Steven McLean believes Scottish referees will rise to the challenge of handling the return of the country’s highest-profile league fixture this season.
The four-year absence of Rangers from the top flight means only two of the SFA’s current list of leading match officials – Craig Thomson and Willie Collum, pictured – now have previous experience of taking charge of Old Firm games.
McLean, who refereed last season’s Scottish Cup final, will be among the candidates to make their debut as the man in the middle for Celtic-Rangers showdowns over the coming months. The 35-year-old, employed full-time by the SFA as a referee recruitment and education officer, has full confidence in the strength in depth of his fellow whistlers.
“They are unique games, but we have a lot of experienced referees in the country who are used to officiating at big matches, both domestically and internationally,” said McLean.
“It is another fixture in the calendar which will be looked forward to. It will be for the referee committee to decide who are appointed to them. We have referees here who are experienced enough to cope with that environment. Whoever is selected will have the talent, ability and confidence to perform well in that environment. I’ve no doubt about that.
“Of course I would like to take charge of an Old Firm game, all referees would. But there have always been big matches in Scotland. We’ve had other big matches to look forward to, so this will be another fixture on the calendar which referees will aspire to be part of.
“I think the overall standard of Scottish refereeing is good right now. We have never had two referees simultaneously at elite level in Europe before, which we do at the moment in Willie Collum and Craig Thomson.
“We’ve had Willie at Euro 2016 and Craig was at the previous European Championship finals. Getting there from a small country like Scotland is an achievement. It shows the level of ability we have and that should be recognised.”
McLean’s personal career aspirations as a referee run in tandem with his day-to-day role in attracting new recruits to a role which regularly attracts the most unforgiving level of scrutiny.
He admits the SFA face significant problems in holding on to a sufficient quota of talented young match officials.
“The challenge is in recruitment but it is also in retention of referees once we get them in at grass- roots level first of all,” added McLean. “When people have a negative experience as a referee in their early days, then it’s really difficult to say, ‘I want to continue with this’ because you have parents shouting at an under-13 game, haranguing referees.
“They think ‘why am I going to do that?’ It’s fine for me and my colleagues because we’ve come through that, we’re confident enough in our own ability to be able to deal with it, we’re in a situation where we’ve got access to police and access to stewards and good support from the authorities and governance. Operating at grassroots level is completely different, so we need to support these guys and make sure society is educated so behaviour is appropriate for the level of football.”
McLean, who suffered his own share of criticism and abuse following his failure to spot a penalty area handball by Inverness defender Josh Meekings at a crucial stage of the 2015 Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic, makes a determined effort to cope with the higher public profile he now has.
“I don’t walk about the streets after big games,” he said. “I live quite a quiet life, I like to spend a lot of time with my family and close friends. You are responsible in terms of where you decide to go and what time you decide to go. So I certainly don’t go into the town centre on a Saturday night after a big game.”