Scottish football has had problems with officiating for as long as I can remember, and certainly as long as I’ve been alive. My old man could tell stories about things he’s seen that make some of what my own generation has watched seem pale in comparison.
The issue which stalks us has been there forever. You can go back as far as you want, and there it will be. One of the reasons it endures is that we dare not call it what it is.
The word “bias” is not allowed in mainstream discourse when you talk about officials. We are not supposed to call their “integrity” into question, as if there wasn’t at least some debate about whether some of them deserve to have that word associated with them.
We all know the names of refs who have been, and are, blatant cheats but this, more than anything else, is the Scottish football discussion that nobody outside of the fans wants to have.
Over the years, whenever someone has tried to make this a genuine matter for discussion a long line of people has stepped forward to defend Scottish refereeing.
When a senior journalist was asked, some years ago, why we don’t just have them declare allegiances he acted as though it were an affront to their human rights or something, although just about every major league in Europe compels its officials to do so, including those south of the border.
In one astonishing radio interview, I once heard another journalist say that we must never investigate allegations of bias in Scottish football refereeing in case we find evidence of it; “Because then the game is finished,” he said, as though the existence of cheating at that level didn’t render every game we watch worthless anyway, and the sport with it.
What kind of journalist says something like that? What kind of attitude is that? “If it goes on, fine, as long as we never have to know about it.”
It hardly needs to be pointed out that such a statement is appalling coming from someone in that particular trade, and runs counter to the whole idea of the profession. Can you imagine Woodward and Bernstein sitting down and debating if it might be better not to know whether the entire upper echelon of the US Federal Government was corrupt?
Instead, Scottish football hides behind comforting lies about itself, and when you think about it even the lies are kind of hilarious; we don’t have corrupt officials here, they are just useless. When that is your fall-back position you know your argument is in trouble.
Over time, we’ve thrown up numerous guardrails against anyone who wants to explore the issue beyond that line. We don’t scrutinise refereeing decisions. We don’t ask referees to explain them. We have accepted that these are just Honest Mistakes, no matter how glaring, no matter how blatant, no matter how otherwise inexplicable.
We all know of decisions so shocking that they can only be explained away by an official who had made up his mind to punish or reward a particular club on a particular day. We can all think back on at least of a couple of them without straining brain-cells too much. They become legendry amongst those who do actually study these matters.
See, the advantage these people have and which they’ve always had is that any discussion about their intent can be halted simply by pointing out that these are human beings and human beings can fail to see the whole picture when they have to make a decision in a split second.
The creation of the review panel hasn’t changed that, because it can only alter certain decisions after the fact, when it’s too late. Even then, no referee is ever properly held to account for an “error”, no matter how grotesque or outrageous.
But technology has the power to change everything. It can be what consigns the entire era of Honest Mistakes to dustbin of history.
There are those who will express their concern that the decisions will still rest in the hands of the same corrupt officials and this is true, but for those officials the final fig-leaf will be ripped away. They will no longer be able to defend a senseless or baseless decision on the grounds that they were unsighted or had only a split second to call it.
This is what will finally reveal some of them for what they are. It will force them into giving decisions they would not normally give, and ditching calls they might have itched for. Some of the time, anyway. For the rest of the time it will force them to defend ridiculous decisions that they have had a chance to watch again and again before they make the final call.
That will reframe the whole debate around officiating in Scotland. When you have someone like Madden watching a decision three or four times on video and still “getting it wrong” then that will finally bring this thing to the surface where it can no longer be ignored or denied. What looks now to be inexplicable will finally become indefensible.
And that, my friends, is where the era of Honest Mistakes will finally come to an end.
Of course Celtic fans should back VAR.
It will be the best thing ever to happen to refereeing in Scotland and will be what finally gives us a fair crack of the whip, because sooner or later with the technology in place we’re going to force referees to play it straight, or push out of the game entirely those who aren’t.
It will change everything, for the better.