WEDNESDAY night at Tynecastle, and surveillance is the watchword. Police and stewards scan the stands. Security personnel infiltrate the supporters.
There are cameras everywhere, as one would expect for such a high-risk encounter as Hearts against Celtic. And yet, crucially, there is not one where it was most needed – directly above each goal-line.
Everything is done to aid those who hope to control events off the pitch. Yet on it, referee Willie Collum has to guess whether a football crossed the line or not. He has a microphone fastened to his face. He has a digital clock strapped to his wrist. Yet he has no way of telling whether a header by the Hearts striker, Stephen Elliott, has crossed the line after taking a deflection off Joe Ledley and before being clawed out again by Fraser Forster, the Celtic goalkeeper.
Attention, in such instances, quickly switches to the assistant referee, but they can be as redundant as anyone in these situations, which often follows goal-line skirmishes. A cluster of bodies in front of Andy Tait meant he, too, would be guessing at whether it should be ruled a goal or not.
It was the last thing Collum needed. It was the last thing the Lothian & Borders police wanted. No-one is suggesting the atmosphere was all sweetness and light before the incident. Yet it certainly took a nastier turn in the moments afterwards as the home supporters seethed with resentment and the away fans revelled in the anguish of their hosts. Collum, meanwhile, had to get his mind back on the game, something he managed to do more successfully than many Hearts players.
A few struggled to regain their composure and Scott Brown feasted on the loss of focus with the “second” goal of a remarkable opening spell. It was just three minutes after kick-off and already we knew the game was set to be defined by a single controversial incident. Even Celtic will wish it hadn’t been so. The controversy threatened to overshadow a powerful performance, one which probably would have earned them three points in any case.
Sky, the broadcast company that transmitted the game live across the nation, was able to show footage which confirmed what most had suspected with the naked eye. The ball had crept over the line. Last weekend, at another stadium in the same part of town, another game-defining decision had needed to be made. Yet this one was reached in a considered manner and with the benefit of numerous replays.
Admittedly, not everyone agreed with Nigel Whitehouse, the TV match official at the Scotland v England Six Nations clash, when he judged that the Scottish stand-off Greg Laidlaw had not applied enough downward pressure on the ball to be awarded the try. There was, however, satisfaction that the decision had been given sufficient consideration and was based on all the evidence that could possibly be provided.
Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, accepted that his side had “copped a break” on Wednesday night. It is another stroke of fortune which goes towards evening out his many complaints dating back to last season. Yet why should football forever rely on this assumption that sides are advantaged by erroneous decisions as often as they are wounded by them?
Indeed, Forster is getting used to making such desperate interventions. It’s fair to say he has won his side at least a couple of points already this season. In December, his sharp reflexes helped him flick out Lee Wallace’s back post header in the Old Firm match at Parkhead, which Celtic won 1-0. It might well yet prove to have been a significant moment in the title race. While it was still hard to judge whether the ball had crossed the line even after viewing television replays, it is still surely better to be able to utilise such assistance, since there is no way the referee – who again was Willie Collum – was able to know for sure either way. His assistant referee was, once more, unsighted.
We are becoming so used to the routine debate about goal-line technology that it is possible to forget that there exists the possibility of implementing the innovation for real. And despite Scottish football’s current status as a backwater, Scotland does have a significant say in what happens.
While the English Football Association might have other things on their mind at present, next month they host the 126th Annual General Meeting of the International Football Association Board [IFAB] in Surrey. Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, will be among the gathered officials, with goal-line technology again high on the agenda of the body that determines the laws of the game. His own view has been well aired via a tweet sent out after that game at Ibrox in December. “Another example where goal-line technology would have been useful,” he informed his followers on Twitter.
At last year’s IFAB meeting, a year-long extension of goal-line technology tests was granted. The latest results will be examined in Surrey before what is described as a “definite decision” will be reached at a specially convened IFAB meeting in July, the day after the final of the European Championships.
Perhaps it would be helpful in convincing these guardians of the game of the need for change if the outcome of such a showpiece game rests on a disputed goal-line call.