Appreciation: George Smith, Scottish referee loved and respected for conduct on and off the pitch

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The obituary of referee George Smith (1943-2019) appeared in The Scotsman on Friday 24 May and can be found online at scotsman.com. This appreciation comes from a group of his refereeing colleagues.

George Smith is the most successful and accomplished referee ever to come from Edinburgh. He refereed three Scottish Cup Finals (1980, the first time an Edinburgh referee had received that honour; 1988; 1990), two League Cup Finals (1988; 1989) and a host of high-profile international, European and domestic matches over two decades of service as a top-class referee. The pinnacle of that career came in 1990 with his appointment to the World Cup Finals in Italy.

Only ten Scots have ever received that honour and only two in the almost 30 years since Mr Smith was selected. That perhaps gives a proper perspective against which to measure the scale of Mr Smith’s achievement. Retirement from the field arrived in 1992 and Mr Smith immediately joined what is now called the Referee Committee. He held that position for 15 years, during which he played a prominent role in the development of aspiring referees across Scotland. His services were also retained by UEFA and FIFA to help develop elite referees throughout Europe and beyond.

Following his retirement from the Referee Committee, he continued his work as a Referee Observer, watching referees at all levels, from the Premier League to Junior Football grounds throughout the Lothians and Fife.

But retirement from the pitch did not mean retirement from the training field. For more than a decade after Mr Smith had hung up his whistle, he could be found donning his tracksuit on a Tuesday evening and joining “his” referees on the training pitches at Peffermill. This gave him a first-hand appreciation of the condition of his referees but more importantly, an opportunity to speak to them away from a match on a Saturday. Mr Smith took the time to get to know his referees and took a great interest in their life away from refereeing (regularly reminding young referees transfixed on their next promotion that “your family must come first”).

He took an immense pride in their achievements outside of football. In September 2018, after 58 years of active involvement in refereeing, Mr Smith retired as a referee observer. By then, he was already one of a handful of Honorary Life Members of the Edinburgh and District Referees’ Association. To mark his retirement, however, the Association changed its constitution so that they could confer the status of Honorary President upon him. At the Association’s AGM in April, just over a month before his death, the members unanimously approved the conferral of that honour, recognising that even among that distinguished group of Life Members, Mr Smith stood out. He truly was the first amongst equals.

While his on-field achievements are unrivalled (and likely to remain so), it is George Smith the man, rather than George Smith the referee, whose loss is most desperately felt by those who knew him.

George was the very embodiment of a set of values that are increasingly rare in today’s world: integrity, humility, compassion and an infallible moral compass. Those values meant he commanded respect wherever he went, and he was held in the highest regard by those who came across him.

He was to imbue a generation of Edinburgh referees with those same qualities. Talk to those referees and it is striking how many of them describe him as a father figure (or, and he would not have appreciated the connotation for his age, a grandfather figure). Honest and constructive in his advice, the nod of approval from “GBS” was the holy grail for an aspiring Edinburgh referee.

But fall short and a sinking feeling of having let him down (as much as yourself) would descend. One young Edinburgh referee, thrown into a reserve game that was beyond him in his first weeks as a Category 2 referee, still describes Mr Smith’s feedback on the game as the defining moment in his career: a candid and, for the young referee, hard assessment of his performance; followed by a call every evening for a week to work through the coaching points and ensure that young referee was ready for his next assignment. That referee was in the Premier League only a few years later. Dozens of referees could share similar stories of being taken under his wing and being all the better for it.

These reflections on the life of Mr Smith have been framed through the prism of refereeing. But it would be a mistake to think his impact was restricted to refereeing. His referees will all tell you how the lessons they learned from him shaped them as individuals as much as referees.

He was also a distinguished and well-respected civil servant, serving various departments in the Scottish Office, including Health and Fisheries. He was also a man of strong faith who very actively served the Catholic church in Edinburgh.

But above all, Mr Smith was a devoted husband, father and grandfather. George was a very private man (reflected in the fact that only a handful of people knew of his battle with cancer for several years). But those who knew him well knew that first and foremost in his life were his family. Euan and Lynsey have had the most remarkable fortune to actually have as their father the man whom dozens of others claimed as a father-figure.

So, while Scottish refereeing has lost one of its legendary figures, his wife, Pamela, his children, Euan and Lynsey, and his grandchildren have suffered the most tremendous loss. It is hopefully some comfort to know that their husband, father and grandfather was a man who made such a positive contribution to so many lives. The world is a poorer place for the passing of Mr Smith or, as he was referred to in matchday programmes, “G B Smith (Edinburgh”).