While the rest of Europe followed the action in France’s second group game at Euro 2016 with Albania, viewers in Scotland only had eyes for the man in the middle.
The only Scotsman at the heart of the action at Euro 2016 - unless you count Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy, which of course, they don’t - is considered a divisive figure in his homeland. And when I say divisive, I mean supporters argue over which side he gives the highest amount of baffling decisions against. All referees will tell you, rightly so, that they do their utmost to remain impartial and leave any tribalism they may have had towards one team or another at the door when they decided to become a referee. Although, try telling that to your average fan down the local boozer.
Though recognised as Scotland’s best official, he does have a tendency more than other whistlers to put himself in the spotlight. The best referees blend into the background; Willie Collum is at the forefront of people’s minds. That being said, men who understand the laws of the game and what makes a great referee much more than you or I, believe Collum to be one of the best in the world, or at least among the best in Europe. He officiates Champions League and Europa League matches and when it came time to grant him his opening match at these Euros, he wasn’t given Iceland v Hungary in the hope nobody noticed potential mistakes. Oh no, he was charged with handling the host nation. One major slip up and Collum would never have been allowed to return to France. That’s a lot of pressure to handle for a school teacher from Bellshill.
And handle it, he did. Collum had an excellent game in Marseille. He had a good feel for the game and controlled it well. He didn’t fall in love with his whistle or, more importantly, his cards. Many an eager Scottish punter went to their favoured bookmakers and backed Collum to send someone for an early bath. Instead, the game didn’t call for one and there was never any real danger it was going to happen.
There was one incident 20 minutes from the end that briefly got people talking. Ledian Memushaj went over a challenge from N’Golo Kante in the centre of the park. At first glance it looked the most undisputed foul you’re ever likely to see, and yet our star man waved played on, telling the Albanian attacker to get up. The feeling of astonishment among those watching grew as Memushaj lay prone on the deck and his side were forced to defend a rather drawn out French attack with only ten men. Boos cascaded down from the stands at the other end of the park when play was eventually stopped.
On social media, the knives were out quickly. “Great stuff from Willie Collum, bringing his own particular style of baffling refereeing to a wider audience,” said one. “Collum is, at his best, f*****g hopeless,” said another. Even ITV commentators Clive Tyldesley and Glenn Hoddle got in on the act, laughing at the decision when they saw the replay. Although, going by the same replay, it seems the pair should have a refresher course in the laws of the game, because it showed Collum to be right.
Memushaj anticipated the contact, stuck out his left leg and began to go to ground before contact with Kante was made. He’d played for the foul. Letting play continue was the correct call.
Assuming the display thoroughly impressed his bosses at Uefa, which it definitely should have, and with only 18 referees at the tournament, our hero will get himself another match, more than likely at the group stage. If he shines again then there’s no telling how far he could go.