The results against Hearts and Aberdeen were terrible. I want to tear into the players. I want to tear into the management team. But I won’t (here at least) because there’s some fantastic Rangers tactics blogs and podcasts that are better qualified to do that and arguably far more wholesome and healthier. Hopefully they can do it justice and provide some ice-cold reasoning to pour over the rage simmering in the support at the moment.
We are a notoriously self-critical support and often to a fault. We tend to shoulder all responsibly through a stubborn and foolish pride. The results were largely down to flat, toothless performances, that's undeniable. But there is a trend in these games that is having an effect and it's one which was there last season too. It’s the performance of the referee.
This isn’t me trying to absolve the players and staff of any responsibility – as a fanbase we will ensure that doesn’t happen – it’s simply to recognise a factor in the title chase.
The game at Parkhead on the 29th December was an exception to prove the rule. We won despite the referee. We reached a high level of football and were able to see it through to three deserved points. Post-match analysis showed that Kevin Clancy wasn’t great - a considerable understatement. We were fortunate McGregor saved the Celtic penalty. The stats showed we were twice as likely to be booked at a foul. We have since suffered through the cards to Morelos. Whilst his second one was daft, his first one was very soft. We have been without Morelos for two games due to that and we missed him. This got all-too-easily glossed over in the after-glow of that victory.
But that is only one half of the equation. Three Celtic players should’ve seen red cards that day for second yellows. The obvious consequence of that would have been key players being unavailable for games after the split. This is part of the big picture. The league campaign as a whole. It doesn’t just involve Rangers and Rangers players. It involves everything; referees, opposition, yellow cards, injuries, suspensions. It's right to discuss it. A league campaign is meant to be attritional.
Sadly, we were at the exact same place last season. The statistics on referees for that season show clearly that referees were card happy on our players. The statistics showed that the referees were overly lenient on Celtic players and teams playing against us. These cold hard numbers also passed the test of reflecting what we were actually watching. Steven Gerrards' Rangers are far from a dirty team yet the card count was frightening. Last season the suspensions racked up and we fell away. The rest is consigned to the dustbin of history.
Another factor last season was the compliance officer. This shadowy, apparently Celtic minded menace was on hand to mop up any scraps her referees missed (if they were wearing a blue shirt that is). The statistics on Scotlands' own pound-shop VAR alternative make horrific viewing. Fortunately, Rangers have appeared to have worked on this over the summer and kept a lid on the madness thus far. However, it’s still there in the shadows and I’m sure if they could get away with inventing some new rules and punishments they would. But the referee bias lingers like a bad smell.
And with that my gripe is with our board. All things being equal the referee is the biggest influencing factor in any football match. It is the difference in a tight match. Therefore, it is unquestionably a difference over the course of a season. It is the difference in building up momentum and creating chances. It is the difference in our players matching the physicality afforded to us. It is the difference between players staying on the pitch and the ensuing suspensions.
In Saturday’s game at Ibrox against Aberdeen, Sam Cosgrove went through the whole game without being booked. Of course, you can be competitive and foul without it being a yellow card – yet, that wasn’t the case with Cosgrove. Moreover, our players simply aren’t afforded that luxury. We seldom see them afforded the benefit of a first robust challenge. We seldom see them received the reproaching warning around the time of the third challenge. We know that if our players are on a yellow, the next one could be a red, no warning, no hesitation. That has to have an effect on the players, on how they play their game, and therefore how the game plays out.
A reinforcing pattern I see is our players trying to play football and having the majority of the ball. We are often on the wrong end of some rough-house treatment. But by the end of the match the card count is the same. This is at odds with what happens in games across the planet.
As I said, this sword also has two edges. As I write this Leigh Griffith has just stamped on a Hamilton player off the ball after pulling him over. The referee had a clear view of it and chose to only give a yellow card (presumably for the push in the melee afterwards), despite the Celtic striker even swatting away the official's arm too. This was a match changing decision as shortly after Griffiths himself won a free kick, a Hamilton player was red carded and Celtic scored from it. Celtic then had 60 mins to win the game against 10 men. Last week Griffiths also threw some tape at a Kilmarnock supporter. A fracas ensued. Nothing happened. We all know that other teams and individuals wouldn’t have escaped punishment for similar - censure from both the governing body or from our beloved press (look no further than the game on the 29th).
So what do I want and expect?
I want to know why it is that Rangers can be so lackadaisical on the inexplicably dubious refereeing. How can we as a club be so quiet on it? Every team has gripes and can pin-point incidents, I get that, but this is relentless. We should have come out blazing after the game on the 29th of December because the ammunition and evidence was there. We also won the game so, perhaps unlike this piece, our complaints couldn't have been dismissed as sour grapes after a loss. Even so, we should have come out yesterday and at least asked why Cosgrove wasn’t reeled in until his verbal warning after 70 minutes. To be honest, I want to see the club go a lot further than that, I want them highlight the more obvious or blatant calls from other games in an opening submission to the compliance officer. Test the system. The compliance officer broke water after New Year, we should've asked her to comment on Griiffiths at Kilmarnock, to comment on Simunovic man-handling the referee in the same game. This sounds very petty, but when our players are red carded for blowing kisses and looking at people the wrong way then it would be nice to be told where the lines are - clarification if you will.
There are various reasons for doing this.
Firstly, the referees are inconsistent. There is a tangible and statistical discrepancy in the refereeing of our games vs Celtic's games. The stats from the start of December are shown at the end of this article and the trend is the same as it was last year - we are typically the team playing the football, being fouled more, and aside from one or two outliers, typically twice as likely to get a card when we do engage. Again, this tallies with what I’m watching, intuitively it doesn't feel right. Any game can throw up certain stats and anomalies, but this is a trend now which bridges several seasons. The club simply has to correct this.
Secondly, the compliance system is flawed and broken. By highlighting issues then at least the club, and the support, can be in no doubt that certain incidents have officially been submitted for review; including other games from the SPFL fixture list that we're not involved in. This may not be a good look but when the same system knowingly ignores fouls and incidents that our players have been cited for then the act of calling it out is just.
Thirdly, the press isn’t bothered about the refereeing standards or inconsistencies. As things stand, we have no discernible voice or influence in that debate. The club owes it to the fans to put this information out there. To at least attempt to create a narrative and a provide a historical record of events that we aren’t being afforded elsewhere.
This last one is important to me. As anger turns inwards, we start looking for action and answers. The dignified silence approach doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and to be honest it looks weak and in some cases is probably negligent. This is a season of hard work we are talking about. The raison d’etre for a £50m business, hundreds of employees and hundreds of thousands of supporters. It’s too important to be undermined and spirited away because of something as trivial or capricious as it was easier for the referees to give Celtic a free pass, easier to book our players. To have that compounded by the presumption that our board didn’t want to upset anyone or cause a fuss in inexcusable. If the answer is simply that the referees consistent inconsistency on Rangers and Celtic is due to press coverage and pressure then we should all be worried, Kilmarnock fans, Hamilton fans, everyone. Interestingly the Accies assistant manager and other employees publicly asked about Griffiths so that in itself is telling.
I couldn’t care less about dignified silence. I want us ripping down doors demanding parity. There will be plenty time to be magnanimous and gracious when we win something. Even if it’s ignored or doesn’t make a difference then the fans can see that the club has at least tried. Isn’t this what we demand and expect from our players?
A glance at yesterday's results and Celtic went on win the Hamilton game 4-1. Another three points from a tricky (and should have been much, much worse) situation. It must be nice to be afforded that kind of match-changing leniency. What's good for the goose...
Disciplinary stats since December
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