John Hartson, the former Celtic striker, has criticised the SFA for allowing referee Don Robertson to take his place as a goal=-line assistant at Hampden on Sunday afternoon in the William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final between Celtic and Rangers.
Robertson was caught in the eye of a storm at Dingwall on Sunday afternoon when he awarded a last minute penalty to Ross County after Alex Schalk took a dive in the Celtic penalty box. The decision infuriated the Parkhead side and Hartson believes the ensuing controversy surrounding the incident makes it impossible for the official to go into the game without coming under further scrutiny.
“I think there’s too much pressure,” said Hartson. “Too much pressure for him, personally. I don’t know why he would want to do that. It’s a very delicate situation. He’s obviously feeling very embarrassed, if he’s a realist and he’s honest, I personally would just say ‘look, leave me out of that one’ if I was the referee or the assistant.
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“Take yourself out of the fray. Put somebody else in. Why aren’t the referees protecting him? Why stick him into that big game, Celtic-Rangers? Take him out, let him go for lunch with his family on Sunday afternoon, give the guy a break.”
Hartson himself, like every former professional, can quickly rhyme off the number of times he felt he was the victim of a poor call from a referee; an incident in the 2003 League Cup final jumped out immediately when he had a goal wrongly chalked off against Rangers in a game that the Ibrox side went on to win.
That decision is one of many that have fuelled a long-standing suspicion within the ranks of the Celtic support who feel they have traditionally been dealt the rougher end of the stick. The recent Hartson though was quick to rebuff that notion while also offering an appreciation of the enormity of the task that faces Willie Collum this weekend.
“All these conspiracy theories – I’ll leave that to the fans to decide,” said the BBC pundit. “I’ve had two bad ones. I could go on all day actually. There was a League Cup Final against Rangers when I had a goal chalked off that was two yards onside. I scored in my first game at Ibrox as well – onside.
“I wouldn’t like to do it. I wouldn’t like to ref the game. Refereeing is the hardest thing to do because you’ve got a split second. The boys on the television, sometimes we sit and watch it 50 times and still can’t decide. The game now is so quick and the players are so fit and powerful, things happen and everybody goes ‘referee….Me, I do it as well.
“Willie Collum is an experienced referee – he has done big games before. Whoever does it is in the firing line. Craig Thomson has made some big decisions in the past which have been ludicrous. So they have to choose somebody/. I wouldn’t like it to be me because it’s a very hard job. There is all this talk of respect for referees, and I’m into all of that, but sometimes… You saw Brendan on Sunday – one of the coolest men on the planet – absolutely infuriated by that decision. That’s what football does to you when you are passionate about it.”
What irks players and supporters alike is the lack of accountability when there are clear errors of judgement made. Referees do not present themselves publicly to offer an explanation or to answer queries about their decisions in the same manner that players and managers have to.
“Obviously the refereeing commission, or whoever organises the referees and the games that they get, may need to be looked at,” said Hartson. “I think as players we can get sent off, we can two-foot somebody and a straight red and you miss three games. A referee can cost a team a point or cost a team the title or cost a team a European place and he’s back in. Where’s the punishment?
“But I do appreciate it’s very hard for referees. I wouldn’t like to referee my boy’s under-13 game out there, because of the parents on the sidelines. You need the thickest skin out of anybody, and a big ego.”
Meanwhile, Hartson believes that Rangers’ motivation going into Sunday’s game is a simple one; halt Celtic’s procession towards a domestic Treble. The striker arrived at Celtic shortly after Martin O’Neill’s side enjoyed a clean domestic sweep in 2001 and is well aware that the last thing Rangers will want to do is watch the Parkhead celebrations continue.
“Rangers will feel that this is the one where they have to stop Celtic,” he said. “Everyone has Celtic riding the crest of the wave and Rangers have this one chance to put themselves in the final and to stop Celtic potentially winning the treble. That is what all the thinking will be for Rangers - ‘this is the big game and we have to win this.’’
*John Hartson/Alan Stubbs was speaking at the John Hartson Foundation Golf Day. The Hartson Foundation is on course to raise £1million for charities.