The Inside World Of Scottish Refereeing

There’s been a lot of debate about the referees recently, whether they are competent, whether they are biased, and importantly, how they are trained, and how they are promoted. 

There is undeniably a problem, and we thought we’d ask someone who might know. 

Derek Crothers has been there, and he tells us what he thinks…and why.

Over two decades of promoting referees for a variety of reasons other than core ability is about to come to fruition with talk of introducing foreign referees for the Scottish Premiership.

Do I believe foreign referees are the right answer? – Short term maybe! long term – definitely not.

But, do I believe that a new Head of Referees from out with Scotland at the helm of the Scottish FA could be the solution? – 


John Fleming, Head of Referees at the Scottish FA: how his position is still tenable is laughable. It amazes me how all that has gone on this season, he has managed to dodge any share of the blame. He is the guy that recruits, develops, coaches and promotes the current crop of referees, with his silence this season it is clear he is only too happy to throw the guys under the bus!

Any promotion system in process at theScottish FA that recognises Andrew Dallas as “talent” needs critical examination – and urgently. Don’t get me wrong, if promotions were made on “ego” alone Andrew would be top of the tree. A fast track process from Amateur and Junior football was his route to senior football. Then, barely on the senior list and into top flight Premiership football, and after committing a Laws of the Game error in a match that would end any other match officials career – promotion to the FIFA list.

Nominated by the Scottish FA to UEFA. That’s right the place where Hugh Dallas (daddy) is deputy chairman of the referee committee and will ratify FIFA nominations from the Scottish FA!

If you thought that was murky, John Fleming was brought in as 2nd in command at the Scottish FA by Hugh Dallas when he was Head of Referees.

Sound like an open, honest and transparent process in operation?

This promotion recognised Andrew as one of the top officials in the country. When promoted from junior ranks, Andrew wasn’t even the best referee at his category let alone in Junior football.

Members of Lanarkshire Referees’ Association were quick to recognise that aligning yourself with someone like Andrew as an ally or friend so to speak had its benefits.

Step forward John Beaton, Frankie Connor and Alan Mulvanny also known in Lanarkshire as the “Dream Team”. I always sensed a hint of sarcasm when that phrase was used by Members – several befriended Andrew in Lanarkshire and the perks have come with it – Now,  all four referees are now FIFA officials.

What are the chances?

The latter, Alan Mulvanny has had two spells at FIFA; he was demoted from FIFA for poor performances, no less than two seasons later promoted back on! Something which is unheard of in refereeing circles. Maybe I’m not giving credit where it is due, maybe, just maybe he is that good to get there for a 2nd round.

It’s not like there was another 38 Specialist Assistant Referees not up to the job.

Continuing on the theme of the “Dream Team” a set of officials who out with the Management of Lanarkshire, not well liked or respected by the Members due to their sheer arrogance, attitudes and contrite shown to Members. You would think Andrew was the leader of the pack, but it always came across that John Beaton was the one that influenced the thinking of the other three.

Speaking of John, in all my years as a Member of Lanarkshire I can’t ever remember a match official ever putting themselves in such a precarious position to have their integrity called into question. Photo’s in a football themed bar after you’ve officiated at an old firm game?

It begs the question – if a dubious decision had gone against the home side,  would John have been in such a bar posing for selfies as such?

Then there comes the death threats – despicable to happen to any human being!

However, rumours are rife that they could be fabricated! Who knows, but what I do know is that anyone who can call a Member with learning difficulties at official training a derogatory name is probably capable of anything.

Maybe if the Association Treasurer or Management Committee at the time had a bit more backbone to deal with such an incident, John may not be in the position that he currently occupies! Although, when you don’t have an open, transparent and fair process of promoting officials, higher powers in positions of power will always protect their prodigies.

Promotions to the Senior list of Referees in Scotland haven’t really changed in the years I’ve been a Member of Lanarkshire. Supervisors come out, watch and give feedback and produce a match report giving a mark on performance. All supervisors (observers) are handpicked by John Fleming and they generally jump to his tune.

If you scratch his back there might be a wee trip abroad to the winter training camp in La Manga or a Match Abroad supervising for UEFA (touch on that later). The training camp in January 2018 had more supervisors and coaches in attendance than match officials, sounds like a good wee jolly boys outing for Fleming and friends.

Supervisors are continuously frustrated with reports that are completed. The referee is not happy with some aspect of the report. A few phone calls later an observer could be resubmitting his report to John Fleming, somewhat diluted. At the end of the season reports from all match officials are discussed at a meeting to decide who is to be promoted.

You would think the best performing referees over the season with the best marks get promoted – no chance! Age, location, how many officials in Association at that level, occupation, who your friends are (clique), who your father was, and a tendency to toe the party line, all come into play.

Occupation plays a major role in Fleming’s promotion criteria. How many of our top officials are a checkout assistant at ASDA? Maybe just coincidence that they’re not good enough. However, we do have a plethora of Doctors, Lawyers, Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Teachers and MPs.

Maybe these guys are just better referees. When you have a professional job title or maybe when you make an error on a live TV match and your name and occupation is dropped by the commentators it just sounds better.

John Fleming; his coaching is mundane, predictable and repetitive. They often have the feel that they have been cobbled together at the last minute. Training days at the Oriam in Edinburgh are always the same format.

On one occasion John Fleming was at such a training day and had a measuring wheel for measuring distance. Match officials were asked to pace out a wall of 10 yards and he would then measure out the distance. Just let that sink in for a minute; this is the top class coaching making our match officials better, just imagine you have given up precious family time to attend!

Immense pressure is put on match officials to attend these events. God forbid you have to call off for whatever reason!!

During the snow last year when the “red alert warning” was issued by the Met Office, I unfortunately found myself in that very position. As a person who works in Logistics, all annual leave was cancelled due to losing 3 days service. An email was sent to the Scottish FA development department at the earliest opportunity, explaining the exceptional circumstances. Given it would be the 1st training day in 13 years as an official that I wouldn’t be able to attend I didn’t see it being a big issue. How wrong was I to think that!

On the Friday afternoon in came an email from Fleming highlighting how “unacceptable” failure to attend the training day was. How “important” keeping your availability up to date. I emailed Fleming back outlining my position as I had previously done on the Thursday to the department and apologising for the late call off, and that it was out of my hands!

You would think that would be an end to the matter! No chance, this is Fleming at the Scottish FA we’re talking about, Saturday evening in comes another email from the Association Manager George Drummond.

The tone of his email was appalling, also going along the same lines as Fleming’s email. “Unacceptable“, “you know better” and “you know in advance of the training dates” etc. I could not believe that I was sitting having to type up another email explaining my circumstances of being a late call off, just imagine having to cancel attendance for your FULL TIME employment, the employment that pays your mortgage

The words of peer pressure were ringing in my mind, and given how I knew Fleming operated, me being in the position of pushing for promotion, failure to attend was ample opportunity to be used as an excuse for Fleming and the SFA, for when you don’t get promoted.

However, that still wasn’t an end to the matter, pulled to one side at official training on the Tuesday night by George Drummond who informed me that Referee Committee Member Brian Winter was disgusted and had taken umbrage to my email response, a guy who makes decisions on referee promotions.

What chance do you have now? Cards marked by Fleming and Lanarkshire’s representative Winter.

To this day Brian Winter hasn’t spoken to myself, a person I have went on holiday with on many occasions, bearing a grudge over an email. Just another one of Fleming puppets who will dance to his tune for a title at the Scottish FA.

The aforementioned being one of many excuses Fleming will use for guys who don’t gain promotion on the back of a season when they’ve performed to a high standard, evident through match reports and match report marks.

Never made a training day, never passed the yoyo test (guys promoted who’ve never passed the yoyo test) failed the Laws of the Game test, latterly renamed to quiz due to the number of failures. You don’t get the pass mark in the test, er em quiz bet your bottom dollar there would be an email from Fleming come Monday morning with the usual tone “unacceptable“. Body fat too high, not 10% body fat, some guys would need a tummy tuck to have 10% body fat. All of the above excuses are passed off in May when Referees don’t get a promotion.

Furthermore, Fleming always seems to get bogged down with insignificant details. For instance, for all the major controversial decisions this season – the last batch of coaching clips sent out by Fleming is for match officials to make sure the ball is in the arc at the taking of a corner kick.

Forget violent conduct or major game changing decisions which can decide the outcome of a match.

I remember I refereed the SFL U17s League Cup Final whilst operating as a Category 3 development referee. Livingston v Queens Park, a game in which Andrew Robertson (now of Liverpool FC) was a standout player and probably didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. However, great day and great occasion, at an early stage of your Refereeing career, getting to lead out your own team of match officials.

The game went well from a referee’s point of view; no one was talking about us after the match – job done in my opinion. Monday morning 8am I received a phone call from the Scottish FA. It was Fleming and for 37 minutes I was lambasted not for my performance, but for instructing the 4th official to remain in the dressing room whilst the Assistants and myself got warmed up for the match. Apparently I had alienated the 4th official and not made him feel a part of the team!

Given I was delivering pre match instructions of what I had witnessed when I was an Assistant Referee in a Junior Cup Final match to a now Category 1 Referee. No praise or note of any achievement was given during the 37 minute call and at one stage I was tempted to hang the phone up given how small his comments were rendering my refereeing capabilities.

In all my tenure as a Referee (13 years) 8 of them being a Senior Listed Referee have I ever witnessed a 4th official warming up with the Match Officials pre match.

Why would the 4th Official warm up pre match? To then stand at the side of the pitch for 90 minutes! Have a look at the next match you attend of the match officials warming up pre match!!!!

Needless to say it wasn’t the last phone call to be had from Fleming, but as other officials had confirmed they have received these calls also. He’s a guy who bears a grudge and if your card is marked wave goodbye to your progression up the refereeing ladder. Many changing room discussions often had a theme of Fleming, in Senior football all the way to grassroots.

What Fleming has instilled now is a mantra of it’s okay to be “wrong”, and mistakes aren’t penalised. More the opposite. In fact with match officials being rewarded with promotions and Cup Finals.

What message does this send out to Match Officials?

Do they perform self analysis on their matches and ask “how did I get that wrong”? 

How do I prevent that from happening again?

Not so sure it happens, as match officials, especially at the top are continuously rewarded with the top matches in the country week after week after week. Do they really bother? Begs the question!

Examples of cronyism have been evident long before my time as a referee, Hugh Dallas was appointed 4th official at the World Cup Final in2002.

Who was charge of Referees at such a tournament? George Cummings!

Former Lanarkshire Referee Association Member and former Head of Referees at the Scottish FA. And more recently you have Willie Young supervising a UEFA Champions League match – Hugh Dallas pal!

There was also a nice wee “gig” away for some midweek UEFA Cup action for Iain Brines, long time friend of Fleming. Maybe all these appointments were just made on merit alone?

From just the few instances I have outlined in this article it is clear for all to see that John Fleming is a rabbit caught in the headlights. He is devoid of a plan with no vision, he is overseeing the worst batch of match officials in decades, albeit most of it, if not all of it, being his own doing. Fleming is a guy who has instilled a fear factor within officials, with bullying tactics, especially upcoming referees for all of the wrong things. He is happy to promote officials that tick boxes, reward officials with prestigious appointments when the standards are below acceptable levels. The most important boxes aren’t being ticked – ABILITY and PERFORMANCE

When a football team isn’t getting results and performing, the manager is changedwith a better coach being brought in to steer the ship.

Do I think Fleming should be sacked? NO!

Controversial given the above – however I think he should be taking stock of his tenure at the Scottish FA and ask himself; has he improved the standards of our match officials?

Does he provide the world class coaching our match officials deserve?

Does he have a plan and vision to make our officials better?

In my opinion NO he doesn’t – he should show a bit of decorum and have some dignity about himself and do the right thing and resign

How do we move forward? Who do we bring in?

You might be asking yourself. I believe it should be someone outside of Scotland, someone who isn’t a dinosaur of the Scottish FA, as that is what John Fleming is, a dinosaur of the Scottish FA, it is all he has known having come through that process himself

If I had to name drop someone I would say Peter Walton former English Premiership Referee, now working for BT Sport as the BT Referee analysis. Peter Walton was appointed General Manager Professional Referee Organization (PRO) in North America when retiring from refereeing. He brought a professional set up to standards in the US, and is someone I believe will get Scottish Refereeing away from the current dinosaur way of thinking and coaching

What Fleming has instilled now is a mantra of it’s okay to be “wrong” and mistakes.

A job for the boys and your friends will be rewarded would be a thing of the past.

Many of my former colleagues will no doubt read this article and say, he’s bitter because he didn’t make it to Category 1 Referee or along those lines. And everyone is entitled to their opinion. I resigned as a referee in the summer 2018 and I left with my dignity intact

. I am comfortable that I didn’t reach the top of the refereeing ladder, and through supervisor reports and marks to reflect on I know it wasn’t because I didn’t have the ability, I just didn’t tick the boxes that Fleming puts such an emphasis on!

Can all Cat 1 referees go to sleep tonight knowing you have made it purely on refereeing ABILITY?

I messaged a former colleague informing that I had been approached to write an article regarding Fleming, Scottish FA and Lanarkshire Referee Association and I asked if he could summarise all of it up for me. His response was;

Scottish Football Association Referees can never be accused of being open, honest or transparent. Indeed I think that they appear to be a squalid, stinking, stagnant cess pit of nepotism, cronyism and an organisation that has no plan (or possibly has a plan but with no concept of how to achieve the goals), original idea or vision to move forward, but is intent in making appointments with little or no merit or validity. This includes the management structure, referee promotions and appointments, particularly those at the top who are rewarded for continued ineptitude and inadequate performances with even more prestigious appointments.”

Wow to be honest, is there anything else that needs to be said or can be said after that? !!!