Sticking the whistle in my pocket and walking off

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THINK of Hugh Dallas and the Old Firm and the chances are it’s that league decider in 1999 that springs to mind. I wish it wasn’t but because of the events of that day, the hype and headlines they attracted and the mindless actions of a minority of the minority, that game and the bad-tempered aftermath always seems to prompt pictures of me with blood running down my forehead.

People seem surprised when I tell them, but I was never terrified or worried for my safety that day. The truth is that the only time I ever have felt really threatened was when I was refereeing a junior match early in my career. The police were called that day but I don’t know if they ever arrived because I was changed and out of there as fast as possible!

That day at Celtic Park was strange, though, and I remember the build-up to it. There was a slightly ominous feel to it. My family and I had gone to the local gym for a swim on the morning of the match and even on the way home from that we saw Old Firm fans lounging around, drinking, and I think the problems that arose as the match evolved were down to a combination of that all-day drinking, on top of a bank holiday weekend, the fact it was an evening match and a league decider into the bargain. When that’s mixed in with the usual passion and irrational emotion that typifies football fans everywhere, including myself when I’m watching Scotland, it was always likely to be a potent brew.

There was definitely something different that day and even when we went out to warm up, I was surprised at how full the ground was that early on. Quite often, when you go out half an hour before the game, you’re lucky if there’s 10,000 and it’s only when you emerge again just before kick-off that everyone is in and the noise hits you. That day there was actually something quite foreboding about the whole atmosphere.

The events that unfolded, with three players being ordered off, fans invading the pitch, and the coin hitting me, all seemed in keeping with that, but while people use it as an example of a typical Old Firm game, I honestly consider it anything but typical.

As far as the coin-throwing goes, I just wish it hadn’t hit my head. Around that time loads of things were being thrown onto the pitch at grounds all over the country: coins, pies, even golf balls, and I’d been hit before. Unfortunately, this time it hit my head and I started bleeding. If it had hit my shoulder, the headlines wouldn’t have been the same but I didn’t feel any more intimidated because I was so focused on the game and, to be honest, referees at that level just aren’t that easily intimidated.

People say bigotry and sectarianism are part and parcel of these matches but that’s something I have never found to be the case on the field. I have never found them to be as hate-filled as sections of the media would have everyone believe and the mindless minority are precisely that, a minority.

I’ve refereed in matches in Montevideo between Uruguay and Brazil and big games in the San Siro and the Bernabeu and while I can assure you nothing compares to the atmosphere inside Celtic Park or Ibrox, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It is passionate and unique but not necessarily ugly. I certainly feel safer at an Old Firm game than at any of these other venues.

A lot of that is possibly down to the events at Celtic Park in May, 1999. I think the fact the police were able to use security footage to pinpoint exactly who threw the coin has helped act as a deterrent to others, and there are a lot fewer missiles chucked onto the pitch these days, especially compared to the likes of Spain, Germany and Italy.

We just need to look at the recent match between Real Madrid and Barcelona where a pig’s head was pitched at Luis Figo, or think about a match I refereed last season between AC Milan and Barcelona in the San Siro. It was incredible, but I was standing in the centre circle when there was a thud and as I looked down there was a steaming hot baked potato. It just so happened that it was Rino Gattuso who was standing nearest me and I looked at him and asked: ‘Lunch?’ I still don’t know how they managed to get it so far onto the pitch. They must have used a rocket launcher!

On the whole I think Old Firm supporters should be credited with the way they have cleaned up their act. If you consider the fact that they meet at least four or five times a season and how much is usually at stake and how passionate an environment it is, it’s surprising there aren’t more problems within the grounds, but again, I think a lot of that is down to players and referees trying to keep a lid on things on the pitch, the hard work done by the clubs and no-one should underestimate the influence and hard work done by the police and security people.

That doesn’t stop people asking if I ever considered packing in refereeing in the aftermath of that match. The truth is I have never, ever thought about sticking the whistle in my pocket and walking off.

I’ve never thought ‘och, you can sort it out for yourself, I’m out of here’ and when the windows were broken at the house after that game it only made me even more determined to carry on. I was fairly sure it was an isolated incident because I had never so much as been insulted when out socially with family and friends prior to that, and I had already been appointed to referee the Old Firm Scottish Cup final four weeks later and there was no way I was going to ask to be taken off it. Thankfully, I had the total support of my family.

The topic of me maybe giving up refereeing didn’t even come up until the close-season after that cup final and when it did we were all agreed that I had worked too hard to get where I was to let one game spoil things for me.

I had the European Championships to look forward to in 2000 and then, hopefully, the World Cup in 2002. That mindless minority of the minority were never going to be allowed to spoil that for me and I’m glad to say they’ve never been allowed to spoil my enjoyment of those Old Firm games either.

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