More moaners’ strike than miners’ strike

Having an official sulk because of a bit of fan abuse suggests many Scottish referees are in the wrong line of work.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

The referee is a wanker. Always has been. It’s an immutable law. But if the wankers go on strike should we support them? Yes, if they were striking for something worthwhile, but a strike against name-calling? I’m not so sure.

The Scottish Premier League faces a complete shutdown this weekend because top-flight officials are threatening to down whistles. It’s a very peculiar strike. Football isn’t your normal hotbed of union militancy. Today’s super-rich players are a far cry from their PFA predecessors who battled to scrap the maximum wage and the feudal retain-and-transfer system. Referees, moreover, are the last people you’d expect to see on the picket line. Officious, whistle-happy, petty tyrants: that’s how most football fans probably regard them, more foreman than the shopfloor worker.

The Scottish refs are upset after public criticism of their competence and honesty. Referee Dougie McDonald was widely slammed for reversing a penalty decision in a recent match between Celtic and Dundee United and then admitting to having lied over why he changed his mind. Celtic subsequently wrote to the Scottish Football Association (SFA) to complain about that and other refereeing decisions. The matter was inflamed by Pete Wishart, MP for Perth and North Perthshire, who called for referees to declare their allegiances. Celtic chairman John Reid added fuel to the fire, in a grandstanding speech at the club’s AGM, when he called for Dougie McDonald to be sacked and for ‘bold, radical action’ to be taken to combat ‘stories of lies, conspiracies and cover-ups’ within Scottish football.

The oddest thing about this strike is that it seems completely devoid of any demands. A statement issued by the Scottish Senior Football Referees Association (SSFRA) explained that the referees had decided to boycott SPL games this weekend because: ‘statements questioning honesty and integrity have been aimed across refereeing in general and have led to an unprecedented level of abuse and genuine concerns for safety and for the ability to carry out normal family and business commitments’. The strike, in other words, is a gesture. As I said, no concrete demands – they just want a bit of respect. It’s a militant version of the English FA’s Respect campaign which aims to eradicate abuse of referees. This is more moaners’ strike than miners’ strike.

I’m not persuaded either that public criticism of refereeing standards inevitably leads to physical attacks on referees. Former referee Kenny Clark says that ‘we are not far away from the day when a fan – acting in a stupid manner, but flamed by the actions of his club – will end up assaulting a referee’. The assumption here is that football fans are no better than snarling pitbulls who will savage a referee on their owner’s command. John Reid might be wrong to question the integrity of the match officials but it doesn’t amount to a fatwa against referees. Has there been an upsurge in physical violence against referees? I’ve seen no evidence. There have been a series of so-called hate campaigns against referees in recent years – Anders Frisk, Urs Meier, Tom Henning Ovrebo to name a few – but these have amounted to little more than abusive emails and adolescent death threats posted on Facebook.

A referee’s strike poses some interesting questions for the class-conscious football fan. Should fans stay away from SPL matches in solidarity with the refs? What if the SFA brings in strikebreaking referees from abroad? Is it okay to abuse and threaten scab refs in support of a strike against abuse and threats? Should fans support the strike at all given that the SSFRA appears to regard fans as violent thugs? I think that striking is an overreaction to recent public criticism. Former Hibs manager John Hughes thinks that some officials need to lighten up. ‘There are some fantastic linesmen and officials that you have a right good bit of banter with’, said Hughes. ‘I think one or two of them maybe need to loosen the jock strap a little bit come the Saturday. They are so uptight.’ I agree. The whingeing whistlers ought to be a bit more thick-skinned.

Of course it’s not pleasant to be constantly badmouthed when you’re at work. But football isn’t a normal line of work. Abuse is an occupational hazard of the job. The competence and honesty of referees – not to mention their parentage – is routinely called into question. If the referees can’t take a bit of stick I’m inclined to suggest they’re in the wrong trade.

Five good reasons for referees to strike

There are plenty of good reasons for referees to withdraw their labour. Here are my top five:

1) More money. Uncommon these days but what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned strike for better pay? Referees are paid peanuts in comparison to the players so why not demand more?

2) More discretion. The ability of referees to use common sense to control a game has been undermined by countless moronic FIFA edicts. It’s time to loosen the reins and let the refs decide how to maintain order on the pitch without always having to reach for a card.

3) Killjoy rules. Talking of moronic FIFA edicts let’s sweep away petty rules which require referees to book players for removing their shirts, jumping over perimeter fences and over-celebrating goals.

4) The offside law. Active. Inactive. First phase. Second phase. WTF? The law is an ass.

5) Bad football. Wouldn’t it be great if a referee just stopped a game and walked out in protest because the quality of the football was so crap?

God knows they must see more than their fair share of dross in the SPL. ‘Sorry lads, this game is shite. Everyone out!’

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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Topics Politics


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