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Scottish Conservative leader (and assistant referee) Douglas Ross interview: "The ref got headbutted with the whistle in his mouth. It broke one of his teeth..."

Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

This interview with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross first appeared in the December 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now and get three issues for £3! 

Douglas Ross is willing to admit when he has made a blunder, but this is one he is secretly rather pleased with – or at least should be, anyway.

FourFourTwo has asked the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party to show us
a treasured picture that adorns his office wall at Westminster – a memento for visitors to admire. It’s not a cherished family photo; nor does it depict a political triumph. Instead, it’s something unique: a comically oversized canvas of Ross with Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou, before the Flea hit his 100th European goal against Olympiacos in 2017. For, while Ross was elevated to his current position in August 2020 and has been representing his home constituency of Moray in various capacities since 2007, by night he takes great pride in another role: as a FIFA and UEFA-accredited specialist assistant referee. And he’s got the massive picture of Messi to prove it.

“After that game, [fellow assistant] Frankie Connor looked at me, shaking his head,” says Ross. “He said, ‘You won’t believe the superb picture there is of you and Messi – you’ve got to get this made as the biggest canvas you can’. When I moved offices in the House of Commons after becoming leader, I thought, ‘It’s finally time to get this decent photo on the wall’. There are two quite big pictures of the Scottish Cup finals I’ve done, which take pride of place above the fireplace, but…” he breaks off, as he flicks through his phone to show us the giant portrait.

Lionel Messi, Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“It was genuinely a mistake: I didn’t realise how huge it would be,” he laughs. “My team said I couldn’t put it up as it would make me look like a dictator, then my wife said there’s nowhere I could hang it at home. So, I was stuck. But it’s a nice talking point...”

Rewind to a few days before his big trip to Barcelona five years ago, and this dual life was landing Ross in a spot of bother. 

Indeed, it would later result in SNP MP John McNally gleefully waving a red card across the chamber at Theresa May in Westminster.

The Conservative’s opposition sharpened their knives after Ross was unexpectedly caught short on his travels at the same time as a non-binding Universal Credit vote.

“In Westminster, with 650 MPs, there’s this thing called the pairing system,” says Ross. “If you’re not going to be present at a vote – for many reasons – you can pair up with an opposition MP doing the same. I thought that was a reasonable solution to being absent. 

“It was an opposition debate and we were not expecting a vote – in fact, it had been manufactured by them, but that’s by the by. The headline was that I’d missed Parliament to officiate in a Champions League fixture when there was a vote on Universal Credit. A week later, I was in Parliament for another debate and did take part.

“My wife was messaging me to say that I’d been on the news again, my parents were wondering what was going on and, of course, there I was in a different country, trying to concentrate on a football match. I made the commitment then that I wouldn’t officiate in games when Parliament was sitting. Luckily, there’s still plenty of opportunities for me to do international matches.”

Quite. Despite a coronavirus-hit 2020 and his parliamentary commitments, Ross has still managed to run the line in Luxembourg, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and the Faroe Islands that year, also assisting at Wembley when England saw off Wales 3-0 in October 2020. 

It wasn’t the last time his officiating tripped him up, however. In August 2020, a pre-scheduled appointment at Kilmarnock meant that he missed the two-minute silence for VJ Day in his home constituency of Moray, supplying more ammunition to his outraged political rivals. While an embarrassed Ross rued the oversight and donated his match fee to Help for Heroes, he has dealt with opportunistic jibes from Scotland’s opposing parties ever since he assumed office as an MP in 2017. 

As he points out, though, his constituents aren’t quite so affronted. 

“In each election I’ve stood in, the SNP have used refereeing as a stick to beat me with,” he says. “Some people agree with them, and I accept that, but a large majority of people don’t. They think, ‘There’s a guy who started off in Forres with a pretty poor performance, and now he’s walking out to do Champions League matches’.

“I’m not saying they’re all flag-waving fans, but there’s a sense of ‘the boy has done quite well there’. I think my opponents paint it as this awful thing, but many people don’t want politicians who are so one-dimensional that they have no interests outside Westminster or the Holyrood bubble.”

Ah yes, that ‘poor performance’. The Scot’s officiating wasn’t always held in such high esteem. As a young student at agricultural college, and with “absolutely no playing skill whatsoever”, Ross answered a request in the newspaper for new referees to join the local association of Moray and Banff. After going through 10 weeks of training at Elgin High School and getting a couple of juvenile games under his belt, Ross was thrown to the wolves with his first adult matches in the Forres and Nairn Welfare League. 

“As young referees, we’d been handed this grey Dinsport kit to wear, and I thought I was the bee’s knees in this terrible-looking gear,” he says, laughing. “I remember I was doing a criss-cross signal that you’d see more often in rugby as my call for offside, which players obviously didn’t understand.

“There was a supervisor watching me. The final score was 11-0, and he said six of the goals were clearly offside. I thought I’d done OK, but then I got an email a few days later. I’ve still got the report from Paul Warmington at home in one of my filing cabinets: ‘Mr Ross strolled through the match and occasionally broke into a jog...’

“I now assess my games an awful lot and it probably goes back to that. My wife goes crazy because our Sky box is full of matches I did years ago. I still go back to watch them sometimes and think, ‘Was I in line with the last defender there?’ Sometimes I’m a little self-critical and study a clip several times to see if I’m right, but I expect it goes back to that game where I needed to improve quite rapidly if I was going to get anywhere.”

Luckily for Ross, he did – and he was soon identifying his true calling as a specialised assistant. It changed his future in officiating forever. Today, he is the only assistant ever to be appointed for two Scottish Cup finals.

He admits, “I didn’t really have the ability [as a referee]. I might have got to second or third-tier football, but I knew I’d never reach the dizzy heights of Premiership, Old Firm and European games. So, my local supervisor put me forward to be a specialist assistant referee (SAR). I was the first in Scotland to do that. I went on UEFA’s CORE (Centre of Refereeing Excellence) programme that David Elleray set up and did some intensive training there for 10 days, then went back for another seven. After that, I was a fully-fledged specialist assistant – I became international in 2015.” 

Having cut his teeth in Europe with a first appointment between Copenhagen and Real Madrid in the UEFA Youth League, Ross has continued to juggle politics with line-running all over the world. Two days after the 2015 General Election, he travelled to Saudi Arabia for the red-hot tussle between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr – so hot, the game requires unbiased foreign officials to oversee it. 

Not that it made much difference. When Ross was involved, there were 10 yellow cards and three reds, plus an almighty brawl.

“It was crazy,” he recalls. “The appointment came in, and our head of referees had clearly calculated that my chances of being elected were slim – he was right – because he asked, ‘If you win or don’t win, would you be able to accept an appointment on these dates?’ He was always very cryptic about where we were going, but I said it was fine. 

“The election took place on a Thursday. We counted the votes through the night and the results came out Friday, meaning I could fly out on Saturday for the game being played that night. I remember the heat all day was so intense, and the temperature of the game was also very hot – a winner-takes-all Riyadh derby. Everything was going on.

“Towards the end of the match, [referee] John Beaton got headbutted with the whistle in his mouth. It broke one of his teeth. When the game finally finished, there were people in suits, visibly armed, there to help us get off the pitch and back to the dressing room. You knew you’d been through the wringer after 90 minutes! That was a special experience.”

Mercifully, not all appointments threaten an unexpected trip to the dentist – most offer rather more pleasant escapes from a chamber of argumentative MPs. 

“I like Italy as a country, so I enjoy games there,” admits Ross. “In terms of a stadium, the Camp Nou was very special, but I’ve also done both Milan clubs at San Siro. I like going to the smaller countries as well: I went to the Faroe Islands for a Europa League tie but it was played at their national stadium, which was really good.

“I did Norway vs Germany in a World Cup qualifier, too [in 2016], after Germany had won the World Cup. The trophy was pitchside  – we’re running back and forwards up to the halfway line, and there’s the World Cup, just a few metres away! 

“All of these appointments are remarkable, but I genuinely enjoy every game. I could do a Highland League match that’s as difficult and well-contested as one in the Champions League with cameras and world-class players in front of you.”

It’s at this point of our chat that Ross waxes lyrical about that Highland League, Scotland’s fifth tier. He referees at that level when called upon, revelling in its derbies: Buckie Thistle vs Deveronvale (where a police presence has been required for rival fishing communities), Forres Mechanics vs Nairn County and Wick Academy vs Brora Rangers. “There’s a slope on the pitch at Wick,” he says with a smile. 
“I don’t know what the difference is between top and bottom, but if you’re going uphill it’s one heck of a run.” 

Boris Johnson and Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservative leader

(Image credit: PA)

As both the head of the Scottish Tories and an assistant referee, Ross is plainly a sucker for punishment. But they go hand-in-hand, says the Moray man, who puts up with more than his fair share of stick. “In both,” he says, “you have to make unpopular decisions even if you know they’re right; you must trust your instincts, sometimes making split-second choices; and you’ve got to have a very thick skin to accept the criticism that comes your way – regardless of how good or bad those decisions may be. 

“The abuse is probably worst in the lower leagues. When you get to a big Premiership match with a huge crowd, you can’t actually hear what the supporters are yelling. When you’re at Buckie vs Deveronvale, however, it can get personal. I quite often get called out for decisions I’ve taken on the local council or as an MSP, and they know you very well! At the bigger matches it tends to be during the warm-up that you can hear it, and there have been many occasions where I’ve got as big a boo as the referee.”

He has assisted seven Old Firm derbies, so is Glasgow – an SNP hotbed – the worst? 

“The recognised figures there are rightfully the referees – they’re the ones in charge of the game,” explains Ross. “I was filming a party election broadcast in the centre of Glasgow and I’d recently been at Celtic Park for back-to-back matches. At that stage, people were aware that I was the Scottish Tory leader, and some of them were aware that I was an official, too, so we had to move our filming for part of it as we kept getting interrupted. I’ve laughed quite a few times at some of the things that have been shouted in my direction.” One Championship gaffer aggravated him for almost an entire game, then declared, “I vote Tory, you know, so you’ve got to talk to me.” 

It’s all part and parcel of the experience for a 37-year-old who simply loves helping out at football matches. The bad performances sting a lot, admits Ross, but there’s only one thing that would make him consider hanging up his flag permanently: becoming the First Minister of Scotland.  

“I’d have to give up refereeing for that,” he concedes. “There’s so much that people have to think about in a game – he or she doesn’t need any additional pressures. That wouldn’t mean I’d completely walk away from football and officiating, though. I still believe I’d have a role to play somewhere.

“I just thoroughly enjoy it. People struggle to understand it sometimes, but there is such great camaraderie between referees at every level across the world. We’ve all been through it and had good games and bad, and even when I finally stop, I’d still like to be involved in some way. I now try to pass things on to younger referees in Moray and I sometimes watch their first games, like that guy did with me in Ayrshire 17 years ago.”

Meanwhile, Ross can continue to admire the canvas of himself and Messi, which hangs above his fireplace in the House of Commons. Can Nicola Sturgeon do that?

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Joe Brewin

Joe is the Deputy Editor at FourFourTwo, having risen through the FFT academy and been on the brand since 2013 in various capacities. 

By weekend and frustrating midweek night he is a Leicester City fan, and in 2020 co-wrote the autobiography of former Foxes winger Matt Piper – subsequently listed for both the Telegraph and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards.