SPL 2010/11 review: Striking refs, parcel bombs & scrapping coaches

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If any observer of Scottish football tells you it's been just another season, they're lying. Put it this way - what other league in Europe, nay, the world has had to put up with what we've had to?

We’ve had match officials lying, referees going on strike, seven Old Firm games, a manager who has been sent parcel bombs and then been victim of an attempted assault on the touchline. Throw in a passionate affair and you'd have yourself a bestseller.

Rumour has it there was also some football in amongst the chaos, however if you ask anyone what the one most memorable episode of the season was, they'd reply - without thinking - the referees going on strike.

It was certainly as surreal a moment as I have ever encountered in my years watching and writing about Scottish football and even now it’s hard to believe it all actually happened.

Whistle-blowers across the country downed their cards and watches in protest at the constant and at times vitriolic criticism they received. It was probably more about making a bold statement than demanding any major change.

What did undermine them, it has to be said, was the actions of Dougie McDonald, the referee of the match between Dundee United and Celtic in October, who lied over who denied Celtic's Gary Hooper a penalty.

After initially awarding the spot kick, he immediately changed his mind, but sought the opinion of linesman Steven Craven.

Instead of coming clean to Celtic manager Neil Lennon in admitting his own uncertainties over the incident, he claimed Craven heavily influenced the call and the confusion soon led to Craven quitting after claiming the SFA were hanging him out to dry.

McDonald returned, but with his admission that he indeed lied hanging over him, soon retired as well, while referee's boss Hugh Dallas was sacked over a separate incident involving an offensive email.

As if it wasn't bizarre enough seeing foreign refs taking charge of Scottish top-flight matches, there was the apparent persecution of Lennon as the subject of bullets sent in the post and more worryingly, a parcel bomb.

It certainly heightened sectarianism in the West of Scotland as fans of the Old Firm became more aggravated during the course of the season.

Lennon wasn’t the only target in this hate campaign, with fellow Northern Irishmen Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt also sent bullets in the mail, while top QC Paul McBride - who defended Celtic and Lennon in a row over a touchline ban, and former MSP Trish Godman were also sent parcel bombs.

This sort of disgraceful behaviour and the sectarianism that the Old Firm have tried to control in recent years came back with a vengeance this season, as the unsavoury songs that had been all but silenced returned and almost seemed to get noticeably louder with every game.

Certain sections of the media in Scotland may have tried to ignore it like an unwanted guest at a wedding, and it wasn’t until UEFA punished Rangers for sectarian offences during the two legs of their Europa League match with PSV Eindhoven that the issue was widely discussed.

To some, Rangers’ punishment of an away match ban for fans with the threat of another on a probationary period of three years as well as a fine of €40,000 (over £35,500) wasn’t enough considering their previous when it comes to such offences.

The club claimed they were being persecuted and accused FARE (Football Against Racism Europe) of having some kind of agenda, questioning the evidence supplied to UEFA. The bottom line is the inherent problem Rangers have are still there and still need dealing with.

This season has also been blighted by the constant meddling of the SPL, who have been trying to tell Scottish football how the game should be run from the top down. Ideas bandied included a ten-team SPL, a British League Cup, and the curious prospect of a Winter Tournament in Dubai – all of which were highly imaginative, but not entirely popular.

It followed hot on the heels of a two-part proposed reform by former First Minister Henry McLeish, commissioned by the SFA to try and improve the game from the grassroots up, which proposed heavy funding from the Scottish Government be invested in youth initiatives.

The SPL were prioritising their own financial gain and hoping everybody else would fall in line. A fans’ survey revealed 88% were dead against a ten-team top flight, yet chief executive Neil Doncaster continued to try and sell it as “the only viable option” - code for “we still need four Old Firm and Edinburgh derbies to sell to the TV companies.”

As crowds fell in the top flight, Doncaster was trying to tell us the league will double its broadcasting revenue in the next five years and brandished the sort of figures that would make Carol Vorderman’s head throb.

The move for change has stalled for now, with clubs against the proposed ten-team set-up so there will have to be some kind of rethink in terms of how Scottish football can move forward.

Five other things to forget

1) This was also the season of the touchline rammy, with two incidents in particular making headlines for the wrong reasons. There was Neil Lennon vs Ally McCoist at Celtic Park after a Scottish Cup replay, which was only resolved following a summit involving politicians, police and the clubs. Then there was Motherwell chairman John Boyle versus former manager Craig Brown at Fir Park. As yet, there’s still no date for the summit for that one…

2) Craig Levein took Scotland into his first ever qualifying campaign looked set to start in humiliation, with Scotland being held by Liechtenstein until Stephen McManus scored a dramatic winner seven minutes into injury time. Then there was the infamous 4-6-0 formation debacle as Scotland lost 1-0 to the Czech Republic in Prague. Bizarrely Levein still claimed the formation “worked”.

3) The Tartan Army invaded London in March as Scotland lined up to play Brazil in a friendly at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. The party atmosphere was soured when Brazilian striker Neymar - who scored both goals in the 2-0 victory for the South Americans - claimed he was a victim of racism after a banana was thrown on to the pitch and he was booed by the Scots fans. It soon transpired the banana had, in fact, been thrown by an over-excited German student and the fans were booing the player due to his annoying habit of throwing himself to the ground theatrically.

4) Dundee going into administration for a second time was another dark moment for Scottish football as they were hammered with a 25-point deduction while players and staff saw their contracts ripped up, including those of manager Gordon Chisholm and assistant boss Billy Dodds, just months after leaving Queen of the South to take charge at Dens Park.

5) Craig Whyte’s protracted takeover of Rangers after months of legal negotiations dragged on more than a week’s run of Eastenders. It was six months before the cheque was written and the paperwork was finally signed, with the fans having lost interest in the saga long before time.

Return to tomorrow for the second part of our review of the Scottish season