So the time comes to sit the exam, from memory 70% correct is the pass grade, the exam is difficult but the weak are coached enough to be sure they can get through and then bang, you’re now a referee to be let loose on the public parks of Scotland.


Then some choices have to be made.

When the results of the exam are announced, there is a subtle selection process going on in the background.  The association identifies the people young enough to progress; they also identify those with the best marks and have a quiet word.  Your asked where you want to be, how far do you want to go?  Could you go all the way to international tournaments?  You’re encouraged to give it your best and almost promised the world.

The problem with this method is typically this subtle selection picks out the minorities and young university graduates who haven’t played enough football or watched enough football to really understand the game.

Some of your matches are assessed, these assessments are unannounced but you can quickly identify the old guy that stays about 50 metres from the pitch or stays in the sunlight so he can’t be identified prior to the match, then starts taking notes and stays on his own.  Once spotted you have a choice, you either man manage the game and try to get the respect of the players or you get the book out and show your tough enough to enforce the laws of the game.  The assessors love the game and due to age or injury they find themselves unable to referee anymore, these guys put in a lot of unpaid effort and should be applauded.  However their assessments are your key to progression and they want to see enforcement of the laws.

I always felt uncomfortable about changing my style when assessed, but you know they want to see a high card count so you have to deliver.  Being a guy that didn’t want to spend all night writing reports, once I’d identified the assessor I’d try and tell the captains I was being watched and had to get the book out, I’d ask for their help in keeping a lid on the game and in most cases they would help you out.

I was assistant referee (AR) at a junior game and the referee was having a great game.  It was a tough, fair match and he was letting the game flow.  Then he found out the assessor was in the stand, disaster.  Out came the book in the second half and it spoilt the came from a spectator perspective.

Due to my age and profession, I fitted the profile of someone who could progress and let’s be honest who wouldn’t want to be refereeing at the top level?  So now you have to go to training every week, push yourself on to committees, attend the annual dance, buy yourself a blazer, go to the bowling and the pub crawls, support the teachers at the class, stay away from the undesirables at the monthly meeting, go to the St Andrews annual conference, vote the correct way at the local meetings and attend the regional training days.  You’ll note little of this has anything to do with refereeing ability and a lot to do with politics.

All of this bonding means you get close to your peers and it became clear to me that the most ambitious of the group couldn’t care less about the game its all about them.  They couldn’t care if they spoiled the match as long as the card count was high.  There’s was intense jealousy between the top grade referees on who gets what games, who’s sucking up who, who’s the latest favorite child, who’s the biggest personality and can make the strongest tough decision.  Think how strong the AR would have felt with the Boruc handball v’s Falkirk?  That was his bid to be noticed, his gamble about getting a big decision correct, his show that he wasn’t scared to enforce the laws.  Now if it was deliberate handball why was Boruc not given a yellow card?  In fact as Boruc was the last man, you could argue it was denying a goal scoring opportunity and could have been a red.

The St Andrews conference(s) were a real eye opener, you break up for classes with the grade one referees and it’s hugely enjoyable.  You review videos debate the hot topics and then have some break out sessions.  My session regarded the role of the assistant referee (AR), now remember during the classes you’re told to get involved, be the extra eyes, work as a team, the referee has his diagonal and you take control of your box.  The class started off with the referee (Willie Young in my case) going over his pre match discussion with the AR’s, it begins “all you have to do is offsides and throw ins, only get involved in the match if you see me dead in the centre circle.  Do not flag for penalties or freekicks outside the box, if I’ve given a decision you point your flag that way regardless if I’m right or wrong.”  Now think about that the next time the AR does something you don’t understand, he’s under instruction from the referee NOT to get involved as it undermines his authority.

From memory there were about 500 people at St Andrews, so many we had to split into different halls and have a video link for the speakers.  All the grade ones were there; Clark, Dallas, Rowbotham, Dougal, McDonald, Richmond, Brines, Underhill etc as well as many retired referees; McCluskey, Syme, Tait etc etc.  Now keep in mind the banter is flowing and it’s good natured ribbing in fact very entertaining but I was left with the feeling that this exclusive group had an “in” joke about Celtic and Rangers, a real smugness that I couldn’t put my finger on, but as the jokes are flowing there was an undercurrent of “something else”.  The senior group would typically try and stay together but I noticed that Underhill (an English referee who relocated to Scotland and one I really rated) seemed to be out on his own.  My only other real memory was Dougie McDonald looked permanently scared and Charlie Richmond had no common sense.

Next it’s off to a regional development meeting in Hampden hosted by Hugh Dallas, now I found Dallas interesting, a real career referee.  He closed on a Q&A session where everyone skirted round the questions until we got to THAT rangers game.  Dallas clearly loved being asked about being hit by the coin at the game, never mind 4th official at world cups or other cup finals or European games, the big one for him was that coin.  The point is in his eyes it made him.  He told a funny story about being dazed, worrying what his wife would think and then looking up to see a player in a Celtic top running toward him, he told us he thought “what the F do you want now” only to see the guy had a cigarette in his mouth and was a pitch invader.  Now I though at the time he should never have continued to referee the match in that physical and mental condition, there was a 4th referee who could have stepped in.  No chance was he going to give that game up, and just to prove how strong he was, he gave a penalty against celtic shortly after the incident.

The longer you attend the meetings, training, committees etc you soon learn about the way referees get promoted.  Internally to the SFA there’s a selection process where the regional managers nominate people for promotion.  During this process there’s a huge amount of horse trading in if you want me to vote for your guy then you better vote for mine, if you’re not going to vote for my guy this year then it better be next.  This has nothing to do with ability and all to do about politics.

Speaking of politics, one of the guys that was selected to promotion had a once in a lifetime cup final to referee, a big demanding match.  However the problem was it clashed with a Donald McVicar regional get together.  Now common sense tells you that the final comes first, the experience could only enhance his ability?  When he requested to do the game and be absent from the meeting he was told by Donald McVicar, if he wanted to progress he better be at the meeting.  He went to the meeting.

There was a Uber referee I knew that relocated to a region where the competition for promotion wasn’t as fierce as elsewhere.  This guy took a job that meant he was permanently available, at short notice, for matches.  He was super fit, went for extra sessions at the gym, attended training, joined those committees, in fact the works.  Now aside from that he was a good referee, however due to choices outside of football (to avoid doubt nothing to do with religion), he was considered a risk and no one would sponsor him for promotion.  This issue had nothing to do with ability, everything to do with politics.

It was about this time I got fed up being the robot, someone (now grade one) was in the position to hand out matches to referees.  Just prior to the next function he told the group if “anyone wants games next season, I’ll be having double vodkas and coke all night”.  So there it was, you want games, you want to move up, you have to wet the hand that feeds you.  No chance.

In the world of refereeing there’s a culture where the cream of society, not a slice of society, rises to the top due to the need to join committees, present at classes, be a “safe” bet to promote and be a bit of a political animal.  Once your promotion begins your seen as someone to aspire to, this breeds a culture of being untouchable it’s a dangerous mix of poor ability and attitude of being untouchable that’s causing bad decision making.

In my view refereeing should be on ability, promotion should come with success and demotion should follow failure.  Unfortunately we’re stuck with the Lawyers, Policemen, Solicitors, Accountants and Directors as referees rather than a mix with white van man.  Have a look at the designations of all top referees to make up your own mind about the slice of society.  There was never that amount of professional middle class at the classes when I joined.

Oh and at St Andrews they run a football competition amongst referees, and I tell you the standard is murder, absolutely murder.