Graeme Macpherson: Reset button needed for under-fire men in black

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JOHN Beaton was the referee at last weekend’s Championship match between Ayr United and Falkirk. You could have easily forgotten he was there. Beaton had cause to book just two players, one for a dive that didn’t receive any huge protests from the guilty party and the other for a foul late in the game. Beyond that, he was barely involved at all. This could have been any other game for him were it not for the police escort from the car park to the ground and the lingering presence of Scottish FA staff. They were on hand to make sure this occasion passed by without any of the drama that had marked his outing the previous week, one that started a sequence of events that led to Beaton and his family receiving threats to their safety.

He may have cursed his luck that this flawless performance had come in front of just a few thousand fans at Somerset Park, no live television cameras and only a smattering of media, rather than the previous weekend at Ibrox in the Old Firm game when the eyes of the world were watching his every step. Perhaps, though, that wasn’t a coincidence. If we accept that referees are human, then it stands to reason that the pressure of the big occasion will affect them just as it does players and managers. Beaton made mistakes that day – none of which directly affected the outcome of the game – and would have no doubt later reflected upon those errors with a degree of frustration. A planned meeting of match officials this afternoon in Edinburgh will no doubt dig into it again.

Beaton’s display in Ayr, though, was more like the norm for the majority of Scottish referees. The quirk of their profession means they are barely noticed when things are going well, and then quickly castigated when they make mistakes – especially in those high-profile occasions. Of course, they ought to still be held accountable for the bad performances but there is little merit in continually kicking them for weeks and months on end. Instead, they should be provided with additional support to ensure that overall standards improve to a point that the news cycle moves on and nobody is talking about referees any more.

Ian Maxwell, the Scottish FA’s chief executive and an open-minded and approachable sort, has already emphasised the need for better communication and more dialogue in the hope that it will engender greater respect among all parties. Match officials need to admit they are fallible and don’t get everything right. And when they do make mistakes there needs to be a robust system in place behind them that allows those errors to be quickly and properly rectified. Clubs and managers also need to accept that match officials will sometimes get things wrong and not vilify them for that. Removing the fog of suspicion between both sides by allowing referees greater scope to explain why they have taken certain actions should also help on that front.

In the long run, the viability of full-time professional referees and the introduction of VAR should also be examined to try to help lift standards. In the meantime, however, there needs to be a greater understanding of the difficult job match officials have to do, and in return additional humility on their part when things don’t go well. To err is human. The real mistake is then not making it right afterwards.

Of course, the sort of people who think it is appropriate to send abusive and threatening messages to a person and his family will never be appeased. There will be factions who will continue to see conspiracies and agendas regardless of the reality and no explanation will ever suffice. There is no hope for any of those individuals.

Meanwhile, more rational people will continue to look for constructive solutions to an imperfect but fixable situation. As the Premiership clubs return to competitive action next weekend, the hope must be that the winter break has allowed a reset button to be pressed and everyone – officials included – can go into the new year with a fresh slate. Our game needs it.

THE calls for Mauricio Pochettino to become the next Manchester United manager will only grow louder should his Tottenham side inflict a first defeat on interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this afternoon. The bookies make it a two-horse race to replace Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford next season, with the Argentine’s greater experience giving him a slight edge over the familiarity that Solskjaer would bring.

The ball, then, is in Spurs’ court. Pochettino’s contract is set to run for another four years and he spoke last week about the possibility of even ending his career there. That was a clear message to those in charge to match his ambition. Spurs have finished in the top three in each of the last three seasons but, if they are to end an 11-year trophy drought, it will require squad investment at a higher level. Liverpool have shown that it is possible to emerge from the pack to become genuine major trophy contenders. Spurs must demonstrate a desire to do the same if they want Pochettino to stay.