IF YOU have ever wondered what on earth keeps referees going, Willie Collum has a simple answer: days like tomorrow.
The man who will take charge of the William Hill Scottish Cup final has suffered more than his fair share of criticism, but believes that the big games make the grief worthwhile.
Although he is still only 34, Collum has been refereeing for two full decades already. But the game between Hibernian and Celtic will be the first time he has taken charge of the domestic showpiece, and it will be a novel experience for another reason – the presence of additional assistant referees behind each goal.
Bobby Madden and John Beaton are the officials in question, their official function being “to assist the referee with decisions in and around the penalty area”. Collum is sure they will come in useful, not only to him, but to the smooth running of the match as a whole.
“I think they’re very beneficial,” he said yesterday at Hampden. “They are able to help with that specific area – decisions in and around the penalty area – for example a ball over the goal line. It’s important there’s somebody there to judge that.
“They’re also closer to the goal itself rather than the assistant referee. So it’s something that definitely benefits me when they’re working with me. It’s important as well that the guys who are working with me on Sunday are very experienced referees, who are used to making big decisions.
“It’s a wee bit different for them – unusually, the play comes towards them. I’ve been in that role myself, at Euro 2012, and it was quite unusual to make a decision when the play was coming towards you.
“But they’re definitely beneficial. No question. They’re dialoguing at all times – not just making decisions. They’ll perhaps tell us if they think it will be a long ball played forward. They can see the game opening up from the position they’re in.
“There’s plenty communication at all times with the assistant referees: constant dialogue. All of us are miked up, including the fourth official. The amount of chat varies from one refereeing team to another.
“Some people prefer only to talk when there’s a need to talk. I prefer to keep everybody involved, and it means everybody’s on their toes and not switching off when the ball’s down the other end.”
Both sets of supporters, of course, will turn up at the national stadium tomorrow hoping for what they would see as a fair deal from the officials. Hibs fans remember all too well last year’s final, when Craig Thomson awarded a penalty to Hearts early in the second half even though replays showed Pa Kujabi had fouled Suso Santana outside the box. And Celtic supporters will recall an Old Firm match in October 2010, when Collum could perhaps have done with additional assistance. He incurred the wrath of Neil Lennon and the Celtic supporters that day by erroneously awarding a penalty to Rangers – but yesterday he insisted that such adverse reaction could not concern him, as his attention had to be focused on doing his job to the best of his ability.
“It never worries me. Everybody has an opinion and they’re entitled to that opinion, but, at the end of the day, we’re all doing our job. And sometimes the referee is required to make unpopular decisions. You hope you get them right. But we’re not there for a popularity contest.
“I’m not there to be the best guy in the world or have everybody like me. We always aim for perfection. We aim to get everything right. But the game is so fast that it’s difficult at times.”
In the aftermath of that particular Old Firm incident, the criticism from a minority of fans went far beyond the acceptable boundaries, and Collum even received death threats. Obviously, that experience was an aspect of his life as a referee that he would far rather not have undergone, but he insisted, all the same, that the good far outweighs the bad.
“That’s disappointing,” he said of that particular reaction. “Anybody who’s a referee needs to be strong. That’s the negative side of the game, but the highlight is refereeing these kinds of matches on Sunday.
“Believing in yourself is very important. Yes, we make mistakes – everybody makes mistakes – and there are times when you think ‘I could have performed a lot better there’ – but that’s part of progressing as a referee.
“I’m not there to be popular. I’m there to control the match.
“But I hope it’s a fantastic final. We’ve had many people talking about issues off the field for the past year but I’m really looking forward to what I hope people will be able to report as a fantastic occasion for Scottish football.”