Just hours before Celtic issued a statement in which they confirmed their intentions to write to the Scottish FA to demand answers over Steven MacLean’s failure to award a penalty, following Josh Meeking’s handball in Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi final defeat to Inverness Caley Thistle, Head of Referees John Fleming defended the officials’ decision.
Fleming, who succeeded Hugh Dallas after the pope email scandal, told the Evening Times: “I don’t think there was anyone in the ground who would have thought it was 100% a penalty and sending off until they had seen the replay.
“When you watch it again on TV you can see clearly that it has a handball, no question about that. But that is most apparent when the replay is slowed down and you watch it again.”
Despite Flemings’ claim of no one thinking it was 100% a penalty, Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths, claimed: “I knew it was a penalty. I think everyone in the ground knew it was a penalty. I asked the ref why he didn’t give the penalty and he said the assistant behind the goal said it hit him in the face. I don’t know what angle he is looking from because everyone else could see it was a penalty.”
Fleming, who himself was a Category One referee and FIFA assistant referee, added: “What we do is speak to the officials involved, we take their view on what happened, we look at a freeze frame on the incident in question and we then look at their positioning.
“Alan was a very short distance from the incident when it happened. For him to see properly when the ball was headed goalwards, he would have had to see through the head of the player [Meekings]. So I can see why in real time it looked as though the ball hit his face.
“Steven could see through the gap in play as the game unfolded but there was a millisecond, a click of the fingers when his view was not 100%. You need to be absolutely certain and if you’re not then you shouldn’t give it.”
Sunday’s defeat to Inverness Caley Thistle halted Celtic’s hopes for a domestic treble in Ronny Deila’s first season as the Glasgow side’s manager and Griffiths accused the officials of ‘robbing’ them of achieving a treble.
Griffiths said: “We have a lot of disappointed lads inside that dressing room. We’ve been robbed. When you have officials behind the goals, they need to be doing their job. If he thinks that’s hit him in on the face … I don’t really want to say too much about the officials because I’ll end up in trouble. But it’s a massive, massive decision and it’s cost us the game.”
“It was very disappointing. We had a chance to go and make history. We didn’t get the result in the end.
“I have asked the centre-half in the second half if it has hit his hand or his face and he said it hit his hand 100 per cent, so in my book that’s a penalty and a red card.
“We have probably the best penalty taker in the league in Kris Commons, who I am sure would go and tuck it away and put us 2-0 up. They’d have been down to ten men and it would have been a mountain for them to climb to come back.
“He [MacLean] said the referee behind the goal said it hit him in the face and there is nothing I can do about that now. It is a game-changing decision. We go in 1-0 up at half-time, so we should come out and see the game out, so credit to Inverness because they came out and had a right go.”
There have been increasing calls for match officials to be transparent in the decisions they have made, with an increasing number of poor performances from the whistlers being highlighted over the past few seasons affecting all clubs.
Speaking in January 2014, Fleming explained: “I believe there are occasions when an explanation of a decision could be beneficial, like a technical matter. The problem we have with referees speaking after a game is that a number of matters may be referred to the Compliance Officer for review and a referee commenting could prejudice any case.
“We are very restricted in what we can voice and I think it would bring more problems than benefits to the referees. We need to protect them as best we can so it’s best they don’t speak to the media after matches.
“We have opened the door on referees speaking to the media when a match has been postponed to offer an explanation and that has happened on a number of occasions this season. In the past, we have held media training sessions which have helped develop better relationships with the media and helped their understanding of the decision-making process.”
Fleming also claimed that the match officials were held accountable for poor decisions, he added: “They are absolutely accountable. Why else would we have a marking system in place?
“In my time there have been six or seven referees who’ve been taken off the top league list because of performance-related issues. Every referee’s marks are monitored on a weekly basis. If one of them has two bad games on a back-to-back basis that’s enough for me to investigate the reasons why.
“A referee can suffer from a crisis of confidence, and that’s why I employ a sports psychologist from Stirling University. That would’ve been unheard of when I started out as a ref but I was 28 when I handled my first senior match.
“The likes of Craig Thomson and Willie Collum, our two elite referees, were 16 when they started out. They’re fitter and more dedicated than ever before. But if a referee doesn’t have basic ability he won’t survive.
“I’ve got the freedom to move them about if I feel that would be a worthwhile exercise after a mistake’s been made and it’s my duty to protect a referee in the same way a manager would one of his players.
“I can re-locate a referee to a lower division without anyone feeling the clubs he handles there are getting the raw end of the deal.”