DCSIMG

Celtic challenged to deny criticism of referees as disorder fears are raised

FORMER Fifa Grade One referee Kenny Clark believes the risk of disorder on and off the pitch at Sunday's Old Firm fixture has been needlessly heightened by Celtic's concern over refereeing standards entering the public domain.

• "I don't imagine the police will be happy – it doesn't make things any easier for anyone" Kenny Clark. Picture: TSPL

Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, has confirmed his club have opened talks with the SFA over the issue in a season which has seen controversial decisions go against them in their previous two SPL matches against Rangers.

Those discussions had been confidential until Wednesday when BBC Scotland, quoting an unnamed 'club source', reported Celtic's intent to formally make their frustration known. The timing of the report infuriated SFA president George Peat who suggested it was designed to put pressure on referee Dougie McDonald, who will take charge of Sunday's match at Ibrox.

Lawwell later issued a reply, saying: "In response to Mr Peat's statement, we can confirm that we have entered discussions with the SFA on this matter some time ago. We look forward to these discussions continuing towards a positive outcome."

Now Clark, who handled 11 Old Firm matches during his decorated refereeing career, has claimed the furore will increase the prospect of trouble at a match which Celtic need to win to cut Rangers' lead in the championship race to four points.

"I don't imagine the police will be very happy about it," said Clark, "and it certainly doesn't make things any easier for anyone. The fans will be in enough of a frenzy without adding fuel to the fire with this sort of thing.

"Whoever has released this has acted in a very irresponsible way. The only way we can be satisfied that it is not a cynical ploy on Celtic's part is if the club issue a statement disassociating themselves from the leak and making conciliatory remarks about referees."

Clark's last Old Firm match before his retirement was in April 2008 during the tense run-in to that season's title race. Celtic won 2-1 at Celtic Park and Clark had to deal with fiery scenes at the final whistle which prompted him to issue red cards to Rangers defender David Weir and his Celtic counterpart Gary Caldwell.

While Clark is confident Dougie McDonald will not be unduly influenced by the row over Celtic's unhappiness with refereeing decisions this season, he is worried about the reaction it will provoke among supporters.

"I think it is ill-conceived if it is the intention (to influence match officials]," added Clark. "Dougie is a very experienced referee. He has done a number of Old Firm games and this won't alter the way he approaches the match in any way.

"But it will alter the mindset of some fans in the build-up to the game. There has been an attempt to put additional pressure on the assistants with the references to Robbie Keane not getting the breaks in relation to offside decisions.

"Inevitably, the first time a flag goes up against Robbie Keane, every Celtic fan in the stadium will be up on their feet and, equally, if Robbie Keane is allowed to play on in what some people might suspect was an offside decision, then the Rangers fans will be thinking that is down to what was said during the week.

"Dougie doesn't need any advice from me but it would be to referee the way he always has. That's how he got to this level in the first place. He doesn't need to do anything different."

Clark was also dismissive of suggestions Celtic have been more severely affected by erroneous refereeing decisions than other clubs this season.

"I just don't think there is any justification for saying Celtic have been treated differently," he said. "Every club in Scotland would be able to come up with occasions when they say referees have done them down and decisions have not gone their way."

McDonald, who has been in Spain this week at a referees' warm-weather training camp, appeared unperturbed by the controversy when he was interviewed by the SFA's official website yesterday.

"I treat every match the same in terms of my preparation," said McDonald. "You have to bear in mind the scrutiny you are under in an Old Firm game and the unique pressures of the game but you cannot be overawed by it.

"Mercifully, the previous derbies I have handled have passed without much controversy. There were decisions that needed to be made but they were good experiences and I have always had the respect and help of the players in these games, which I hope is the case on Sunday.

"You are aware that it is the biggest game in the country and that one team is always trying to catch the other. The television coverage is much greater but you have the added aspect of phone-ins, websites and other media outlets. It is a constant feeding frenzy but, as (Rangers assistant manager] Ally McCoist said recently, the actual refereeing and decision making hasn't changed that much, it is the exposure that is far greater."

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