Alan Pattullo: TV highlights clouded Cowie controversy

Referee John Beaton rules out Don Cowie's 16th-minute goal at Ibrox for offside.
Referee John Beaton rules out Don Cowie's 16th-minute goal at Ibrox for offside.
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Steven Thompson and Michael Stewart are two of the best observers of Scottish football. Astute and articulate, they also both played recently enough to be relevant in the eyes of younger viewers.

But if there’s a criticism to be made of them it’s that they are perhaps too alike, in views as well as dress sense.

Unlike Chris Sutton and whoever he happens to be sparring with on BT Sport, they are often found to be singing from the same hymn sheet, as happened on Sunday evening’s edition of Sportscene.

Let’s face it, it was a pitiful weekend when it came to entertainment. Three of six Premiership games finished goalless. There wasn’t a surfeit of talking points, that’s for sure. Sportscene knew it was going to have to work hard to keep people engaged.

So it was reasonable to expect a goodly proportion of Sunday’s highlights programme being devoted to examining probably the most controversial issue of those games played over Friday night and Saturday.

Even if you don’t agree what happened in the 16th minute of the Rangers v Hearts match was the most contentious issue of the entire weekend, it was definitely the most contentious issue of the programme’s highest-profile game.

We are, of course, referring to the Don Cowie ‘goal’, wrongly – according to both Thompson and Stewart, Sportscene’s studio guests – ruled out by referee John Beaton, or, more accurately, his nearside assistant, Stuart Stevenson, for offside.

Fair enough. There’s no point disagreeing if they both happen to be right – which, it turns out, is what Thompson and Stewart both were. But debate still raged yesterday both on and off line. It seemed ridiculous that a goal could spark such a fierce debate with too few seeming to be able to say for definite one way or the other why it should have stood or otherwise.

Unlike Beaton and Stevenson, Stewart and Thompson were on the money. Cowie, pictured, was onside. But surely viewers deserved to be talked through why this was so; why was the player leaving the pitch and then coming back on not relevant?

“It could have been a very different game, though. This was a huge moment,” said presenter Jonathan Sutherland, igniting just 60 seconds – count’ em – of discussion.

It’s interesting that the run-up to this particular game was framed by a debate described as dominating the Scottish football landscape; Ian Cathro’s appointment as Hearts’ head coach. It grew into an issue said to be dividing Scottish football in two; were you or were you not in favour of someone with no professional playing career to speak of taking over at one of the biggest clubs in the land?

He doesn’t know enough about the game at the top level, the critics moaned. He doesn’t realise how different it is to manage a dressing room compared to devising tactical set-ups on a laptop screen. The criticism hinged on Cathro’s knowledge of the game – or lack of it.

Well, here was a prime opportunity for those in a privileged position of being able to show they are in the know to explain why the goal should have stood – as both Thompson and Stewart agreed was the case.

Sportscene didn’t even linger over the moment wherein many felt lay the crux of the issue – Cowie stepping off and then back on to the field of play.

“It should have been a goal,” explained a referee insider yesterday who was later backed up by Dermot Gallagher, a former English Premier League referee, on Sky.

“He (Cowie) should not have been penalised, he was in an onside position, albeit it was extremely tight – but it was still onside. You can leave the field of play now if it is part of your momentum or part of the play.

“However, if you decide to leave or you walk off the pitch on your volition, then that player for the purpose of offside will be considered to be standing on the 
goal-line for the period of play until the ball is played outside the penalty area, towards the halfway 
line.”

This rule – covered in Law 11 (Offside) of the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) recently revised rules of the game – did not come into the equation on Saturday since Cowie’s momentum took him off the field of play before he quickly came back on, redirecting Callum Paterson’s cross-cum shot into 
the net, with Lee Wallace’s outstretched left foot playing the scorer onside.

Hearts’ dismay over Stevenson’s error will only be intensified upon learning that the assistant 
referee initially called the decision correctly. It’s understood doubt quickly formed in his mind and he informed Beaton that Cowie was offside.

It’s hard to criticise the assistant referee too much – so much was happening in front of him so quickly.

But it was a crucial moment of a game the visitors went on to lose 2-0. Who knows? Had Hearts gone ahead then, there might have been no need for Cathro to assure fans results will only getter better from here on.

Talking of going forward, the debate does again throw up the thorny question of video assistance for referee, which is currently being trialled in 14 countries across the world.

The results are being relayed back to IFAB. One early finding is that 
it’s possible to relay vital information to the referee within 20 
seconds.

It took around the same time to reach the wrong decision at Ibrox on Saturday. Surely we can endure the same wait to make sure we get it right?