THREE seasons after reaching its lowest ebb with a strike which made headlines around the world, Scottish refereeing is on an upward trajectory again, according to one its most highly-rated young officials.
Steven McLean, who combines his match-day duties with a role as the SFA’s referee recruitment and education manager, was among those who withdrew their labour for a weekend in November 2010, as a protest against what they regarded as a lack of protection from the governing body against criticism of their performances and integrity. It created the type of negative media coverage which McLean freely admits was unhelpful to attempts to nurture new referees and persuade them to commit themselves to a long-term career in the game.
But the 32-year-old, whose own burgeoning reputation now has him on Uefa’s Category 1 list of referees, insists that infamous winter of discontent is firmly behind Scotland’s whistlers.
“I think we have absolutely come a long way since 2010,” said McLean. “We are doing a lot more in terms of working with players through club visitation schemes. The more we sit down and talk, it creates a much better relationship. What happened was a long time ago now and I think we have moved forward. We continue to look at how we can improve things more.
“I do know that if there are negative stories about refereeing, it isn’t helpful to us in terms of recruitment and retention. Recruiting referees is one thing, keeping them as referees is another thing altogether.
“If they have a negative experience in their early stages, it is hard to stay motivated. We try and put systems and support networks in place, build a mentor network, until they develop the confidence to stand on their own two feet. Once they see the rewards and opportunities to progress in the game, then retention becomes a lot easier.
“I’d like to think that young potential referees will be looking at the positive side of things, the chance to be involved at a level of the game they would not otherwise be involved in. Being on the field of play with elite-level sportsmen is fantastic. Personally, I know I was never going to play football at Europa League or Champions League level.
“To be the first guy to walk out at Hampden, Parkhead, Ibrox, Tynecastle, Pittodrie – or the San Siro or wherever – and be on the same pitch as some of the best players is a real buzz. You get the same adrenaline rush as the players get.
“It’s a great way to be part of the game. We all love football, we are all passionate about it. We play an important role within the game. From a personal development point of view, I know refereeing has also helped me as an individual.”
McLean was speaking at Renfrew High School as opticians Specsavers, who have sponsored Scotland’s referees for over 10 years, announced a funding agreement for a school-based referee award scheme run in conjunction with the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
The ultimate goal for referees is to officiate at the World Cup finals, something no Scot has done since Hugh Dallas worked at the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea. Craig Thomson and Willie Collum, Scotland’s two current Uefa elite-category referees, missed out on the recent selection for this summer’s finals in Brazil.
“It is the ambition of every referee to officiate at the very top level, but it is incredibly difficult to do so,” said McLean. “The selection process for the World Cup is extremely competitive. From Uefa, only nine referees are selected.
“The fact we had Craig Thomson on the selection panel for the World Cup is an amazing achievement. We should be exceptionally proud of Craig. He did the final of the under-17 World Cup in Abu Dhabi last year, so already has a World Cup gold medal. For someone from Scotland to achieve that is fantastic. To get to the senior World Cup is incredibly difficult. Whether it’s more difficult to get there when you come from a smaller nation, I’m not sure.
“It’s very similar to the national team – we want to be there and we aim to be there. We’ll educate and train our referees to make them as best as we possibly can. All we can control is our performances domestically and internationally.
“Certainly, we are performing very well at the moment on both fronts at the moment. If we can continue to do that for longer periods, then hopefully it will lead to us being represented at the World Cup again.”
McLean, the older brother of Ross County defender Brian, has refereed at Europa League level this season as he continues his progress through the ranks. He says the demands placed on officials to maintain high standards of performance are more intense than many of their critics believe.
“If you make a mistake at that level it’s analysed and it’s public and everyone gets to see it,” he added. “But we get assessed by observers at every match and if there’s a TV situation then the head of referee operations, John Fleming, will watch it and discuss it with you and you’ll learn from it. It would be on your record if you made a significant mistake. And over the course of the season if you’re not performing you might get taken out of the Premiership or off the list if you’re not performing consistently over a couple of seasons.
“If you look at the list of referees, you can see how much it has changed over the last five years. We don’t actively publicise who has been demoted or promoted but it does happen and it’s very clear if you look at the appointments.
“There is clear accountability for referees and we’re our own biggest critics. We analyse every decision in great depth but if a referee makes one mistake they aren’t punished for that one mistake. If your top striker misses a penalty or a sitter you wouldn’t drop him the next week. If the goalkeeper throws one in the back of the net you don’t automatically drop him.
“You’ve got to build them up the required level. There’s going to be mistakes made, we know mistakes will be made. What we’re trying to do is continue to work, analyse the performance and educate and try and make us better.”