WHEN Rangers returned to the top flight of Scottish football after a four year absence back in 2016 the sense of excitement and expectation among their supporters was considerable.
The Ibrox club side had skooshed the Championship the season before and played some nice stuff in the process. Joey Barton, Clint Hill, Niko Kranjcar and Philippe Senderos, who all had extensive Premier League experience, had been signed by manager Mark Warburton. Hopes were high. Their marketing department confidently proclaimed they were “Going For 55”.
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The optimism quickly evaporated. After draws with Hamilton and Kilmarnock they were on the receiving end of a 5-1 skelping by Celtic at Parkhead. A messy fallout with Barton soon followed. Then came a draw to Ross County and a defeat by Aberdeen. The fans quickly grew disgruntled and Warburton came under intense pressure.
It was around that time that a member of his backroom team took great exception to a match report I had written in these pages following a 2-0 win over Partick Thistle and phoned me up to make his unhappiness known.
I had pointed out that Rangers, who were battered by Thistle in the opening half an hour, had been fortunate not to have Senderos, who was returning from the suspension he picked up after being red carded in the Old Firm derby, sent off in the first-half.
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The centre half had clattered Chris Erskine with a blatant forearm smash and then flattened Ade Azeez off the ball shortly after. Referee Stephen Finnie and his assistants had either missed the fouls or been unaware of their severity. But afterwards Azeez said: “He’s got me in my face. Unfortunately, he got away with it.” I suggested that retrospective disciplinary action may be forthcoming.
The irate Ibrox coach insisted there was nothing wrong with either challenge and angrily claimed I had an anti-Warburton agenda. I believed that Rangers being reduced to 10 men at a time when they were struggling would have resulted in a quite different outcome.
I stood my ground. A few choice words were exchanged. We ended up agreeing to disagree. Such spats aren’t unusual. The individual in question was clearly feeling the heat.
Incredibly, Senderos avoided being cited by the SFA compliance officer Tony McGlennan.
A couple of months later there was an identical flashpoint in a Rangers game against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park. The home captain Steve Anderson claimed that visiting defender Rob Kiernan had hooked him at a corner. “He caught me in the ribs,” said Anderson. “It was a clear punch on me. The referee missed it. You can’t do that in football games.”
The offending player was duly offered a two match ban.
The similarity between the Senderos and the Kiernan incidents and the completely different way they were handled by the governing body left me scratching my head and not a little aggrieved. What was the difference?
Was it the fact the St Johnstone match had, unlike the Thistle game, been broadcast live by Sky Sports? The offence was replayed on several occasions and pored over by pundits. SFA officials have long dismissed suggestions that footballers here are subjected to “trial by Sportscene”. But it certainly seemed that way at the time.
Such ill-feeling and confusion over refereeing rulings and disciplinary decisions is, as we have seen in recent weeks, commonplace in the game in this country among managers, players and supporters. Nobody, as I can testify, is immune.
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But it is especially true at Celtic and Rangers. Their games receive far greater exposure than those of their top flight rivals. When their players are put in the dock the inevitable response is to point at similar infringements which were ignored or overlooked elsewhere and bemoan the unfairness and inconsistency.
That is what has prompted the Ibrox club to look at how the current SFA system can be overhauled. They accepted the suspension that Alfredo Morelos was offered for a stamp on Ryan Porteous in a meeting with Hibernian last month. But Darren McGregor being let off after appearing to do much the same to Glen Kamara later that evening clearly rankled.
It is healthy to review and refine any important procedure. Having a look at how players are dealt with is, after a spate of high-profile controversies which have been damaging to the public perception of our national game and the reputation of those who run it, no bad thing. The blueprint that Steven Gerrard and his directors are working on may well prove beneficial in the long-term.
But paranoia not to mention an ignorance of the rules abounds in boardrooms, dressing rooms and stands far and wide. No two challenges are ever exactly the same. Opinions are influenced by personal allegiances.
Can things be improved? Unquestionably. Should there be changes? They are long overdue. Is there a way to achieve universal approval of the set-up? It is, alas, a pipe dream. There will always be those who search for a perceived injustice to complain about no matter how fitting a punishment is.