suggested VAR should be implemented in the Scottish top flight. SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster poured cold water on those suggestions, though, highlighting just how expensive the technology would be.
However, all this discussion over the quality of referees in Scotland is almost irrelevant. This is a country with a concerning attitude towards officials. It’s in Scottish football’s culture.
This has become clear in recent weeks and months as the Scottish game has worked itself up into a state of paranoia.
To recap – Aberdeen hit out at the Scottish FA’s appeals process, an assistant referee was struck by a horn at a Livingston-Rangers game, Hearts goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal was floored by a Hibernian fan at the Edinburgh derby, Neil Lennon was hit by a coin in the same game, Rangers released a scathing statement about Willie Collum, Chris Sutton claimed there is a Scottish FA effort to stop Celtic, Celtic issued a statement of their own questioning decisions made in the Old Firm derby and Beaton called in police after receiving death threats and abuse.
These are societal issues and classifying incidents on the basis of the club they concerned isn’t helpful, but nonetheless, it’s undeniable that Scottish football is engaged in open warfare with its referees. A line has been crossed. As Neil Lennon said, the name of the national game is being “dragged in the gutter,” with the toxic rhetoric showing no sign of being neutralised any time soon.
It’s true that there have been some strange decisions made by Scottish referees this season. Some have been unexplicable. Frustrations, in many instances, have been understandable. But as part-timers with no technology to fall back on (Scottish football hasn’t even implemented goalline sensors yet), the problem lies with the infrastructure and not the people with the whistle in their mouth.
Fans must ask themselves questions too.
It’s not just top flight referees who are the subject of such abuse. This is an epidemic at all levels of the sports, right down the grassroots. Referees are made targets in other countries too, of course, but not like in Scotland, where the layers of tribalism just add to the concoction.
It hasn’t helped that the winter break in the Scottish Premiership season came immediately after the Old Firm derby, giving everyone three weeks to simmer on what happened during that match. Indeed, with no fresh football to talk about the same old incidents, the same old discussions have played out over and over again to the point of extreme tedium.
This is something Scottish football could certainly do without. The national game doesn’t have to seek out problems and this only directs time and effort away from areas that are of far greater worth. Football fans in Scotland are frequently unfairly treated, criminalised even. But what we have seen this season does nothing to eradicate a narrative that has only harmed match-going supporters. In fact, it only adds to it. It’s not the referees that are the problem. It’s those who go way too far in their criticism of them.