We met in a London East End boozer to discuss his memoirs, Fraser, inset, being fair tickled I’d made the journey on behalf of the sister paper he called “The Scotchman”. I thought it appalling he was making money from summing up his crimes and misdemeanours in a few quippy sentences but of course didn’t tell him this – he wasn’t that cuddly. Certified insane, this was a man who, when he swapped gangs to join an outfit with an already diabolical reputation, prompted the underworld to comment that this was like China taking ownership of the atom bomb. “Safe journey home, Scotchman,” he said, thumping me on the back, “and say hello to the sons of all them nutters I used to know in Glasgow.”
Anyway, I was reminded of that line about further inflaming an already highly combustible situation when Manchester City had their winner against Spurs chalked off. Technically it was the new handball rule which scuppered them, but the “offence” wouldn’t have been spotted without VAR.
Now, can you imagine a similar scenario playing out at Ibrox next Sunday? Celtic are chasing an equaliser in added-on time, which would maintain their table-topping status going into the international break, maintain the belief that this season will ultimately deliver nine-in-a-row, only for Callum McGregor’s strike to be ruled out because in the lead-up the ball ever so slightly brushed the arm of Odsonne Edouard.
No way was this deliberate. No way was the arm in an “unnatural position”. But none of this would matter under the revised legislation. England’s only hope of avoiding such an “incident” and the controversy which followed – because, really, no ref would have called this handball – would have been if they’d deliberately not parked a truck stuffed with monitors and manned by a dogged scrutineer in a business estate near the London suburb of West Drayton. But what did the Premier League go and do? Exactly that, completely embracing the VAR revolution.
So just imagine if video-reffing – and especially involving this prissy, fussy revision of the rule – was introduced to Old Firm games. It would be like China getting the atom bomb.
This is a fixture – especially in 2019-20 – which doesn’t need any more stooshies or kerfuffles or dousings with metaphorical kerosene or trials by Sportscene or Hotline meltdowns or Twitterstorms or broke-the-internet sensations as if Kim Kardashian and her world-famous erse had sauntered up the Copland Road and announced: “Hey, I heard your John Greig was once the big-bottomed homie around these parts – could I get to meet him?”
If Celtic can get upset by a decision not going for them against – no offence, Pars – Dunfermline Athletic then just contemplate if you dare the tectonic (tictonic?) plate-shoogling which would result from a VAR, VAR worse thing: the judgment from the all-seeing eye, backing up fatuous handball doctrine, doing them down against their mighty rivals. It would be the conspiracy theory to end ’em all.
Fans of other Scottish clubs in far-off galaxies beyond OldFirmWorld console themselves with the thought that Celtic and Rangers are like two dinosaurs, stomping on the planet they utterly dominate, snarling at each other and raging at the dying of the North Atlantic League. This is obviously not the case: Rangers are not Tyrannosaurus Rex and Celtic are not Sprinosaurus Aegyptiacus (yes, I had to look that one up). But maybe, if VAR and rubbish rules are the future, there’s no shame in being stuck in the past. Maybe not all progress is good.
Recently I asked Hibernian manager Paul Heckingbottom, just up from England, what impressed him about the Scottish game and also the things with which he was less enamoured. In the latter category was a certain defeatism among teams facing the Old Firm, as if taking anything from a game against one of them would be virtually impossible (this was before Hibs were skelpted 6-1 by Rangers). But he liked that derbies here were still worthy of the name and hadn’t been neutered by big money, causing them to lose their intensity. So, roll on Sunday and the first Old Firm ding-dong of the season, blessedly VAR-free.