This post was initially titled "A bad week for referees", but then I thought, "when isn't it a bad week for referees?" No wonder that the numbers of people wanting to become football officials is apparently slumping; not a match on Sky Sports appears to go by without Andy Gray moaning about the man in black (or yellow, or blue, or, at Old Trafford yesterday, in white - I thought at one time that he had looked back on Sodom and turned into a pillar of salt). The habit of ESPN pundit Chris Waddle of taking a few seconds to praise the ref in several matches this season has been a rare exception. On my part, when I was at Wigan-Chelsea in September, Florent Malouda poleaxed Mario Melchiot five yards away from me...and the ref missed it. Thing is, I didn't see it either; TV evidence suggested it was a tackle potentially worthy of a red card.
In the same game, Petr Cech got sent off when he gave away a penalty, when my first instinct, albeit a long distance off, was that Hugo Rodallega had dived. On that occasion, Phil Dowd was proven to be extremely right, whilst I was proven to be more wrong than a 6,000-year-old-universe-believing creationist. So, in conclusion, it is bloody hard to be a referee.
We've seen some witch-hunts of Scottish officials in the past, most notably that of Mike McCurry by Dundee United boss Craig Levein - though in my opinion, his performance in that particular game at Ibrox was nothing short of scandalous. But for every appalling performance that gets slaughtered in the press, there are several examples of managers slagging referees off in post-match interviews, partly (it seems) as a way of avoiding questions about, and/or avoiding taking blame, for their own team's gash performance. Just think of Alex Ferguson's ridiculous accusations about Alan Wiley not being fit enough, even though he ran further in that particular match than most of the Man U players - that was like claiming Paula Radcliffe wasn't fit to run marathons after coming fourth in New York at the weekend.
That said, Fergie did have a case against CSKA on Tuesday night. Somebody appears to have put a Champions League curse on Darren Fletcher; after missing last year's final, the Scot got taken out in the box for a certain penalty against the Russians...and then watched the ref point at him and show him a yellow card for simulation. It couldn't have been a more obvious foul if the centre-back had then kicked him while he was on the ground, before proceeding to urinate on his prone body. And it turns out that, despite it being a pretty bad decision ("the worst decision I have ever seen in my life", according to Ferguson, who of course does not have the slightest reputation for hyperbole), Fletch is stuck with that booking because UEFA won't rescind yellow cards.
Let's get this straight: the ref made a massive blunder. Everyone knows it. Even said ref must have seen it on TV, and I bet he feels like a bit of a tit. And UEFA, despite their usual fingers-in-ears, eyes-shut, "la-la-la-I'm not listening" act, know it. But they won't change it. They say it's impossible to investigate every single booking to see if it was justified. That's probably true. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't investigate the obvious mistakes. If Man Utd get to the final, and a yellow card in the second leg of the semi costs Fletcher another chance to play in it, then it would be more unfair than coming home to discover your wife in bed with a rhinoceros, who is compounding your misery by wearing your pyjamas and smoking your cigars. And people will now remember the injustice when"that ridiculous bloke gave Fletcher a booking for being kicked in the shins", whereas, with United having got off the hook with two late goals, the booking could have been expunged from the records and might have been forgotten about, or at least treated as a bit of a slapstick error.
Anyway, back to our fair - or not so fair - country. Because Aberdeen's manager, players, general manager and club website all ripped rookie ref Steven Nicholls to shreds after he sent off two Dons at Easter Road on Saturday. Now, I've only seen the highlights on the BBC site, all five minutes worth, so I'm aware that I'm not fit to comment on allegations that he was looking from the start to send someone off. But having seen Mo Ross' two yellows, the first one is definitely right, and I can see why he shown a second one. Does he run into the guy's leg by accident? Hard to tell intent on TV, but considering Ross had a bit of a reputation at Rangers for dodgy tackles, and my cynical instinct that footballers don't do these things "by accident", I reckon Nicholls can justify pulling out the red.
As for Chris Maguire, his first booking was a pretty dangerous tackle; someone needs to tell these moronic footballers that, even if your attempt to kick your opponent fails to make contact, it is still a foul (though I can forgive him, as we've all wanted to flatten Derek Riordan at some point). He in fact ended up with a straight red rather than a second yellow, after he studded someone's ankle right in Nicholls' eyeline. It's in vogue to send off players for those sort of tackles now - they break ankles - but, frankly, it was definitely deserving of a yellow card at least, so he was heading for an early bath (or he would be, if Aberdonians washed) regardless. And while Aberdeen boss Mark McGhee claimed the worst tackle of the match was the one that injured his young midfield tyke Fraser Fyvie, I thought it was a super challenge by Ian Murray which won the ball cleanly, with Fyvie's twisted ankle just a bit of ill fortune.
Now, I've not suddenly become an apologist for refs; they often don't do themselves any favours. But you sometimes get the feeling they are on a hiding to nothing. Aberdeen should be, and I suspect will be, heavily censured for their unjustified moaning. Just as well too, or the SFA aren't going to find many new folk willing to wear the Specsavers fluorescent yellow in a hurry.