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The lawmen in black

1 July 04

Profiles of Scottish solicitors who double as top football referees

by Roger Mackenzie

To choose one unpopular profession is unfortunate; to choose two hints, if not at carelessness, then at least a concerning masochistic streak.

Yet the strong tradition of Scottish solicitors who double up as football referees on a Saturday suggests there is a curious breed of people who relish public opprobrium.

For Willie Young, managing partner of Brechin Tindal Oatts and Scotland’s longest serving class 1 referee, the coming season marks his last due to the compulsory retirement age of 50.

“It really will be difficult to replace”, he laments. “A Saturday in winter without football doesn’t bear thinking about. There is nothing to beat running up and down the pitch getting dog’s abuse.”

Making his way up the ladder, 31 year old Craig Thomson represents the new generation of solicitor referees. A construction lawyer with Maclay Murray & Spens, he has been a class 1 referee in Scotland for four years and FIFA qualified for the last two.

He admits striking the balance between work and refereeing can prove difficult, but working largely on non-contentious cases and having understanding employers has helped make it possible to combine the dual demands.

“Generally for domestic fixtures, only a midweek match in Aberdeen would require me to take the afternoon off, but if I’m doing a European or international match it can require three days away from the office. For me, it just means I have to work it round my holidays. I have to forego holidays but that’s my choice and I would never complain about it. I’ve been to places I would never have thought to travel to, and you always get the five star treatment, being picked up at the airport and staying in good hotels.”

Football minded world

Willie Young too thanks understanding colleagues for their support which, during his time as a FIFA referee, enabled him to officiate at 68 games in 27 different countries.

“During that time (1992-2000) in particular the people I worked with were extremely supportive. Refereeing is a big commitment not just in terms of the time taken up by the matches themselves but in relation to training, attending seminars and meetings, and having to be at the venue an hour and a half before kickoff.”

To reach the top in refereeing, you have to be in a flexible working environment, says Young, otherwise it would inevitably cause problems with employers.

“One of the reasons lawyers are involved at a high level is because the nature of the work allows you to fit it in by working at night or at the weekend.”

Thomson says clients are also willing to be flexible when they realise he has refereeing commitments.

“Many people in the west of Scotland are football minded and are happy to accommodate my schedules when arranging meetings. But there may come a day when I may be unable to do a game. The SFA and UEFA understand that.”

In addition to practising criminal law with Dumbarton firm Adairs, Kenny Clark has been a grade I referee for 13 years. He pays tribute to “some very understanding business partners” whose support and flexibility has enabled this self-confessed “failed footballer” to enjoy a distinguished refereeing career.

Often his criminal clients “are all too interested” in his parallel life, more so than their own predicament.

“I had one client on remand in Greenock prison for serious assault and robbery but he was much more interested in a penalty I had given at a recent match.”

No extra time

So if the Scottish Premier League followed the lead of their counterparts in England and appointed a panel of full-time referees, would any of the solicitor referees be willing to tear up their practising certificate and take up the whistle full time?

It’s something Thomson admits he’d be interested in looking into, but he doubts it would make the standard of refereeing any better.

“It would enable us to prepare better for the match instead of running from a hectic day at work to get to the game. It would be good to focus 100% on the game ahead, but I’m not sure how being full-time would really help make you any fitter or make better decisions.”

Young is unequivocal. “I would certainly not have considered it and I know of no other top Scottish referees who would have. We are professional, the amount of time we devote to it makes us professional, only we’re not full time. It would not improve the quality of decision making or the crucial factor, which is having the strength of character to make the decision.”

He does agree being full-time would allow him to prepare and recover better after games. Midweek games can often be demanding. “I know my performance level in midweek games is not as high as on weekends. That is purely because I have been in the office for a large part of the day in what is a fairly stressful position dealing with the management aspects of a big firm.”

Clark agrees that being part-time and professional needn’t be in conflict. “We wouldn’t make better decisions just because our mortgage and livelihood depended on it. It might increase the prestige of the job and we would be fitter, but it’s not going to improve your eyesight.”

Aside from the matches themselves, refereeing demands considerable preparation time, both in terms of fitness training and examining videos of teams’ tactics.

Pierluigi Collina (by common consent the world’s best referee) extols the benefits of studying the tactics of teams, looking at the formations and styles of play adopted, an approach Thomson apes.

But in legal parlance, isn’t there a danger of prejudicing the case by identifying likely culprits through earlier video evidence?

“That is a danger you can fall into”, admits Thomson. “You can only go on what you see on the day, but it’s good to be armed with the information.”

Setting off the pressure

A common theme is that refereeing and legal practice complement each other, one providing a release from the stresses and strains of the other. Each acts as a pressure valve for the other, explains Clark, with the intensity of focus on one job preventing the other becoming too concentrated.

When asked to identify if there are any special skills in being a solicitor that lend themselves to refereeing, all agree that there is a parallel between the management of client relations and that of players on the pitch.

“You are trying to build a relationship with players just as you do with clients. In both cases it’s helpful to be as informed as possible about their business as they will about you. You take that mentality onto the football park and try to understand players are playing under enormous pressure and for their livelihood. The benefit of practising law is I understand the pressures clients are under and that my role is to get them where they want to be. It’s the same with players and that’s why I try to see myself as more of a facilitator on the pitch than in the schoolteacher role which referees are sometimes viewed as having”, says Thomson.

Young too identifies the man management aspects of both roles, and more generally because in law you must be able to relate to people in all walks of life. He has less sympathy for the idea that players are under pressure – “I have a problem with players playing the pressure card when they are earning £30,000 per week. If they worked down a pit for 51 years they would know what pressure is” – but concurs that establishing relationships is as important an element of refereeing as it is in the office.

“Client contact in the law must improve man management on the pitch and being in a managerial role here as part of a big team, you have to rely heavily on your relationships in the firm at partner level and daily work, you have to get on with people and that’s useful on a football pitch but you also have to know when to draw the line.

“You don’t deal with as many different temperaments in a legal office as you do on a football field, but I certainly think it is beneficial to have a people background if you’re going to referee.”

Otherwise it seems that the flexibility afforded by a legal career could be the main reason why solicitors are able to reach the top in refereeing. Even within the law, Clark’s role as a court solicitor leaves him slightly less able to control his own diary to fit in with his refereeing commitments. Indeed Young made a conscious decision early on when it became apparent refereeing was becoming a serious second career that it couldn’t work if he continued as a litigator, and switched instead to practising in areas such as commercial property and insolvency.

The corollary is how refereeing affects their legal life. Thomson, for example, is comfortable with his firm using his role in marketing, and all agree that it can help in building relationships with clients and other members of the profession.

Young is not so keen on making business capital out of his public profile, but he concedes that a number of people associate him with BTO because of his refereeing, so it may not be a bad thing from a business point of view.

Clark notes it can be a great “ice breaker” with clients, offering them something they can talk to their lawyer about on an equal basis and generally rendering him more approachable. By contrast, Young even talked football in depth with Lord Kingarth during a round of golf at Muirfield.

The awful truth

For Young, however, there is no contest as to which role has caused him the most sleepless nights.

“If you make a mistake in the law it leaves you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, especially as a younger lawyer when you don’t realise they are nearly all capable of correction.

“Everybody in the law makes mistakes, but they can nearly all be resolved, and I used to panic maybe when I had given advice and then came across a case that reached the opposite conclusion. It is a terrible feeling but as long as you speak to someone more experienced it can be sorted out. In a relatively short period you can get rid of that feeling, but decisions on the park, not at the time I’ve made them, but when I’ve seen them later, you can do nothing to change.

“The TV company give the referee a video of the match and I cannot do anything until I’ve seen that video, I can’t eat, can’t sleep.

“If you have made a bad error in refereeing terms, not a matter of opinion but where you make an error and think ‘I’ve let the other referees down on that’, then I can’t sleep because I know what’s coming in the morning are the headlines, ‘bungling’, ‘cock-up’, all that stuff, all the scrutiny and sensationalism that attaches to a bad mistake in an important match. In fact, they are few and far between in Scottish matches despite what some people think, certainly not as prevalent as they are in some countries with full time professional referees.

“Scotland has a high standard and the SFA ensures it stays that way. If you are not performing, you will not be doing the top games.”