Obituary: George Smith, much-loved and respected Scottish football referee

Edinburgh football referee George Smith practices blowing his whistle after being picked to referee in World Cup 1990.
Edinburgh football referee George Smith practices blowing his whistle after being picked to referee in World Cup 1990.
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George Brian Smith, former FIFA grade football referee. Born: 14 October 1943 in Edinburgh. Died: 13 May 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 75

George Smith, who has died following a short illness, was a groundbreaking football referee – the first Edinburgh official to ever be entrusted with a Scottish Cup Final.

It was just his luck that the game he got, the 1980 final between Celtic and Rangers, is the most-notorious in recent history, the day marred by a full-scale post-match riot which saw Strathclyde Police muster their entire mounted division, on the Hampden pitch, to separate the warring Old Firm fans.

George had nothing whatsoever to do with the fighting, it should be said. Indeed, having already ran the line in the 1968 final, and also subsequently covered the 1988 final in which Celtic beat Dundee to clinch a Centenary League and Cup double, and the 1990 final between Aberdeen and Rangers – the first to be settled by a penalty shoot-out –George Smith certainly made his mark on Scotland’s biggest domestic game.

He also refereed the 1988 and 1989 League Cup finals, both featuring Aberdeen and Rangers, and that quota of big finals is one which exceeds the total of finals refereed by all other Edinburgh officials.

Refereeing was an all-consuming passion for George over 58 years, between passing his refereeing exams as a 17-year-old and stepping down as a Referee Observer in October last year, just when his illness began to affect him.

He reached Category One, the top domestic level, while still in his early twenties, and was first put on the elite international FIFA list at the then very young age of 31.

In all, he spent 15 years on the FIFA list, before having to stand down at the then mandatory retiring age of 46.

He officiated at the World Student Games in 1987, two years later he was on the refereeing panel for the FIFA World Youth Championships in Scotland, and in 1990 he was one of the referees for the World Cup in Italy – 
Italia ‘90, where he memorably waved his yellow card seven times as the players of Austria and Czechoslovakia became somewhat excited.

When he hung-up his whistle he moved across to become a Referee Supervisor, grading and assessing younger referees from the stand, while also adding his considerable experience to the work of the SFA’s Referees Committee.

He was still working as a Referee Observer at the time of his illness-induced retirement, after 58 years in refereeing.

His standing among Edinburgh referees was such that he was made honorary president of the Edinburgh and District Referees Association.

He was legendary as a mentor to young officials, as a sympathetic ear when times were hard, and as an encouraging voice.

George set high standards for both himself and other officials – he was particularly strong on eliminating foul language from the game, for instance.

Like every Scottish referee, he also had a “day job”. In George’s case he was a civil servant, a personnel officer across various ministries and departments. But, away from work, his passion and commitment was to refereeing.

George Smith is survived by wife Pamela, son Euan, daughter Lynsey and their children – and by the grateful thanks of those many referees he helped during his 58 years as the man in the middle.

The name George Smith may not rank alongside those of Peter Craigmyle, Jack Mowat, Tom Wharton, Bobby Davidson or Hugh Dallas, but, this quiet, unassuming man is perhaps worthy of his place alongside these giants of Scottish refereeing.

MATTHEW VALLANCE