BILLY McNEILL and Davie Hay are two of the finest ambassadors Scottish football has ever had to offer; reputations carved in history, statures well deserved after sterling, honourable exploits on and off the field.
When these two characters of unsurpassable repute speak, people tend to listen. Neither has ever attempted to become a headline-writer’s dream, but when they give their opinion it is obviously with merit. It is not the sort of spiteful bile that can be seen and heard all too frequently these days.
So, when both these honest individuals make a remark you can be certain it has been mulled over, weighed up and then delivered in the manner they believe appropriate in the circumstances.
Controversy is part and parcel in the game. There are occasions, though, when refereeing decisions border on the inexplicable, verge on the unfathomable.
There have been many – too many, some may say – judgement calls in recent seasons that would leave a neutral more than a little perplexed and in a state of bewilderment if they had witnessed them.
But, back in April 2010, Billy McNeill, ‘Caesar’ himself, felt compelled to have his say when Scott Brown was sent off in a 1-0 defeat against Rangers at Ibrox. He spoke out in measured tones about the club he captained to European glory in 1967 and insisted Celtic had suffered from poor decision-making for half a century.
The Hoops legend watched on in disbelief as skipper Brown was given his marching orders for a tussle with Kyle Lafferty early in the second-half. The Hoops went on to lose to Maurice Edu’s late winner and McNeill said: “Celtic have been suffering referee injustices against Rangers for 50 years. I felt that way as a player, during two spells as manager and now as a spectator.
“Nothing seems to change. This season I’ve seen it in each of the three derbies – and what happened at Ibrox on Sunday was as disappointing as any I’ve had to stomach.
“I believe when it has to come to players being red-carded and booked, Rangers have been treated more favourably than Celtic. I think the majority of big decisions have gone against my club.”
“As far as I am concerned, both players had to be treated the same way by referee Dougie McDonald. If Brown was going off, then Lafferty should have followed.”
Similarly, Davie Hay was angered by the actions of match official Davie Syme during a 2-1 League Cup Final defeat against Rangers at Hampden in season 1986/87. Syme had just ordered off Mo Johnston – then a Celtic player, of course – and, within seconds, he flashed another red card at young Celtic midfielder Tony Shepherd.
Hay, standing yards away from the flashpoint incident on the touchline, had the matchball in his hands. “For a split-second I thought about volleying it as powerfully as possible in the direction of the ref,” admitted the Celtic manager in his book ‘Caesar and the Assassin’.
“Thankfully, though, I had a swift change of mind. I guessed it would be an action that would send an already powderkeg confrontation into utter chaos.”
The match was as volatile a confrontation against Rangers as any in history. Syme had already given the Ibrox side a controversial penalty-kick – from which Davie Cooper scored the winner – and the fans in the Celtic end were still seething at the award. Only four minutes remained when Johnston was banished after an off-the-ball clash with defender Stuart Munro.
Syme didn’t see the incident, but the linesman flagged and that was enough to see the Celtic striker ordered off. Then the ref dramatically delivered another red card to Shepherd whose only misdemeanour appeared to be standing in the vicinity. Remarkably, Syme admitted afterwards he believed the young 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.
“The referee told me he had made a mistake,” recalled Hay. 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 defeat. I think the referee simply lost 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 corner-kick came in from the right. Roy Aitken and Terry Butcher went for it at the back post. 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, by the way, positioned at the near post and would have required x-ray vision to see 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.”
Two ex-Celtic Managers. Two of football’s icons. Two opinions. Over twenty years apart. And, still, they could have been made on a few occasions this season.
Will things ever change? How long do we have to put up with these Honest Mistakes?
*Caesar & The Assassin is available now from CQNBookstore.com – we have a limited number of signed copies.