Scottish referees: Foreign officials idea is 'like trying to push water uphill'

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Scottish referees
Scotland's referees met with Premiership managers in Perth in January

From the minute Brendan Rodgers first extolled the virtues of bringing foreign referees to Scotland in a bid to grow numbers and improve standards, you knew that we hadn't heard the last of it.

Sure enough, not long after the Celtic manager spoke about getting the "best referees from England or Wales or wherever" - and in the wake of yet more refereeing controversy - there was another contribution from a Celtic man. Former captain Tom Boyd, an official club ambassador, remarked that the "only solution" to the rising number of errors was to send for what he called "neutral referees".

The inference was not lost on anybody. In documenting some supposed hardships that Celtic had been subjected to, Boyd seemed to be feeding a conspiracy about biased referees. The "neutral referees" had come in during the refs' strike of November 2010, he added, and "did ever so well".

On this and on a number of other things, Boyd is confused. On the weekend of the referees' strike in Scotland, Celtic hosted Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Alain Hamer from Luxembourg was in charge and disallowed a perfectly legitimate Celtic goal. The match ended 2-2 and Celtic went on to lose the league to Rangers by one point.

The funny thing was that the Celtic manager of the day, Neil Lennon, never made an issue of it. Neither did the Celtic support. Had it been a Scottish official who had erred, would they have remained so stoic? Hamer got a free pass in a way that a Scot may not have.

'Who are these top Welsh referees?'

On Monday, the Scottish FA met the 12 Premiership clubs to discuss ways through the refereeing and disciplinary morass that has dogged the game this season. The subject of foreign referees in the Premiership has returned to the agenda. A working party are now said to be looking into it.

OK, let's. Rodgers spoke about getting the best referees from Wales. Who are they? Wales have not had a referee or an assistant referee officiating in the Champions League or the Europa League group stage this season. Scotland have had two Champions League referees, six Champions League assistant referees, four Europa League referees and seven Europa League assistant referees.

Of all the officials in Europe, Willie Collum - for all his faults - is joint top in terms of number of Champions League group games refereed this season. Collum and Bobby Madden are Scotland's two Champions League referees. As a country, Scotland has more Champions League group stage referees than Russia, Portugal and Turkey and just one fewer than England, Italy and France.

Bobby Madden
Bobby Madden has been in charge of matches in the Champions League this term

Between them, Collum, Madden, John Beaton and Andrew Dallas have this season taken charge of Germany v Spain, Portugal v Italy, Denmark v Chile, Austria v Bosnia Herzegovina, Monaco v Atletico Madrid, Juventus v Valencia, AC Milan v Olympiacos, Eintracht Frankfurt v Marseille, Slavia Prague v Zenit.

The "top" Welsh referees, Simon Evans and Iwan Griffith, have taken charge of Vikingur v Torpedo Kutaisi and UE Engordany v FR Kairat in the qualifiers of the Europa League. That's been their lot.

So let's move on from the "top" Welsh referees argument - and the top Irish referees as well for that matter. There aren't any. The ones in Scotland are streets ahead of them.

'Why would they come here?'

The Scottish FA are being encouraged to look at bringing in "top" English referees as well. There are 17 Select Group referees and 28 Select Group assistant referees operating in the Premier League. They're all salaried positions. The leading refs are paid a retainer of somewhere between £38,000-£42,000 with a per-game fee on top of that of around £1,200.

There are 20 Select Group Two referees and 36 Select Group Two assistant referees looking after the Championship. They get the same basic salary but about half the match fee as the top guys.

Firstly, they are employees, so the idea that the Scottish FA can go and get them is not straightforward.

Secondly, why would the referees that would improve standards in Scotland - "the best" as Rodgers called them - want to give up their security and their status in one of the most high-profile leagues in the world to traipse up to Scotland to work in a league they don't know, for a salary that would almost certainly involve a pay-cut, in front of crowds at certain clubs and a wider media that would jump down their throat at the first opportunity? It's a risible notion.

The likes of Michael Oliver are paid a retainer of somewhere between £38,000 and £42,000 a year
The likes of Michael Oliver are paid a retainer of somewhere between £38,000 and £42,000 a year

So, can we rule out the "best" referees in England as well, then? Yes, we probably can. There's always the rest of Europe, of course. The top Spanish refs get around £5,000 per game. That's five times the going rate in Scotland. In Germany and Italy, it's a little lower. In France, a little lower still.

Even if the Scottish FA could match the fees, you have to ask the question again - why would these officials come here and why would they be allowed to by their leagues and their associations? If they are that good, they'll be wanted for games in their own country.

'It's a soundbite & a cop-out'

Remember, the Scottish FA had the devil's own job to find officials to keep the show on the road during the referees' strike. European football is not packed with quality referees. The grass is not always greener on the other side. If you don't think much of Collum and Beaton and Dallas and Madden and Kevin Clancy then you have to ask yourself why Uefa have trusted them to referee a combined total of 14 group stage games in the Champions League and Europa League this season.

'Bring in the foreign refs' is the cry but it's a vacuous thought made, in part, by conspiracy theorists who see dark forces around every corner and also by people who don't appreciate the reality of the refereeing landscape. It's a soundbite and a cop-out.

Scottish referees are going through the horrors right now. They're making too many mistakes and too many wretched mistakes. They're getting pilloried. If the confidence levels of some of them weren't through the floor right now, it would be a surprise. One of them, Beaton, has been subjected to threats and intimidation. It's all a bit dysfunctional.

VAR remains the one thing that can help referees make better decisions. It can help remove some of the howlers we have seen, it can help bring more accuracy to the on-field decision-making and, as a consequence, it can reduce the frustration and anger of managers and, perhaps, the suspicion and bitterness of some supporters.

A number of clubs have come out in favour of it as a logical first step down a long road. Celtic are not among them. Rodgers says he would support it but Rodgers doesn't get to make these decisions. That's down to his board - and his board remain silent. Instead, like trying to move water up a hill, they are pushing for foreign referees.

As a talking point it's not quite as spectacular a waste of time as the multi-million pound face recognition technology that the Scottish FA once spoke about in an effort to curb the excesses of unruly fans, but it's close.

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