The Standard of Refereeing

A lot of chat this season in Scottish football has been on refereeing decisions. That’s not unusual in itself, refereeing decisions in Scottish football have been the subject of discussion since Scottish football’s inception. However, the latest discussions keep coming back round to the same conclusion:

Scottish football needs VAR.

But does it? Or is VAR just a convenient answer to something that’s actually a bigger problem that doesn’t need technology to solve? Maybe our officials just aren’t up to the job?

Look at the Scottish Cup action from the week. Sportscene on Saturday was a bit of a horror show for them almost from the get go. The first action we saw on the programme was Aberdeen’s visit to Fir Park, a game where Aberdeen took an early lead before Motherwell turned it around.

But Motherwell actually scored first! Despite the limited single camera angle provided for this match, it was blatantly obvious that the offside decision was wrong. Joe Efford was clearly well onside when the pass was played. He wasn’t level, this wasn’t a tight decision, he was trailing the defence. Fortunately for Motherwell, this didn’t play a part in their eventual progression to the quarter finals.

The same can’t be said for Livingston though. Another single camera angle, another offside decision, this time Cristiano Montano’s goal was the one to be ruled out. Sportscene didn’t go back to this one, and it was admittedly harder to tell from the one camera angle if he was onside or offside but it certainly looked possible. Livingston eventually lost out on penalties to Hearts, so you would have to hope that decision was correct.

But here’s the first problem with bringing in VAR. We can’t get Sportscene to send any more than one camera to game as it is! VAR needs multiple camera angles to really be of any use. But we’ll come back to that point in a minute.

The third game on Sportscene was Dundee United’s visit to Firhill. Mark McNulty tried to chase a long ball, was clearly pulled back by Lewis Mayo and with goalkeeper Sneddon running out it was knocked away by the arm of defender Kevin Holt. Again, thankfully, the wonderful goal from Ian Harkes was enough to give Dundee United the win, and to be honest the biggest crime of this game was the Firhill pitch.

But here’s where VAR could help. Oddly, this time Sportscene had multiple camera angles to show both the jersey pull and the handball. So United should be getting a free kick, Mayo is probably getting a yellow card for his trouble, and everything goes as it should.

Except VAR wouldn’t look at at this decision because no goal was scored. Here’s a situation where a video replay would actually help because the referee and linesman have missed it – maybe due to the angle they’re seeing it, although I’m not sure that excuse flies for both of them – and it just won’t help!

Actually the best example of where VAR really would have helped came at Celtic Park the following day. With Celtic 1-0 up they seemed to be flapping at the back, and none more so than when Cameron Carter-Vickers appear to use his arm to control the ball. Raith Rovers furiously claimed for a penalty but the referee Steven McLean saw nothing wrong.

Actually, I can quite believe he saw nothing wrong. The motion of Carter-Vickers is enough that from the angle that McLean has he could very easily think it was his chest and not the upper part of his arm. And technically it might not be a penalty anyway, depending on just how high up the arm the ball has hit. A recent change to the handball rule has more or less ruled out the part of the arm that is covered by a short sleeve.

But this is exactly where VAR would help. Steven McLean has the wrong angle, the linesman is behind it so he can’t see either. The camera can see it clearly, so then it’s up to VAR to decide how high up the arm the ball hit. If it’s high enough, the decision stands. If its low enough for handball, VAR can tell McLean and he can decide to give the penalty or not.

VAR would also help for McLean’s calamitous decision later on in the same game. When McLean finally did give a penalty for handball, this time to Celtic, it was the right decision. Scott Mackie’s arm is stretched out and he uses it to block the shot that’s heading towards goal. It’s a penalty, it’s a yellow card.

It’s not a yellow card to Ross Matthews though, he was booked for the handball.

VAR could easily clear up this case of mistaken identity, but the real question here is how on Earth did Steven McLean managed to get it wrong? Mackie was already on a booking, this decision should have led to a red card, and it didn’t. Again, this didn’t really affect the game. It was late on, Celtic would be 4-0 up after the penalty was taken and the rebound scored by Nir Button, but why has he got this decision so badly wrong? VAR would only be bailing him out here.

On Monday night Dundee travelled to Peterhead, and the League One side gave a good account of themselves. However, like Raith Rovers before them, they felt aggrieved that the decision against the bigger team went for the bigger team and not for them. If there’s some doubt over the Carter-Vickers handball, there’s no doubt whatsoever in this one.

Dundee goalkeeper Ian Lawlor is clearly scrambling across and going to be second to a ball being chased down by Peterhead’s Ryan Duncan. Lawlor clatters him, getting none of the ball in the process, and the referee David Munro says play on. Again, this is an easy decision to make, it’s more of a penalty than the one that Dundee had already scored earlier on in the game!

The question of VAR keeps coming up. I’m all in favour of technology being used where it’s going to add to the game. We saw in the 2020 Scottish Cup final just how good goal line technology is. It correctly gave Hearts a goal in that game when no one was really sure at the time, and it did it quickly. That’s perfect. The right decision, no hanging about waiting for a call to be made, no waiting to see if you’re celebration goal that’s going to be chalked off. Get that introduced as much as possible everywhere.

But VAR doesn’t do that. It could be useful, it could definitely make the call on Carter-Vickers when neither official has the right angle to make it themselves. But it’s not going to help Mark McNulty, is it? And crucially for me, the referee should already be getting the easy decisions right. Steven McLean should give Scott Mackie his second yellow card, he shouldn’t need technology to tell him who committed the handball he just saw. David Munro should be awarding the penalty to Peterhead, he shouldn’t need technology to tell him what is clear to see.

The offside decisions are the same too. When you’re a yard or two onside, it shouldn’t be hard to get that decision right. When you’re are yard or two offside, again, it shouldn’t be hard to get that decision right. But how many times have we looked at VAR decisions in other countries and saw VAR deciding that someone is onside or offside by the finest of margins. We watch as two lines get drawn on the screen and if they’re even slightly different that’s enough for the decision.

I actually think this is a problem with the rule. We used to say that referees should get the benefit of technology. Well now we’ve gone so far with technology that the players are the ones suffering. How are you mean to accurately judge yourself staying onside when technology is going to call it on a fraction of a millimetre? It’s impossible. Really we need to start giving the attacker the benefit of the doubt here. The concept of “level” needs to include daylight between the players.

So never mind VAR, what about what we currently have? Referees who seem incapable of making the big calls correctly. What is happening to the referees after they are not making these big calls? There’s usually calls from the fans to have referees dropped, but that only makes sense if it’s one or two incidents. We’re talking about problems across the board with multiple referees.

We’ve see questions around the performance of Kevin Clancy at Pittodrie by both Aberdeen and Rangers – albeit only one of those teams was publicised as going to the SFA for constructive talks. We’ve seen two retrospective red cards given for the same dangerous tackle when the same referee on both occasions – Don Robertson – only gave a yellow card at the time.

So is there anything the refereeing associations are doing to try and improve their standards?

We all want the decisions that are made to be the correct ones. But no one wants to lose the buzz of hanging about waiting to see if VAR will rule it out. I’ve actually had it both ways at Scotland games last year. VAR correctly ruled that a Lyndon Dykes goal should stand and not be ruled out against Israel, but then I was anxiously watching to see if Che Adams goal would be ruled out for offside against Denmark. Incorrectly as it turned out, but I didn’t know that at the time!

Goal line technology definitely gives you everything you want. With VAR, the jury is still out but I tend to lean towards it not being the right choice. It’s too slow and I don’t particularly like the limited scenarios for when they are using it either.

Better standards of refereeing though is definitely something we should be striving for, and I’d like to see them being more transparent about that side of things. Lets know what you are doing to improve the standards, try and build some confidence up in what must be one of the most maligned areas of football. That could only be a good thing, and maybe you’ll even get some helpful pointers along the way of things you can do. Carrying on as if nothing is wrong is doing nothing good for anyone.