The Season of the “Honest Mistake”.

When They Were So Desperate It Didn’t Matter How Blatant It Got.

By Tony Hamilton

People are asking how bad is it at Rangers? If we did not take this action, it could have been bad. We need to get the costs down and with the greatest respect, even if we kept Kris Boyd, I do not think there would be any guarantees this season

Sir David Murray 6th January 2009

Anybody who is of a fair mind watching that today would see that we had no chance of winning that. Today was all about Rangers, making sure they got the decisions, same with the penalty in the cup final. If it’s not a level playing field and, if we don’t get the decisions, blatant, important decisions then what is the point of turning up? And I asked Mike McCurry that, what was the point of us turning up today?” Craig Levein 10th May 2008

We see a different set of rules getting applied, none more so than when we’re coming here [Ibrox].” Gus MacPherson 6th March 2010

Every team gets decisions against them, but its just honest mistakes. I got a penalty against me in the1977 Scottish Cup final, the ball hit my thigh, not my arm, and the referee gave a penalty, wrongly, and to be honest, I had forgotten about it 5 days later, I didn’t go on about it” Derek Johnstone 6th March 2010

Among Celtic supporters, and those with the ability to soberly reflect on the evidence which has presented itself so starkly, season 2009/10 will go down in Scottish football history as the season when the Establishment club became so desperate it did not matter how blatant the cheating became. It was the season that the hackneyed cliché

“an honest mistake” was taken to a new level, the last refuge of their media apologists. With Rangers very existence at stake, the £10million available from Champions League participation became the Middle East oil to their US Administration, the taxpayer bailout to their ailing banking corporation, the very oxygenated blood to their living breathing souls, and failure to acquire this vital sustenance could not be tolerated; no matter the cost. The Head of the Family would have to put the word out – the favours were to be called in.

When Sir David Murray made his statement in January 2009 that if Kris Boyd hadn’t been sold then things “could have been bad”, Rangers appeared to be heading for dire desperate straits, with the very real prospect of the grim reaper making an appearance at the marble staircase. Particularly so, when it emerged later that their chairman; the highly esteemed captain of industry that he is; had been employing a negotiating strategy seemingly devised by the Marx Brothers, revealing his hand before the Boyd deal had been formally completed, at a stroke destroying the club’s chances of commanding any sort of significant transfer fees from the hovering English Premiership and Championship vultures, no matter how much cheerleading and hype their media poodles could drum up for their prize assets. There would no Hutton or Cuellar-shaped deliverance; therefore something more extreme would have to be contemplated.

However in hindsight, writing this as I do in March 2010, watching Celtic limp towards the SPL finishing line, beset on all sides by an openly hostile media; even more openly biased referees; and a Scottish footballing establishment populated almost exclusively by individuals with formal links to Rangers, the thought enters my head that if, as Murray said, things really did get “bad”; it may not have been a harbinger of doom for Rangers as everyone had assumed, but rather for their hated rivals Celtic; as this would leave no other option than to release the hounds from hell in the form of Operation: It Doesn’t Matter How Blatant It Has to Get (OIDMHBIHTG). Craig Levein’s comments in the wake of the Mike McCurry show in May 2008 would prove a microcosm of the challenge Celtic were to be presented with in 2009/10 season.

It was following a poor 1-1 home draw with Hibs in October 2009 that Walter Smith; not for the first or last time; lost his cool completely in a press conference and let the cat out of the bag – the bank was effectively running Rangers. At that point, the Establishment club had already benefited from some customary “honest mistakes” against Hearts, Aberdeen and Celtic, with Celtic on the other hand being denied a match-winning penalty in the final minutes of a game with Dundee United by Celtic-minded referee Steve Conroy (considering a referee to be Celtic-minded not considered to be a symptom of paranoia in Scotland). Despite this, Celtic’s win at Hamilton Accies the day after that now infamous press conference, put us a point clear at the top of the SPL table. This simply would not do; the gloves would have to come off and immediately Celtic would be feeling the full force of OIDMHBIHTG.

OIDMHBIHTG called for a two-pronged attack. Firstly, escalating the cheating, primarily the refereeing decisions, but also the selective use, or more accurately; lack of use; of the completely arbitrary video review panel. Secondly there is the clean-up exercise. A compliant media which diverts attention away from topics and incidents that the Establishment bosses deem undesirable, whilst casting their light in a direction more amenable to the agenda at hand. All of this is fairly straightforward to orchestrate when you have the right people in the right posts –

SFA Chief Executive – Gordon Smith who in his autobiography spoke of trying “extra hard” against “the enemy” (i.e. Catholic schools) in his youth and who also complained of a UEFA “agenda” against Rangers in relation to sectarian and racist chanting, rather than actually countenance confronting the offenders. It was so bad even fellow apologist Jim Traynor had to ask him what part of “F*** the Pope” is not sectarian.

SFA President – George Peat the ex-Airdrie chairman, who in 2008 admitted to meeting with Rangers officials with the intention of changing the date of that season’s Scottish Cup final to give Rangers an advantage in their SPL campaign, without consulting the members clubs or the other finalists, Queen of the South. Peat was filled with indignation when his plans were not ratified and shared this quite openly with official media partner of the ‘RFC Geezanuther Extension’ campaign, the Daily Record.
SFA Head of Communications – Darryl Broadfoot, former chief football writer at the Herald and Rangers season ticket holder.

SPL Head of Communications ­– Greg Mailer, another Rangers supporter who was set to join the club in a PR role before the Lloyds Group froze all hiring.

SFA Head of Referee Development – Hugh Dallas, the former referee whose propensity for “honest mistakes” to Celtic’s detriment is legendary and something of a running joke in Scottish football circles. Famously awarded Italy a farcical penalty kick against Turkey in Euro 2000 as the sight of a royal blue jersey collapsing under imaginary sniper fire in the penalty area led to the inevitable outcome. Of course, this and every other mistake Dallas made, of which there were many (Dallas’s role in the “Andy Davis” debacle is conveniently forgotten), only led to him being showered with yet more praise by the Scottish media. And they made this guy Head of Scottish referees to carry on the good work.

Scottish Professional Footballers Association Chief Executive – Fraser Wishart, ex-Rangers player who can usually be relied upon to publicly defend Rangers players in times of need, but is much more reticent when the limelight is shone on their Celtic counterparts. Within hours of the latest revelations on Alan McGregor’s private life, judge, jury and executioner Wishart was condemning Celtic supporters on Radio Clyde for the attack “just for the jersey he wears”. He has been noticeably silent over the years about the racist abuse hurled at Aidan McGeady from Rangers fans.

Of course, mentioning facts such as these in relation to the aforementioned individuals, without even actually levelling any accusations of bias, is enough to bring forth a paranoiac reaction of utter derision along with the predictable parrott cry of “paranoia”. In the wonderful Orwellian world that is Scottish football, making simple statements of fact that don’t suit the party line, are enough to instigate frenzied, hysterical accusations of paranoia and malicious intent, far outweighing anything that has emanated from Celtic fans over the years.

These furious knee-jerk reactions are a clear indication that the claims of the “paranoid” indeed have much foundation. Outside the petty insular world of Scottish football, branding opponents “paranoid” or similar is a political tool universally acknowledge as a tactic deployed by those in positions of power who seek to avoid unpalatable debates for the fear of having their duplicity exposed. Whether it be US Administrations, UK Governments or the Soviet Politburo, any opponent branded “radical”, “dissident” or “extremist” may as well be arguing that the earth is flat for all the weight that his argument can carry in the face of so-called sober, informed political commentators. Constrained in this way, the Celtic paranoiac can provide massive quantities of empirical evidence to support his argument, yet the Establishment can rest in the knowledge that as far as everyone else is concerned – the “sober informed commentators” – he is simply howling at the moon.

Although this season has taken things to a new low we got a preview of what was in store for us last season, as normal levels of Establishment favouritism plumbed new depths in the closely fought title run-in. To give two examples – the media (for we have no way of knowing the criteria by which these cases are selected, surely this is no coincidence) managed to get a player (Scott McDonald) hauled up before a disciplinary review panel for a tackle that the referee saw, dealt with and in which the opponent on the receiving end (Lee Wilkie) saw no malice, publicly stating as such. In contrast, demonstrating a partisan spirit, which would have put the ‘Free Deirdrie Rashid’ campaign to shame, the media lobbied shamelessly (Darrell King in the Evening Times described the original decision as “ridiculous”) to have a player’s red card rescinded for the minor offence of kicking someone in the head (in the case of Madjid Bougherra).

Of course in each instance the media were successful in their objective. The first case illustrates aptly the cunning nature of the media’s modus operandi, for although the player (Scott McDonald) ultimately received no suspension, it made Glenn Loovens his Celtic team-mate’s position untenable in his own disciplinary case. It was inconceivable that two Celtic players could have the charges against them dismissed no matter how flimsy the prosecution case. So the media got their pound of flesh from Celtic in the end. No doubt this assertion will be dismissed as paranoia by the sober reflections of neutrals, while they nod in agreement at talk of Celtic’s Machiavellian attempts to influence referees this season.

That would be the same referees who have been responsible for a plethora of blatantly incorrect decisions to Celtic’s disadvantage and to Rangers’ benefit. Note – not “debatable”,”questionable” or “dodgy”, but blatantly incorrect of the sort where any reasonable person is left wondering, “what the hell is the referee playing at?” Unfortunately space is too limited here to go into a blow-by-blow account, suffice to say, Celtic supporters will be all too familiar with them, neutrals less so, as the majority have a mysterious habit of disappearing down an Orwellian black hole when it comes to Scottish media reportage.

Now I’m sure anyone of sound-mind could go away and find an equal number of instances where Celtic have been wrongly awarded a throw-in, corner or indirect free-kick on the halfway line to prove another unthinking stock answer of the neutral/apologist, “these things even themselves out over a season”. Such is the beauty of good propaganda and the “paranoia” parrott cry, which underpins it all.

What is significant though, is that Rangers never suffer from such slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune when it comes to referees. Sure, Scott McDonald scored a goal against them in April 2008 which was a nanometre offside and therefore should have been disallowed, and God knows did we not hear enough about it for the next 18 months? However the ridiculous, blatant, obvious decisions that Craig Levein referred to soon after that injustice, never go against them.

In November 2008, Derek Johnstone joined Walter Smith in the gutter with a piece entitled “Murphy’s Bitter” in the Evening Times in support of the dignified manager with no surname’s rant against Tom Murphy, which mysteriously name-checked the official – “Mr Murphy was quick to raise his flag here and he was quick to raise his flag at Celtic Park last season” – following a correct offside decision against Kris Boyd at Motherwell. In Scotland you see, nods, winks and hints peppered with sectarian overtones are OK if they are made by the right people and cast in the right direction; otherwise paranoia, or worse, is the instant diagnosis. Earlier in the season when a DaMarcus Beasley goal was mistakenly chalked off after a borderline offside call against Aberdeen, Smith was also casting aspersions at officials “It’s an incredible decision for a linesman who is in line with the play… We got a bad one at Tannadice earlier this season, which has been forgotten about, maybe because we don’t make that much of a fuss about it – same situation here”. OK, so you’re not making a fuss about it by ranting about it now and linking it to all sorts of decisions in the past which displeased you? Such is the prerogative of the manager of the Establishment team who was a servile media at his disposal to mould every utterance into a thing of statesmanlike dignity.

So, what to do about a string of “bad” decisions perceived to be largely favouring one team, and a manager who has been severely critical of officials on several occasions, introducing an ominous sectarian dimension to his grievances? Did the Scottish football authorities follow the 2010 model of conducting an intensely derisive media campaign to discredit every complainant as paranoid, vigorously defending the honour of referees at every opportunity, insisting they only ever make “honest mistakes” and demand action be taken against the manager in question for breaching SFA rules on criticism of referees? Of course not, this is Scotland. What they did was convene a summit at Hampden Park to discuss concerns over the standard of refereeing! You couldn’t make it up. Paranoiacs may also recall that this summit in August 2008 was in part a hangover from a lingering and rather virulent strain of Rangers paranoia from the previous season – the ‘Everybody’s-against-us-and-willnae-gee-us-another-extention’ strain.

Back in the present day, it is also true to say the current Celtic team has a number of deficiencies. However the shortcomings of the Celtic team and ostensible refereeing bias are not mutually exclusive concerns. When supporters of St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Falkirk get on their moral high-horse built on sand and manure, to preach about “Old Firm” bias, the response that they are mince anyway is not one that is considered acceptable, so why should Celtic be obliged to accept such half-baked logic?

It’s no coincidence that Conroy and Murphy (spot the connection) are the only two officials which the Scottish media have countenanced criticism of, and were prepared to put on the defensive. After Conroy displeased the Establishment club by sending off Pedro Mendes for a harmless flying kick to the abdomen followed by a careless two-footed lunge on a Kilmarnock player back in September, the Scottish media took a sudden unaccustomed interest in the following week’s Motherwell-Hibs game, which Conroy just happened to be officiating. Of course the same media showed not an iota of concern for the much more compelling case of Kilmarnock’s Manuel Pascali who also ordered off after a second yellow card for an innocuous pull an opponent’s jersey on the halfway line. In any case, headlines of “I Back Whistler Conroy – Hughes” started appearing in the redtops as hacks suddenly developed an unprecedented preoccupation with the Hibs manager’s opinion of Steve Conroy. The top story on STV’s Friday evening sports bulletin concerned the Hibs managers’ support for the “under-fire” referee as John Hughes was reported to have “no concerns over Conroy handling the match”. This followed the type of interview with Raman Barwaj usually reserved for the eve of a Cup Final.

Why Steve Conroy was “under-fire” and why Hughes should have any “concerns” were clearly understood by everyone. It’s been a long time since a Motherwell-Hibs match was the top Scottish sports story and it’ll be a long, long time until that is the case again. Of course it is no coincidence Steve Conroy did not come “under fire” after the ridiculous decision not to award a penalty to Celtic against Dundee United on September 12th. The message to Conroy is clear – “We’re watching you. If you’re going to make a mistake, you damn well better make sure that mistake benefits the Establishment team or there will be repercussions.”

This is the message for which Scottish football journalists are in a large part responsible. A strange cohort of Celtic, Hearts, St Mirren, Dundee United, Motherwell, St Johnstone, Aberdeen, Clyde, Airdrie United and Shettleston Juniors supporters with not a Rangers fan in sight. No Scottish football journalist; that group who take great pride in describing themselves in self-aggrandising pieces as “fans with typewriters”, is a supporter of Glasgow Rangers; the most popular and best supported team in the country (in terms of those who identify themselves as fans of that club, if not in other aspects such as behaviour). It is almost inconceivable to the paranoiac that this could genuinely be the case given that it effectively turns the demographic of the wider Scottish football fan completely on its head. However, that is only the view of the paranoiac, and instead we are reassured by those of sound mind that the implausible reality presented to us, is indeed the truth, and that our next dose of soma is now due.

So I have written at length about the various pillars, which enthusiastically rally, to the cause of Scotland’s Establishment club, but what can be done to improve if not redress the situation? Inspiration may be drawn from one Fergus McCann. McCann’s arrival in 1994 posed a formidable threat to the Rangers-dominated order of Scottish football; therefore the usual tactics were employed. Along with the obligatory paranoia, he was derided as a mean, penny-pinching, out of touch, pedantic, bully. However the reason for this treatment stretched beyond the usual insular Scottish jaundiced agendas and self-serving bias. This guy had them rattled. McCann was a self-made man who had returned to Scotland from a North American litigious culture and had not the slightest reservation about employing legal routes to achieve his and the club’s goals.

And of course he got us our smoking gun moment in court via the Jorge Cadete ‘affair’, an achievement for which alone he deserves a statue erected to him outside Celtic Park. Despite three years of derision and paranoia jibes from the apologist media; in a court of law; it was proven that the SFA had cheated Celtic. This did not actually come from the judgement of the court, as the SFA resorted to the standard tactic of any institution guilty of corruption, blame it all on one “rogue” person of evil spirit acting alone to serve their own agenda, independent of the organisation. This simply doesn’t wash. It is inconceivable that Jim Farry could have lasted three years obstructing and obfuscating, with the full support of the media in such a case where Rangers were the injured party. Farry was able to operate within a culture amenable to progressing an agenda against Celtic and to blame everything on one individual; however culpable he clearly was; is utterly mendacious.

So we have to get them in court for another smoking gun moment. Proving deliberate cheating by a referee would be an extremely difficult undertaking, but not impossible, as demonstrated in German and Italian football in 2005 and 2006 (Italian and German referees being made of lesser moral fibre than our altruistic Scottish referees of course). A more realistic point of attack is the media who prop up the whole rotten institution with their daily lies and agendas. Referees can operate as they do because they know they are immune from criticism in the media when their “honest mistakes” encumber Celtic. In contrast, anything that is even remotely perceived to have disadvantaged Rangers (see Mendes sending off) is pounced upon; the official concerned is the subject of jibes and innuendo, and is the subject of a level of media scrutiny worthy of the Nuremberg Trials. Not difficult then, to see how one or two or ten decision may go against Celtic and go favour of Rangers via “honest mistakes”.

With the current media lobby system of kow-towing to the Establishment club we will probably never know the true level of corruption within Scottish refereeing ranks. The possibility of bias in favour of Rangers and against Celtic will simply not be investigated by the Scottish media.  For whatever reason it is an explanation of official “mistakes” that they will not consider. Several Scottish football “experts” have said publicly that if we are going to start questioning the integrity of Scottish referees then we might as well take the ball home and give up. A bizarre logic that in essence says we would rather continue to play the game without knowing whether or not it is a corrupt charade. The fourth estate in Scotland should have the balls to do something about it.

It wouldn’t be too hard an undertaking for a journalist of any ability to investigate. Circumstantial evidence abounds. For example the playing the Ibrox theme tune ‘Simply the Best’ by a certain minister in his church services, the presence of certain officials on Rangers Supporters Buses or at Orange Walks, the recently retired referee and his guest slot down the Lodge, and of course one in particular on the supporter’s club after dinner speaking circuit, with his legendary boasts never to have refereed a game which Rangers lost. All of this is well known anecdotally to most Scottish football fans, but no Scottish football journalist has considered this an appropriate line of enquiry, just as they all to a man and woman, failed to investigate the Jorge Cadete case, a case where the volume of documentary evidence that existed meant that the defence case collapsed completely upon the most cursory of legal preliminaries. Any diligent journalist could have broken the Cadete/Farry story, but I suppose “honest mistakes” are even more common among the Scottish media as among referees. Fergus had to get his lawyer involved to get the job done.

The Establishment is always going to prevail under this media model; the only way to change things is to revise the model. Sites like Celtic Underground, Celtic Quick News, Kerrydale Street, ‘Mon the Hoops, E-Tims and a plethora of others, are eroding the Old Media’s influence via the Internet. You just need to ask your average Celtic fan for their views on the Scottish press and media and you don’t have to go too far to find total contempt. The more forums, blogs, podcasts and other fan generated media that becomes available, then the less influence the poodles in the Laptop Loyal will have setting the framework of the debate. Eventually when the printed media dies, or evolves into a more web-based form, it will have to compete with these fan generated sources and somewhere down the line they’ll end up on the edge of the of the debate and the ones who persist in acting as nothing more than mouthpieces for the views and interests of Rangers FC will take over the mantle of the lunatic fringe, because the fans will be setting the parameters themselves. When this day comes, referees will no longer be free to skip around Ibrox dishing out yellow and red cards to Celtic players with impunity for imagined headbutts, scoring a goal in front of the Copland Road Stand or for being ginger and “niggly”.

My message to the Celtic Family is this – don’t buy the Daily Record, don’t buy the Sun, don’t phone Radio Snide, don’t phone Fake Radio, don’t engage with them, don’t give them the oxygen that keeps the beast breathing and fighting; and make no mistake; this beast wants to put a hose in your mouth and turn the ignition on, this beast wants to squeeze every last ounce of breath from you. You wouldn’t buy the Rangers News or subscribe to Rangers TV, so why the hell would you subscribe to them under another guise? Because if you are buying and reading these newspapers and contributing to these radio phone-in shams, that is exactly what you are doing. We have to force them out of business, or at least to a place where the writing is on the wall for them.

Maybe when that day comes, we’ll see the dawn of Operation: We’ve Got No Choice But to Give Them a Level Playing Field.

Tony Hamilton has been chronicling Celtic’s fraught relationship with the Scottish media for over eight years. This culminated recently in the publication of his work in the form of Celtic Paranoia: The Laptop Loyal Diaries.

This book exposes and analyses the endemic bias against the club within the Scottish media in scathing and entertaining fashion. Tony has a wide range of sporting interests and writes regularly for the Celtic fanzine Not the View and the website Celtic Underground. In 2001 he was crowned UK Football Trivia Champion after a BT sponsored event hosted by Alan Hansen defeating 29 other regional champions from around Britain. Tony’s writing on the subject continues with his blog, ironically titled ‘Celtic Paranoia’ [], the most comprehensive and humorous site devoted to ridiculing the Scottish football media and their transparent pro-Rangers/anti-Celtic agenda.

Celtic Paranoia: The Laptop Loyal Diaries can be purchased here. []