Choccy’s Diary: How my ref rant cost Fergie a few quid

I’m always amazed when people recognise me on the street, even more so when I’m wearing a hat down over my eyes and a face covering up over my nose.

Living in Edinburgh, it’s something of a shock if anyone stops to talk in all honesty, as it’s not like the west of Scotland where folk are much more willing to share the time of day – if someone speaks to you in the capital you can be sure they are not a local.

No surprise then that Seamus, who somehow spotted me through two six-foot wire fences, a bobble hat and a face mask, before politely asking me for a socially distanced photo, was from Sligo in the west of Ireland.

As only my eyes were visible, I must assume that this United fan of old was able to identify me as the man who used to be Brian McClair, purely by my knees alone.

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Talking of recognition, it was nice to see that I can still make a headline or two as the story about Liam and Noel from Oasis washing my car when they were penniless teenagers, which I told on my new podcast, Life With Brian, The Brian McClair Podcast, made no fewer than four national newspapers, not to mention a radio phone-in.

That’s quite possibly four more than I ever achieved during my playing days and now I’m waiting in anticipation for McVitie’s to confirm they are offering me a lifetime supply of the Penguin biscuits that I once fed to the brothers Gallagher.

VAR a hindrance not a help

Like most people, I was shocked to see referee Mike Dean had received death threats following a questionable decision he made last month and obviously I could never support such action by what was probably just a crank.

But it got me thinking about how much abuse referees would have received in my playing days had social media been available to irate supporters.

Back then referees were subject to quite a bit of hostility, as they are today, but that’s usually as far as it went – as far as I was aware, anyway.

I can’t help feeling VAR is only piling the pressure on refs and rather than helping them, putting them under more scrutiny with every decision checked and checked again – often with pundits and fans unable to agree on a verdict.

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Controversial penalty calls in the recent Chelsea vs Manchester United and Manchester City vs Southampton games were just two which got everyone talking recently, despite the fact the video evidence is supposedly there to make such decisions easier.

It doesn’t help that the laws also appear to change with the wind, often, it seems, as a result of VAR decisions and I wonder if the game is now adapting its rules to suit VAR rather than the other way round.

One such U-turn has been the handball law, which appears to have reverted to what it used to be and rather than a penalty being given for any contact with the arm, the officials are now looking for some intent.

That said, not every foul in the box is intentional but will often lead to a spot-kick, so I’m not entirely sure why a handball should always have to be a deliberate act of rule breaking for it to be an offence?

The referee’s a robot

If anything, the robotic nature of the men in the middle now, mostly thanks to the introduction of VAR, makes me glad I played in the era I did.

Referees like David Elleray, the late Neil Midgley, and immaculately turned-out Roger Milford – who had an incredible ability to run backwards quicker than he could forwards – would never be afraid to show their individual characteristics during a game which, personally, I enjoyed.

Elleray would referee like a schoolmaster, which is exactly what he was, while Midgely would never shy away from a joke or a quip during the heat of battle and would be more than happy to be on the receiving end as well.

“Is that a shot you had there, son?” he would shout as you skied one over the bar and he wasn’t the only one who enjoyed a good rapport with the players during the 90 minutes.

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I do wonder if I’d have played the game differently knowing cameras were watching my every move, though, but I honestly think that in the heat of the moment, it doesn’t matter who’s watching – you react to what you see in front of you at the time.

Take the infamous Old Trafford brawl of 1990, as 20 or so United and Arsenal players pushed and shoved on the field – an incident which yours truly has been accused of starting on more than one occasion… and with good reason.

I reacted to what I thought was a terrible tackle on Denis Irwin by Nigel Winterburn and sought retribution, so I don’t think knowing that video referees were watching me in a booth 200 miles away would have made me act any differently in that split second.

Needless to say, I’d almost certainly have received a red card rather than just the booking that I did on the day, but that’s something I’d have had to deal with after the event.

Alternatively, technology might just have proved that my goalbound scuff against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford in the quarter final of the FA Cup in March 1989 was, in fact, well over the line – as it was, referee on the day Brian Hill decided otherwise.

Taking one for the team

But let’s be sure of one thing; whatever happens, players and coaches will do their best to adapt in order to gain any advantage they can in a VAR world, whether that’s appealing for anything in order for the video officials to take another look, or going to ground in order to win a penalty.

It’s nothing new, in fact, I was once told by Alex Ferguson before a game at Old Trafford to get in the referee’s ear from the outset in order to gain whatever advantage we could – only for the said official to book me almost immediately for my protestations.

So when the fine came through the following week, I took my case to the club secretary and refused to pay, claiming I was simply following the instructions I’d been given by the gaffer.

Whether it was the fact that Fergie was a little lighter in the pocket or that most refs couldn’t understand the abuse I was giving them anyway, I was never assigned to be the club’s hired henchman again.

As a result, I eventually retired after a career which spanned some 500 games, both north and south of the border, having never once received a red card – a statistic I’m incredibly proud of to this day.

Until next time.



Choccy’s Diary: How my ref rant cost Fergie a few quid
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