Rangers v Celtic: Hugh Dallas on Old Firm refereeing secrets, the 1999 shame game and his 'big regret' over Pope email

Earlier this month it was Motherwell versus Dundee and one of the Fir Park cognoscenti was finding himself not exactly simpatico with referee Andrew Dallas and his big-moment decisions. “Ach, man, yer as bad as yer faither!” was the wail from the old main stand, which prompted a chuckle from the row behind and then a tap on the shoulder. The disgruntled fan turned round to be met by who else but Dallas’ faither and, without missing a beat, said: “Hugh, it’s yersel! Good to see you, how you doin’?”

For the man who was once our top whistler, and who officiated at a World Cup final, the moment seemed to sum up the glorious madness of Scottish football. Passionate, grumpy, committed, certain … and funny. Well, sometimes there is laughter, and acceptance of the fact that it’s only a game. More of the Old Firm conflagration of 1999 shortly.

Who’d be a referee? Hugh and Andrew for two but not Dallas’ other son Stuart. “I think he looks at the pair of us sometimes and thinks: ‘What the heck? … ’” But the whole family, not forgetting wife Jackie, have formed a “rock” for Dallas and without it he might not have got much further than reffing Motherwell Bridgeworks’ amateur matches for a fiver a time.

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They’ve been there for the good times and the bad. Good: “It was close to kick-off in Yokohama [2002 Mundial] and Jackie was sat down with a houseful all ready for the final when the phone rang. ‘Hullo?’ she said. ‘Ciao, Pierluigi.’” Signore Collina, the referee for Brazil vs Germany, was, at the suggestion of his fourth official, checking in with her, just before the goalnets were presumably checked for holes in time-honoured fashion and the Italian made sure he was in possession of a spare whistle.

"Are you all right?" asked Colin Hendry. Dallas insisted: "Crack on.""Are you all right?" asked Colin Hendry. Dallas insisted: "Crack on."
"Are you all right?" asked Colin Hendry. Dallas insisted: "Crack on."

Bad: ’99 was the “shame game” when Dallas was struck on the head with a coin hurled from the crowd but in 2010 there was “Dallasgate”. An email containing an offensive joke about the Pope, which he forwarded from his SFA account, resulted in him being sacked as head of refereeing development. “It’s a big regret, of course,” he tells me. “There was no malice [intended in the joke] but in the world in which we live … forgiveness … I paid the price and am no longer able to pass on my experience to the next generation of referees.”

Dallas, 64, now works for Uefa and because of how his career in Scotland ended I wasn’t sure he’d want to talk, especially given I’d be asking him to re-live the events of 2 May, ’99 with the Old Firm clashing again tomorrow. But, just back from critiquing the match officials in the Portugal-North Macedonia qualifier for Qatar 2022, he’s happy to chat.

I ask again: who’d be a referee? “You’ve got to love football and have been steeped in it,” he says. Okay, but given that many fans suspect the motivation comes either from being a failed player or a full-on lust for power, which was it for him? “I’ll plead guilty to the fact I wasn’t good enough to become a footballer. I’m a Shotts boy, dad was a committee man for Shotts Bon Accord and I followed them everywhere, became a ballboy, desperately wanted to play for them, only to be told by the coach: ‘Dream on.’

“But the power thing … there’s a helluva lot of hard work needed to get to the top level of refereeing, application and commitment, the travel, training and seminars - and yet all the fan sees is the game and thinks: ‘90 minutes, that guy’s just earned himself a thousand quid.’ No, it’s not about that.”

Hugh Dallas loved the Old Firm blood and thunder, officiating in the fixture more than 20 timesHugh Dallas loved the Old Firm blood and thunder, officiating in the fixture more than 20 times
Hugh Dallas loved the Old Firm blood and thunder, officiating in the fixture more than 20 times

Still, some supporters will beg to differ. They’ll reckon their least-favourite refs must have missed the lectures entitled “It’s not all about you” and “How to become invisible on the pitch”. Dallas admits the man in black can never win and is only glad he did the job when there were fewer cameras, not as many pundits and less whataboutery because social media hadn’t yet been invented.

In the study of his Motherwell home bedecked with memorabilia, he calls this era the golden age of Scottish football for the privilege referees enjoyed as much as the crowds of being in the presence of “the Larssons, the Laudrups, the Gazzas”. First, though, there was an apprenticeship in the Juniors. “I remember a game at Pollok, walking off at the end and this old guy shouting: ‘Christ, you’re worse than Dallas!’ His pals had to point out to him that it was me, back spoiling his afternoon.”

Later, Roberto Carlos might have concurred. The left-back with the rocket shot was unhappy with Dallas’ performance in a game Real Madrid lost to Bayern Munich. “He blasted me in the media, asking how someone from ‘such a small country’ had been put in charge of an important match. I hit back by namechecking Sir Alex Ferguson. A few weeks later I’m refereeing Uruguay vs Brazil. I tap him on the shoulder in the tunnel and he goes: ‘Ah, my old friend!’”

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When our man was building his reputation, if not his notoriety, he appeared on Family Fortunes. Few can claim to have intrigued both Mogwai - the Scots rockers have a song called “Hugh Dallas” - and Max Bygraves, the quiz show’s host. “We were watching it in the house one Christmas and thought: ‘This is easy, we could do that.’ Our team was me, Jackie, dad, sister and brother-in-law. It was Max’s last-ever edition and when I told him refereeing was my hobby he said: ‘One day Wembley?’”

"The game would probably have been abandoned elsewhere - not in Glasgow that day.""The game would probably have been abandoned elsewhere - not in Glasgow that day."
"The game would probably have been abandoned elsewhere - not in Glasgow that day."

Dallas graduated to the senior game in 1990. Remember when his name, printed, was followed by (Bonkle)? Newspaper reports and match programmes, as well as Sportscene and Scotsport, would list his place of residence, as they did for all referees. “I was the guy who got that stopped,” he reveals. “If a stranger had moseyed into Bonkle and asked the first person he met, ‘Where does Hugh Dallas live?’, the answer would have been: ‘In there.’” Les Mottram in his Lanarkshire village of Wilsontown would have been easily found, too. “It was a nonsense. Mind you, I would get called ‘Hughie Bonkle frae Dallas’, which was pretty funny.”

It was all right for Tom Wharton, he was (Glasgow). Except he was just about the most conspicuous whistler there’s ever been. “Tiny” was a giant of a man who, in folk memory, rarely moved out of the centre circle. Dallas couldn’t have got away with that and in the 2002 Old Firm Cup final only Neil McCann ran further than him.

He’s obviously proud of that stat but hasn’t tallied up all his clashes of the titans. “It must be around 20,” he says, producing a photograph from his first, Richard Gough and Paul McStay at the coin toss. “I’d been assistant at Ian Durrant’s comeback from his bad injury, 27,000 for a reserve game, but that was my first time refereeing at Ibrox. I remember the police commander explaining how any important announcements would come over the Tannoy but I was like: ‘How am I ever going to hear them?’ The noise of the crowd was thunderous.

“But it was funny, and a bit spooky: as soon as the match started I couldn’t hear the fans. When anyone ever asks what the atmosphere is like in an Old Firm game I have to say I don’t know. All I could ever hear was my whistle and that was the only way I was ever going to be able to focus. In those matches you always needed to be thinking: ‘What’s going to happen next?’

“I loved Old Firm games. They’re the ultimate test for a referee, but you were just hoping to get lucky. No one reaches that level [of officiating] by having got a lot of things wrong but when Celtic play Rangers it’s the big calls you have to get right.” Once, driving away from a match at Fir Park, his linesman shrugged off controversy over a disallowed goal by saying: “Don’t worry, it’s gone.” Dallas pointed out it would be his name splashed across the back pages if there were photos showing the ball had crossed the line. “My God was I not right. Over by a metre. My assistant hadn’t seen it and I’d been too far away.”

For the Old Firm, multiply the hysteria potential by a hundred. His strategy involved seeking out the fixture’s firebrands for their help. “I’d say to Peter Grant and Ian Ferguson: ‘Guys, I must have you onboard today, calming everyone down.’” The same Tiny Wharton had been the match observer for Dallas’ baptism. “He said to me: ‘Hugh, if you make a mistake at one end, don’t try to balance it out with one at the other.’ Sound advice from a great man. That match went all right. All my Old Firm ones did, really - apart from the coin game.”

Three red cards, pitch invasions, with one fan plummeting from Celtic Park’s top tier. Never again will such an incendiary fixture be allowed to kick off at 6.05pm in the middle of a bank holiday weekend, but Dallas had been worried about the game earlier that Sunday. “I’d walked the dog and met some pals for a sauna, my usual pre-match routine. On the way home, though, by one o’clock, there were supporters flat out on the grass looking the worst for having had a good drink.”

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When Dallas was floored it was from shock rather than pain. “I dropped to my knees and thought: ‘What was that?’ I think it was Giovanni van Bronckhorst who told me I was bleeding. Jim Dunn, my wee assistant, asked me if I was okay. ‘Oh aye,’ I said, ‘f****n’ terrific.

“As the referee in an Old Firm game you have to accept you’re the last thing on the players’ minds; they’re caught up in trying to beat their fierce rivals. But they were great that day and Henrik [Larsson] even managed to stop one of the fans who ran onto the park.”

When Colin Hendry checked on him, Dallas is supposed to have said: “Crack on.” He cannot remember this but the match would continue. “Anywhere else, like Germany the other other day [VfL Bochum vs Borussia Monchengladbach] when an assistant was hit by a missile, then it could have been abandoned. But we would have been tipping 60,000 onto the streets with the police not ready for that.

“At half-time I think my big fourth official, John Rowbotham, feared he would have to take over from me. Smelling salts were delivered to our room and he grabbed them. ‘No John,’ I said, ‘they’re for me.’ But I wasn’t going to quit, no way.”

One of Dallas’ most controversial calls - in the eyes of Celtic fans, anyway - was awarding Rangers a penalty right after play had resumed. A furious Paul Lambert confronted him, pointing on his head to where the ref had been struck, as if to say: “Maybe you need a wee lie down.” “Great guy, Paul, but I told him he needed to have a word with his defender who I’d already warned about wrestling with opponents.”

In the fallout - Rangers winning the game and the title - a brick lobbed at Dallas’ home broke a window. He plays the incident down, saying no one was in the affected room, and that it was only discovered the next day. He’s sure the culprit regretted his actions later and again he pays tribute to wife Jackie for her strength and support.

Then Celtic summoned a behavioural psychologist to examine his decision-making in playback. Dallas chuckles at this and says: “If the guy had come to me I would have given him a full debrief. No one went back through that game more than I did. That’s what referees do: they analyse themselves to bits.”

In a few weeks’ time Dallas was due to officiate at that season’s Scottish Cup final, the Old Firm again - was he up to it? He told his bosses that if they wanted to take the game off him, he’d hang up his whistle. The Hampden showpiece is “the pinnacle of our football” and in all he refereed four of them.

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Celtic vs Rangers was never less than 100 percent stressful. “Afterwards I’d be mentally exhausted and yet I wouldn’t be able to sleep because the game would still be spinning in my head. Referees should always call what they see, not what they hear,” he adds, admitting that he once thought he spotted St Johnstone’s John O’Neill kicking out at a Celtic player and, with the Glasgow club’s fans in uproar, produced the red card. “The look on John’s face told me I’d got it wrong. He’d been shaking mud off his boot. I said to him later: ‘I don’t even need to see that back.’”

Referees only have split-seconds to issue their verdicts; “trial by Sportscene” can then extend for an entire edition to illustrate the wrongness of them. Human error and referee error are the same thing, only they’re not in fans’ eyes and often those of the players, and especially when it’s the Old Firm doing battle.

Dallas has one last story for me. It’s from the 2002 Scottish Cup final when he turned down furious Celtic demands for a penalty when Lorenzo Amoruso leaned towards a strike to block. The luck Dallas insists officials need was with him. Because of his positioning he could see the Italian’s hands were tucked behind his back. “The Celtic player wouldn’t speak to me after the game but Chick Young, who was coming onto the pitch for interviews, said as he passed: ‘Some decision by the way.’ He’d seen I’d got it right.

“The following night was the Player of the Year awards. Henrik approached and said: ‘Hugh, we honestly thought it was a penalty until we watched the incident back.’ That was a measure of the man.” Dallas misses the kind of honesty he encountered in Scottish football - also the humour and, yes, the glorious madness. But next week, having moved on from it, he’ll be in London for a Euro double-header.



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