Let’s get the unpleasantries out of the way first. Rangers* played out of their skins yesterday. They were first to every ball and first to every second ball. They wanted it way more than we did and for that alone deserved their win.
You know there’s a “but” coming though. John Beaton.
There are plenty of Celtic fans who will dismiss any complaints about the referee’s performance. They’ll blame the Celtic players. They’ll blame Brendan Rodgers. They’ll say Beaton’s antics don’t matter because Rangers were the better team. If you’re good enough the referee doesn’t matter.
I find that attitude infuriating. It excuses the kind of refereeing performance we see all too regularly in Scotland. Where peepul who have been season-ticket holders of a club can referee that club’s matches against the team they consider to be their main rivals. Where Honest Mistakes are accepted as part and parcel of the game. It all evens itself out over the course of the season.
Except it doesn’t.
When you say John Beaton’s performance doesn’t matter because the better team won anyway, you are also saying that impartial and competent refereeing don’t matter. That biased and incompetent refereeing are okay, as long as the better team wins. That’s just a nonsensical attitude.
One of the things that makes football the greatest sport in the world is that the best team doesn’t always win. If the best team always won, there’d be no point in playing the game. Sometimes the best team does not win. Sometimes the best team have an off-day. Sometimes they can’t put the ball away. Sometimes a defender makes a calamitous mistake. Sometimes the ball takes a freaky bounce. It’s all part of the game and what makes it so gloriously unpredictable.
So no, it’s not okay if the referee is biased or incompetent as long as the best team wins.
But let’s look at a few key moments from yesterday as far as John Beaton is concerned.
Early in the game, Alfredo Morelos kicked Scott Brown from behind as Brown jumped for a high ball. It was a straightforward assault and in any other country in the word would have been a straight red card. No arguments. Would Rangers have gone on to be the better team if they’d been playing with 10 men for 70-75 minutes? We’ll never know for sure, but we would have found out if Beaton had done his job and sent him off.
Morelos continued in this vein throughout the rest of the match, including a stamp on the grounded Anthony Ralston. Apart from his failure to send off Morelos on the two or three occasions he should have done, the majority of his decisions were designed to ensure the flow of the game continued in one direction. Every time there was a coming together of players, the pattern was the same – if the ball fell kindly to Rangers*, play continued. If it fell kindly for Celtic, it was a freekick for Rangers*.
Here’s just a few examples, all from the second half.
1. The ball was played to Ryan Christie who was facing his own goal inside Celtic’s half, just outside the centre circle. Taking possession, he tried to turn and was immediately challenged by Scott Arfield, who grabbed his shirt. As Christie turned, he was pulled and spun to the ground, losing possession. Beaton allowed play to go on.
2. Rangers* cleared the ball towards the halfway line, on the touchline in front of the main stand. Callum McGregor jumped for the ball and Scott Arfield jumped into him as he headed it. As they landed, Arfield pulled McGregor away from the ball which ran to Ryan Christie a couple of yards away. Arfield then threw himself to the ground in front of Christie who was trying to push forward, and Beaton awarded Rangers* a freekick.
3. On the far touchline, just inside Rangers’* half, the ball was played forward towards Morelos who was challenged by Anthony Ralston. Morelos put his hand in Ralston’s face to fend him off and the ball bounced back towards the Rangers goal. When Morelos went after it, Ralston followed him and ran into him as Morelos shielded the ball. Having ignored Morelos’ foul, Beaton now stopped play to give Rangers* a freekick for the foul on Morelos.
4. Far touchline again, just inside Celtic’s half, a high ball dropped towards a group of players. As James Forrest waited to take control, a tackle from behind took his legs away from him and Rangers* took possession, playing the ball further up the touchline, Anthony Ralston moving to take possession. As he did so, he was barged from behind by Morelos, forcing him to play it out. As he landed face down, Morelos stamped on his back. Beaton awarded Rangers* a throw in.
Now I know fans of every team in the world complain about referees. But if anyone can tell me of just one incident where Beaton appeared to favour Celtic, I’d be happy to have a look at it. But I won’t be holding my breath. Every 50/50 decision went in Rangers’* favour.
Decisions like these altered the flow of the game. Rangers* pressed Celtic aggressively throughout the match and while we have to accept that approach and find a way to overcome it, the referee’s job is to ensure that that pressing approach remains within the laws of the game. If players are fouled, they should be given a freekick but that wasn’t happening yesterday.
I’m sure no one would dispute that Rangers* was the more aggressive side. They were swarming all over Celtic from the first minute to the last. Celtic were lackadaisical in comparison. But would it surprise you to hear that despite this supine performance, Celtic committed two more fouls than Rangers*? According to the Sky Sports stats, they committed 17 fouls to Rangers’* 15. You would almost think Celtic were the more aggressive team!
Celtic should have been pressing them equally aggressively, but as we’ve seen, if it even looked remotely like a foul, Beaton was giving it to them.
No one is more disappointed than me in Celtic’s performance yesterday. It lacked urgency and aggression. The team line-up was baffling and it’s impossible to say that they deserved anything from the game.
But to return to my point, it’s not about what you deserve. The important thing is that the officiating is impartial and competent and it clearly wasn’t yesterday. Anyone who thinks it had no bearing on the outcome is deluding themselves.
It wasn’t the main reason Celtic lost, that was down to us. But it’s not an either or situation. Just because we didn’t play well doesn’t mean we didn’t deserve impartial and competent refereeing. And if we had had that, we’d have had an 11v13 advantage for most of the game. It would have been a different game entirely. And just because we didn’t play well doesn’t mean the officiating had no bearing on the outcome. It most certainly did.