Retired referee Crawford Allan reflects on tragedy, bust-ups and fans' fury

Crawford Allan
Crawford Allan retired from refereeing at the end of last season

As a referee, Crawford Allan has witnessed plenty in his 25-plus years negotiating the murky waters of Scottish football - the joyous and the wounding, the comical and the controversial, adventures on the continent and tragedy at home.

Almost a decade on, one day, one catastrophic match remains etched indelibly in his memory.

It is December 2007 and Motherwell are playing Dundee United at Fir Park. Allan has the whistle and the goals are flying in during a 5-3 win for the hosts.

And then Well captain Phil O'Donnell collapses suddenly and is later pronounced dead at the tragically young age of 35.

"I think there were about 10 or 11 minutes left in the game," Allan recalls. "Over the intercom, the assistant referee said, 'There's a player down, there's a player down,' out of nowhere. I had to turn round and it was Phil."

A match programme cover featuring Phil O'Donnell in front of the Phil O'Donnell stand at Motherwell's Fir Park
This picture of a match programme in front of the Phil O'Donnell was taken on the one-year anniversary of the player's tragic passing

Even 10 years on, his voice grows brittle as the memory looms into focus.

"Getting a phone call that night, I can't imagine for the family," said Allan. "The aftermath, Motherwell were superb. I got support, I went to the funeral and the football family for one occasion came together.

"It was a very challenging week or two and I remember thinking, 'will I do my game the following week at Alloa?' I phoned a lot of people and Motherwell were great, and said, 'get back out there, you've got to get back out there'."

In the thick of it

There has been strife and there has been conflict - Allan was a rookie in the top tier of Scottish refereeing seven years ago when the officials withdrew their services in protest following intense criticism and concerns over their safety.

Then there was the Scottish Cup tie at Ibrox, when Mixu Paatelainen of Hibernian and Rangers' Walter Smith squared-up like heavyweight boxers at a weigh-in after a two-footed lunge by Nacho Novo, which resulted in a red card.

"I became the meat in the sandwich," Allan, fourth official that day, laughs. "I drew myself up to my full 5ft 6.

"Mixu being his usual, wearing his passion on his sleeve, just launched himself past me to remonstrate about this tackle.

"Walter obviously took exception to this, launched himself across the gap, past me.

Walter Smith, of Rangers, and Hibernian's Mixu Paatelainen square up during a Scottish Cup tie at Ibrox
Allan found himself separating the formidable figures of Walter Smith and Mixu Paatelainen at Ibrox

"I've got the picture of it, there's the two of them nose-to-nose and me stuck in the middle of it.

"Give Walter his due, he came in at the end, knocked the door kind of sheepishly and said, 'I didn't know I still had that passion in me, guys'.'"

'You want to explain it'

Allan turned 50 this year, and brought his career as an official to a close at the end of the 2016-17 season.

He is eager now to better things for those that follow in an era of multi-angle television replays, social media and unprecedented scrutiny, and feels that allowing referees to account for their decisions publicly post-match is an idea worth exploring.

"You want to explain it and say, 'well the angle I had, I didn't see the player's leg come in'," Allan says. "'He got the ball first, the player then fell over the trailing leg, so it was a clean tackle'.

Referee Crawford Allan is approached by St Mirren manager Jack Ross
Allan is used to dealing with managers' queries and complaints

"I would like to be able to say something like that. If I was wrong and I'd watched TV, then you would say, 'okay, that's my angle, that's what I've seen, I'll try harder next time'.

"And we will, because we go home and chuck the bag in the corner the same as everybody else, and say, 'that was a shocker, but what can I learn'?"

Fans' fury

He knows, though, that altering a deeply-ingrained footballing sphere where dissent cascades from the stands, and officials are easy meat, will prove fiendishly difficult.

"If I could change one thing about Scottish football, it would be a bit of the culture," Allan says. "I know that we are compared regularly to rugby and the big gentle giants that thump each other for 80 minutes, but treat the referee with ultimate respect.

Scotland fans at Hampden Park
Allan hopes supporters can be encouraged to treat officials with greater respect

"There was one game where it got so bad with my wife and youngest daughter at a ground - we get two complimentary tickets for each game, and this club must use the same seats, so the fans know that's the referee's seats.

"And unfortunately it got a bit out of hand that day, some of the abuse, and my daughter got a bit upset, so my wife had to report it to a steward. They couldn't do anything about it at that time - they said it was industrial language.

"If there's one thing I could change, it would be to treat people with a bit of respect. It's probably, as I said in a presentation to the SFA, mission impossible. I did a presentation to the SFA convention last year - how can we increase the profile and respect for referees? Maybe it's just the hardest thing I'll ever take on."

Crawford Allan was speaking to BBC Scotland's Kenny Macintyre - to hear the full interview, tune into Sportsound on BBC Radio Scotland from 14:00 on Saturday, 24 June.

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