How Can We Help Our Referees To Make The Right Calls?

More Bad Decisions From Our referees

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This weekend we saw more incredible calls from our referees that had most observers wondering (again!) just why our officials are getting so many big decisions wrong.

Willie Collum’s questionable decision making at Ibrox might have been the highest profile blunders of the weekend but they weren’t the only ones to leave us scratching our heads.

There were two major incidents that most agree he got wrong.

The first was Nicky Clark’s red card for what most would agree is a yellow card offence at worst. Some would argue whether it was even a foul at all.

Very few think it was worthy of a red card.

The strangest thing about this award was that Collum failed to take the opportunity to take a second look. He appears to have awarded the red card based on advice from the VARs.

Its doubly strange as he then decided that the following challenge was only worthy of a yellow card.

This time when the VARs suggested that it should be upgraded to a red he DID go to the monitor and having seen it again stuck with his initial decision.

This all follows on from his performance in the cup semi final where I think most agree Kilmarnock should have been awarded a late penalty for this challenge from Giakoumakis

Again he failed to go to the monitor for a second look.

This is all the more strange considering what Collum said about the new technology ahead of it’s arrival in Scottish Football:

“There is not a referee in the world who doesn’t want the opportunity to see a decision again,” he explained. “That will be a godsend for all of us — that opportunity to have a safety net and know that, if I make and error, then I’ve got the chance to see it again.

“I won’t be worrying about what Sportscene will show on Saturday night or what someone will text you. But the key principle is the same: the referee must try to get the decision right on the field. A great deal of our training at the Scottish FA is about getting the decision right.

“As a referee, you don’t want to need to use VAR. It’s great coming off when you haven’t used VAR because the prime focus is to get the decision right on the field.”

There was also a clear penalty kick missed by the referee and the VAR team at the St Mirren v Motherwell game which casts further doubt on the ability of our officials to implement the new technology effectively.

In this recent article I discussed the need for change and I’ve now dug a little deeper on some of the key problems were seeing at this time – and how we can potentially improve on them.

At the moment we as fans are spending far too long speculating about referees motivations, and not long enough on what can be done to decrease the number of obvious errors they are making.

Let’s see if we can change that.

The Biggest Areas of Concern

By far the most problematic type of decision we are seeing is how the handball rule is currently being interpreted.

We are seeing wildly different applications of this rule, and sometimes by the same referees in different games.

Every weekend we see penalties awarded for the ball striking a players hand and in other games the exact same scenario is also seeing a referee decide against awarding a penalty.

There’s absolutely no consistency at this time, and no-one knows what the referee will do when there is contact with any players hand.

Players, managers, fans, pundits. We’re all currently in the dark with this.

It looks like some of the referees are too.

I’ve read the latest rulings from IFAB (International Football Association Board) and watched the videos and I just cannot understand how the referees are getting so many of these decisions wrong.

The next biggest issue is determining what is and isn’t classed as “excessive force” when tackling.

We’ve seen some really poor challenges go unpunished, whilst other challenges like St Johnstone’s Nicky Clark’s at Ibrox on Saturday result in a straight red card.

The Perth side have appealed the decision but I think we all know how that’s likely to go.

A similarly bad decision was the red card that was given to Livingston’s Jason Holt at Easter Road last month month.

As can be seen below Holt clearly wins the ball before Hibs’ Kevin Nisbett comes in on the blind side and catches Holt’s trailing leg.

What can Jason Holt possibly do differently in this scenario? He 100% wins the ball.

Incredibly – though unsurprisingly – Livingston failed to get that one rescinded on appeal.

As we’ve seen so often over the years with various appeals the SFA generally close ranks and ‘back their own’ in these cases. It doesn’t look like that will change any time soon.

The final big area of concern are the scenarios we’re witnessing where referees appear not to be up to date with recent rule changes.

The highest profile example of this came in Celtic’s recent home fixture against Livingston as a Liel Abada ‘goal’ was incorrectly ruled out.

The changes to the ruling regarding ‘Deliberate Play’ should have seen the goal stand.

Dale Johnston from ESPN explains the deliberate play rule change well in this thread, but there are plenty of examples in the above link to explain why the Abada goal should have stood.

The Livingston player clearly has plenty of time to keep the game going and the only reason he fails to do so is by his own incompetence.

Part Time Referees

One of the main issues we have is that our referees and their assistants are part time.

I’m not sure if we have the money in our game to install full time referees like they have in the big five leagues – though we were able to find the  funds for VAR quickly enough.

I know the argument will be, “But it’ll just be the same guys anyway?”.


But by being full time they’ll be able to dedicate the necessary time to keeping up to date with any rule changes.

As full time professionals they can also then be subject to regular review at a much higher level to ensure they are staying up to date.

They would have more time to work together to build consensus on different types of incidents.

Essentially they would have the ability to focus more on the job at hand than they currently do.

I imagine being part time, most referees will currently be working some form of 9-5.

Some will have young families. Some will have other hobbies. Some like Nick Walsh may even have youth coaching jobs elsewhere (ahem).

As part of their commitment to being a part-time referee there will be requirements they have to meet in terms of general fitness and so cardio and gym sessions will be something that most will have to fit into an already busy schedule.

At times some will have two games a week to prepare for, and travel to.

This doesn’t leave a lot of time for working on improving their skills as a referee.

I think we often judge their performance based on expectation that they are professionals doing a job.

They aren’t.

As such perhaps our expectations are unfairly high?

This is exactly why I had such high hopes for VAR.


Bringing VAR into the Scottish Premiership I believed would give referees that second chance to correct their obvious errors.

I assumed that the errors we have grown used to seeing routinely in our game were mainly due to referees simply not seeing the incident well enough at first viewing.

A second look would iron out these errors.

Even those incidents where the referee was mistaken about a rule would be sorted quickly, as surely it would be unlikely that all the officials would not be up to date with any law changes?

I’m continually amazed by what we are seeing.

All VAR has done in Scottish Football up until now is demonstrate just how poorly prepared our officials are when ruling over our football matches.

We are seeing wildly different interpretations of laws from incident to incident. There looks to be very little continuity as to how certain scenarios are being adjudged.

Contentious decisions that occur in games appear never to be discussed between the officials.

There appears to be nothing being done to bring consensus to how these scenarios will be dealt with going forward.

Its a shambles.

BBC Radio Scotland had Kenny Clark as a guest on a recent show. He is a member of the SFA’s Referee Committee who oversee refereeing.

It was remarkable hearing his thoughts on what we’ve been seeing.

In a nutshell he said that referees make mistakes and no decisions is ever 100% wrong as fans will walk away thinking the referee got it right dependent on whether your team benefitted from the decision or not.

When pressed for details of what is being done to improve refereeing, it quickly became clear that NOTHING was being done.

Eventually he fobbed them off with an analogy about coaches taking a poorly performing player aside for a quick chat.

This is troubling. Fans across Scotland are being short changed.

Not only that, referees themselves are being hung out to dry if they aren’t getting the help they need from those in charge.

This week we again see ex=referees appearing to tie themselves in knots as they try to defend the indefensible.

I actually thought Richard Foster explained the incident well only for Stuart Dougal to set out his own criteria for what a tackle exceeding the threshold for excessive force would be.

If what he says were true you would see two or three players sent off in every game of football.

We’ve found ourselves in a quite ridiculous situation.

Doing It On The Cheap

I can understand why we’ve got the equivalent of VAR-Lite here in Scotland.

I imagine the money it costs to implement a more substantial version of VAR is prohibitive.

Similarly with going full time with our referees.

However, our six camera system is being used to judge incidents that we clearly don’t have good enough viewing angles for.

I expected this to speed up decision making. Instead we are seeing delays in play of up to seven minutes at times as they try to deduce if a tackle is a red card or not.

It’s ridiculous and it’s negatively affecting the match day experience.

In my opinion if a ref or VAR cant decide within a minute then its must be unclear and they should just go with the on field decision and get on with the game.

Instead we are seeing referees being scared to overrule VAR based on inconclusive camera angles such as the red card Jorge Grant received versus Motherwell received at Tynecastle.

I’ve seen each angle available for that one and its simply not possible to tell.

Its not a good tackle but without a better angle i think its impossible to say either way whether this is a red card offence or not.

More cameras would help clear that up.

Tynecastle in particular has had more delays than most and I think this is possibly due to camera placement issues causing referees to struggle to make decisions based on the evidence available.

We’ve seen goals ruled out for ‘offside’ based on images from a camera at the wrong end of the pitch at Fir Park.

We’ve lost VAR for 15 minutes in a national cup semi final due to the technology failing to allow the officials communicate with the VAR team.

The implementation to date has been incredibly poor.

Other Issues

I’ve heard fans of lower league clubs bemoan VAR for taking all the referees of any ability away from refereeing games at their level.

If you think the referees in the Scottish Premiership make mistakes, some of the ones as you go lower down the leagues defy belief.

We are seeing inconsistency not only in decisions but in the protocols of the VAR intervention.

Referees appear to be making decisions to appease fans of one club at the expense of all other clubs in the league.

In Willie Collum’s case there is a suspicion he is afraid to give big decisions for fear of losing out on being awarded the biggest games in Scottish football.

So How Do We Improve?

Assuming the money isn’t there to provide full time referees or to upgrade the equipment including adding more cameras at the matches, I believe there are still things that can be done to improve the officiating of our games.


The first thing we should be looking to improve is communication.

Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou raised this at a press conference a while back.

There are incidents happening where no-one knows how one referee is going to react to over another. That shouldn’t be the case.

Would it be too much to ask for someone from Scottish Football’s refereeing fraternity to come out and explain any time there’s a notable change to any IFAB rulings? Just to keep us on the same page?

At the moment I don’t believe the officials themselves are on the same page.

Admission of mistakes should be allowed. This in turn allows for these mistakes to be rectified or mitigated against moving forward.

This would be a whole lot better than the, “No decision was incorrect/nothing to see here” type response that we’re hearing from the likes of Stuart Dougal and Kenny Clark.

Listening to Clyde Super Scoreboard on Monday night I found it interesting hearing Andy Halliday discuss why both penalties at the weekend also failed to yield yellow cards for the offenders.

He said that in a game he played in this season two penalties were awarded yet only one yellow card was issued. He asked the referee and was told that it would only be a yellow if the ball was going towards the goal.

If indeed that is the rule, why has it not been communicated to everyone? What other rules are unwritten yet being applied in our game?

The SFA Refereeing Team at Hampden Semi-Final
The SFA Refereeing Team at Hampden Semi-Final


Its clear that we have many referees who are not aware of what to award in certain situations. They need more and better training.

There needs to be regular testing to identify that referees will give the expected decision for various scenarios far more consistently.

With the access nowadays to so many video clips showing examples of every type of scenario that can happen in football, it should be possible to regularly test referees to help identify gaps in their knowledge and to work to rectify it.

IFAB provide a lot of good examples themselves. I struggle to believe our referees have studied them in depth based on how often they are getting decisions wrong.

This doesn’t need to be a massive ordeal. Referees should be keen to improve as they are the ones getting it in the neck on a weekly basis.

Creative Solutions

In my opinion, VAR refs do not need the full skillset required of an on-field referee.

Having experts in the room who know the rules to help referees correct clear mistakes is surely the point.

Currently the only people in the VAR room are current referees.

That brings about the problem mentioned earlier about diluting the quality of on field referees lower down the leagues.

It also doesn’t necessarily provide any extra expert help to the on-field referee.

Is there an opportunity to have a new qualification for a VAR that is specific to adjudging incidents in a game only.

This would mean anyone who becomes an expert in that area would not require ALL the skills required to be an on-field referee.

Things like fitness, showing authority to keep order on the pitch are not required when sitting mic’d up in a room watching television screens.

These are unnecessary when you simply need to look at a monitor and decide whether an offence has been committed and should be referred for a second view.

These VAR specialists could in theory invest more time on keeping on top of the rules if they didn’t need to worry about the other match preparation on field referees tend to do throughout a working week.

We are already seeing football move towards automated decisions. I think we are a while away from that but if we are talking about computers making some decisions, why does it have to be an on-field referee who decides whether a handball offence has been committed, or a foul meets the requirement of a red card?


If referees are going to the monitor and making a decision that is still contentious, they should be able to explain post match why these decisions were made. There was an instance of this last week in Germany where Leipzig manager Marco Rose was able to discuss a decision not to send off an opponent live on tv with the match official.

With VAR, referees should be confident enough to explain the thought process that has gone into their decision. If they cant then I’d suggest there is an issue.

However, I cant see that happen any time soon.

We are not able to get someone to admit any issues even with the number of incorrect decisions that have been made this season.

I cant imagine anyone is likely to explain decisions live on tv.

Hampden Park - The Home of Scottish Football
Hampden Park – The Home of Scottish Football

Going Forward

Ultimately for anything to change, the very first thing we need is for the Referee Committee to acknowledge there is a problem.

They haven’t as yet.

Once that has happened they need to invest time and resources to work on how we can improve the standard of refereeing.

I’ve only given some suggestions and these have mainly stemmed from recent discussions on twitter with fans from a variety of clubs.

If the Referee Committee aren’t working towards improvement then they simply need to be replaced with people who have the energy and the vision to do so.

Put simply, the SFA needs to modernise.

It needs to replace those who have become far too comfortable in their roles with people who believe in our game enough to put in the hard work to help make it better.

Until that happens we’ll continue to see arguments about the motivation behind obvious errors being made by our referees.

I’d much rather be discussing solutions that will improve the standard of refereeing in this country.


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