DAVIE HAY phoned me at home and laughed: “You’ll never guess, Alex. Davie Syme has just apologised for giving Rangers a penalty-kick in that League Cup Final.”

The Celtic legend was referring to an occasion at Hampden on the afternoon of October 26 1986 when the aforementioned Syme had been the referee in a pulsating Old Firm derby.

The game was deadlocked at 1-1 – Brian McClair equalising an Iain Durrent opener – with only six minutes to go when there was a collision between Roy Aitken and Terry Butcher as a free-kick from the right dropped into the Celtic box. To everyone it looked like a 50/50 coming together between two adversaries.

I SAY, I SAY, I SAY…Celtic legend Davie Hay and author Alex Gordon take a breather during an interview. 

Both hit the deck and the ground fell silent as the badly-positioned match official blew his whistle and dramatically pointed to the spot. Penalty-kick!

It was an extraordinary decision and Davie Cooper gratefully accepted the gift, swept the award past the astonished Pat Bonner and the trophy was heading across Glasgow to Ibrox.

Hay, normally in control of such frantic situations, was apoplectic by the decision. It was a nonsensical judgement from a referee during an explosive encounter in front of 74,000 astonished fans – one half of the ground jubilant after a massive stroke of good fortune and the other simply bemused at the whistler’s ruling.

As the match ticked towards its conclusion, there was uproar when Syme ordered off Mo Johnston and then flashed another red card at young Celtic midfielder Tony Shepherd.

CHOICE WORDS…Davie Hay lets referee Davie Syme know how he feels after some controversial decisions.

BALL BHOY…Davie Hay on the touchline during a break in play.

Hay, standing yards away from the flashpoint incident on the touchline, had the match ball in his hands. We discussed the game in some detail for his best-selling autobiography, ‘The Quiet Assassin‘, which was published in 2009, and he admitted: “For a split-second I thought about volleying it as powerfully as possible in the direction of the ref.

“Thankfully, though, I had a swift change of mind. I guessed it would be an action that would send the confrontation into utter chaos.”

Johnston was sent off after a handbags incident with defender Stuart Munro. Syme didn’t see the disagreement, but the linesman eagerly flagged and that was enough to have the Celtic striker banished. Munro escaped with a booking.

Then the bungling ref dramatically delivered another red card to Shepherd whose only misdemeanour appeared to be standing in the vicinity wearing a green and white jersey.

Remarkably, Syme stated afterwards he believed the Celt had punched him on the back of the head. When it was pointed out that no such action had taken place, Syme changed his mind and ushered the befuddled player back onto the pitch.

CLASH…Terry Butcher goes to the ground after a challenge from Roy Aitken.

X-RAY VISION…referee Davie Syme (right) is at the near post while the incident occurs at the far post with Roy Aitken and Terry Butcher jostling for a free-kick.

Hay recalled: “The referee told me he had made a mistake.

“‘I replied: ‘You’re a mistake!’ It was the best I could offer in the circumstances as I felt my blood boil at the injustices I had witnessed all day.

“The referee booked seven Celtic players – Johnston, Pat Bonner, Roy Aitken, Alan McInally, Derek Whyte, Peter Grant and Owen Archdeacon. Had we suddenly become a dirty team overnight?

“It was some of the most outrageous refereeing I had ever seen. I have to admit I cracked up during that 2-1 defeat.

“I think the referee simply parted company with the plot. The penalty-kick he awarded to them was just ridiculous.

“I only saw footage of that spot-kick recently when I was doing an interview for Celtic TV. It was worse than I thought first time around and, believe me, that is saying something!

“As I recall, there were only six minutes to go and a free-kick came in from the right. Roy Aitken and Terry Butcher went for it at the back post.

SPOT OF BOTHER…Davie Syme is faced with protesting Celtic players Murdo MacLeod, Mo Johnston, Owen Archdeacon, Brian McClair, Roy Aitken and Pat Bonner after his penalty-kick decision.

“These are two big guys we are talking about and both were extremely passionate captains of their respective clubs.

“They were jostling with each other and it looked to everyone that it was a case of six of one and half a dozen of another. Well, everyone apart from Syme, who was positioned at the near post and would have required x-ray vision to see through the crowd of players to witness what was going on between Roy and Terry.

“I couldn’t believe it when he pointed to the penalty spot. To be fair, even the Rangers contingent looked more than a little surprised by this absurd decision.

“I was furious, absolutely livid. It was an outrageous bit of refereeing and it cost us the game and the trophy.

“Afterwards, I still couldn’t prevent myself from showing my anger. I just could not calm down. ‘I think we should take Celtic to England,’ I said, a bit ahead of my time. ‘At least, we’ll get a fair crack of the whip down there.’

“I meant every word of it, too. How could I think otherwise after that performance from Syme? There seemed no logic to his decision-making, as far as I was concerned.

SEEING RED…Davie Syme dismisses Mo Johnston.

“Sadly, that Hampden Final will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. There were a lot of good players on the park that afternoon, but one man managed to spoil the occasion – referee Davie Syme.

“I will never change my mind.”

As a follow-up to the bedlam and confusion of that unforgettable derby, Celtic were called before an SFA Disciplinary Panel the following month. They were asked to account for their actions in the game. It may have been obvious to anyone with even the merest scintilla of football knowledge why the Parkhead club had been so incensed at the national stadium.

The club were fined £5,000 for the conduct of the players and David Hay was docked £350 for comments he made about the referee after the game.

This amount was increased to £600 because of remarks he made after another league game concerning the match official and he was warned as to his future conduct.

By the way, I should point out the cash was paid by Hay and not the club. I think most folk would be of the impression Celtic would pick up the tab for one of their employees speaking out about injustices suffered by the club.

Not Celtic. The financial punishment was deemed to have been brought upon himself by the individual and the manager had to cough up.

On a Sunday afternoon sometime in 2011, two years after the autobiography had been published, Davie phoned me. He had been at a sporting function the previous evening and had bumped – not literally, thank goodness – into Syme.

That was when the admission was made and the one-time match official apologised and said he “might have got it wrong”.

A quarter of a century had passed since the incident that gift-wrapped a trophy for Rangers and caused so much angst and despair to Hay and Celtic.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Enjoy the game today, folks!

* DON’T miss the unbeatable match report and best in action images from Celtic v Rangers this afternoon – only in your champion CQN.

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