The Continuing Case for Reform of Referee Provision in Scottish Football Or Here We Are Again.

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A way back on 13 June 2011 I wrote an article for Celtic Underground on SFA Reform. It can be read here:

SFA Reform – One Down, Three To Go

I think all three reforms are still necessary, but the opportunity to reform The SFA was lost by the clubs, including Celtic, in 2012, who accepted the 5 Way Agreement.

I fear that the circumstances and conditions that motivated me to write on the subject then have returned now. It is more than just stopping ten in a row, it’s about Newco Rangers’ natural desire to reshape the next ten years in their favour.

So let’s remind ourselves of what history has shown us.

Without access to UEFA Champions League money, Rangers could not service the debt they used to get them access to that CL income.

The debt grew from £6M pre 2006 to £36M in 2007 after Walter Smith arrived, to be followed by a net spend of £10M after the first initial form of HMRC tax demands (determinations) arrived at Ibrox in the spring of 2008.

These determinations were in respect of unpaid tax. It resulted from Rangers’ use of Employee Benefit Trusts (ebts), which they’d been doing in an unlawful manner since 2001, to entice players to sign and get paid more than their equivalents at other clubs.

This unlawfully allowing Rangers to offer more than their opponents, like us, who were using PAYE tax rules.

o get a player, Rangers could offer up to £15k whilst a rival club would have to pay out £20k to provide a player with the same £15K take home pay.

Now, these figures are illustrative and not based on actual tax rates but, they are there to give you a general sense of what the EBT’s were for.

It does not take a genius to see that this conferred a competitive advantage, something Murray himself admitted to the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) and which is clear to everyone, except to Lord Nimmo Smith of course.

Nevertheless, even with such sleight of hand, the club’s transfer policy increased the debt to the crisis point, and even to insolvency levels if the scam was rumbled, which it ultimately was. Indeed, even with Champions League money it is difficult to see how they’d have survived with so much was owed.

In 2011/12, even without the EBT liability, the debt hovered around £18M; that could not be serviced without the money which was coming in from UEFA’s top club competition.

Thus in season 2010/11 with their very survival dependent on UEFA money we witnessed “the season of honest mistakes” when Rangers’ need upended the entire game.It really began in 2008 as Craig Levein pointed out but reached its crescendo in 2010/11 as documented by E Tims, and based on work by Rooster 1967.

Only turning debt into confetti shares has allowed NewCo Rangers to become competitors for a Champions League place, and whilst that is an argument for a domestic version of Financial Fair Play, the topical aspect to be taken from the original Celtic Underground article is how referees are once again being perceived as having an undue influence on the destination of this seasons title.

The suspicion might be ungrounded but when you see a bowling ball bend in a particular direction you know that a bias is at play.

If we want a straight game any bias or perception of it has to be removed whatever its cause.

What is needed now and in the future is a new approach to the provision of referees by the SFA and SPFL, something that all but eradicates any idea of bias. (We have to recognise that to some our referees will always be Orange or Fenian MIBs.)

What is needed overall is the transformation of the SFA from governor of all to service provider to all; this is an important distinction.

Note the word “service”, for this is the way much of what the SFA do should be viewed.

The SFA provide a number of services to the clubs who play in Scotland. They should not be seen as the club’s masters but their servants or in modern terms the clubs are the customers and the SFA the service providers.

This change of attitude would allow competition for such services to enter the scene and so improve the standard of service. Rather than letting the SFA alone “provide” referees, we could look outside of their structure or even outside Scottish football itself.

This would be a huge cultural change but it has to start somewhere and changing the way referees are recruited, trained, allocated, monitored, and evaluated should be something Celtic pursues as a matter of urgency given what is at stake this season.

Its more than 10 in a row at stake.

The question after Andrew Dallas’s 7th game in charge of Celtic (not to mention his proclivity for awarding penalties to Newco Rangers) and the risks the current refereeing arrangement constitute to us as a business, never mind trophy collectors, is what are Celtic doing to bring about change?

What stopped them in 2012 when the opportunity for reform was on a plate – as James said, we were pushing on open door at the time? The whole game was in upheaval … conditions were eventually to be imposed on Newco Rangers just to allow them play football.

Should the changes have included domestic FFP? And if not then, why wasn’t this pursued in 2013 when Resolution 12 provided similar opportunities?

What better place to start than a change in how our game as a whole is refereed, than to create:

A Referee Service

This would require a clear split of responsibilities between the SFA as service providers and the SPFL as customers.

The split would see the SFA doing the recruitment, training and offer of match appointments to the SPFL clubs (having taken the nature of the game to be officiated and match officials experience or development needs into account).

However, the monitoring and evaluation would be the province of the SPFL, using referees or ex refs from anywhere to mark to a standard set by consensus between the SFA as provider and SPFL as the customer.

This spilt of responsibilities would prevent any one person at SFA being in a position to exert his own influence on referees by being part of both the appointment and evaluation process.

It would safeguard the SFA from the kind of suspicion that led to criticism and then the threat of a referees’ strike in November 2010 (the season of honest mistakes) and lead to a higher standard of referee because the customer would be setting the standard, not the provider.

(As happens everywhere in business but football)

If it did not lead to a more competent pool of referees it would free the SPFL to hire their own refs from wherever they could get them.

A bit of competition never did anybody any harm and that includes our referees who, if they reached higher standards, would be in more demand outside Scotland.

In time that would lead to our referees being viewed as much professional as the footballer, with commensurate rewards.

A win win win.

For referees, the clubs and the game in Scotland.

Auldheid is one of the Resolution 12 team, a friend of this blog and an occasional contributor.

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