Twenty two years ago this week a warehouse storeman by the name of Dougie Smith booked a Rangers midfielder and in doing so a sliver of football’s soul perished forever. The midfielder in question was a man called Gascoigne, a boy called Paul, and a creation called Gazza and a composite of these very different personalities was running riot in the Scottish Football League during the 1995/96 season after signing from Lazio that summer.
Finally free from injury, Gascoigne was rediscovering the pure joy of playing the game that he adored and with his new bessie Ally McCoist ahead of him and Brian Laudrup dipping his shoulder here, there and everywhere, it was exhibition stuff being served up on a weekly basis from the clown prince. Though still only 28 years of age this was his career swansong and perhaps deep down he knew that and cherished every moment and after each match he would return to his house on the shores of Loch Lomond and revel in another childhood obsession – the yang to make sense of football’s yin – that of fishing.
This daft as a brush man-child always played with a playground exuberance; his portly frame distended with pride as he dribbled and tormented, but here in Scotland there were blessed few distractions to muddy the mind prior to his ninety minute commitment to entertain. Consequently the pleasure and privilege was all ours, watching him with a broad grin no matter our club allegiance; chuffed to bits that the lad who once had the sheer audacity to Cruyff spin the Dutch was back to his twinkling, spirited best.
On December 30th 1995, in front of a packed Ibrox, the Gers were leading in a match against Hibs that would eventually end in a 7-0 rout when Gazza spied the referee’s yellow card lying on the turf. It is nothing but conjecture to suggest that he planned to brandish it as a prank when the opportunity next presented itself but whatever his intention he held onto the card as Rangers forged forward.
The flowing move broke down when Gazza was uncharacteristically bundled off the ball which rolled harmlessly out of play and jogging back into position he took a brief detour in the direction of the official, his hand holding out the card like an offering. At the final instant he flourished it – half-heartedly it has to be said – into the air before handing it over and continuing his traipse back to the centre-circle. He was two paces in when a sharp blow on a whistle halted him in his tracks. He turned to see the yellow card flashed right back at him.
There is a common theme that runs through all of the burps and quips and elaborate pranks that Gazza indulged in throughout his career: each was always accompanied by hysterics or at the very least a flash of that manic wide grin made of teeth and delight. This wasn’t. In its execution and in the brief moment before Smith instinctively worsened the reputation of his occupation for the rest of time the notorious joker is only panting and out of breath. It’s hard not to feel that Gazza only raised the card out of reluctant obligation. Such things were expected of him.
The Guardian later described the complete absence of humour shown by the referee from Troon as ‘pitiful, pedantic and po-faced’ and the immediate reaction to his pettiness corroborates every word. The crowd do not boo, at least not at first. Instead there is a groan; a deflated, exasperated groan. The commentator meanwhile tailspins from a chuckle to clear annoyance in a heartbeat. “I really don’t understand that,” he intones as Gordon Durie remonstrates with the official, disbelief etched across his face. A Hibs player joins in with the protest too and is told by Smith, “He might be able to take the mick out of you, but he isn’t doing it to me”. These words only damn Smith further, revealing a personal motivation behind his action. Would he have laughed along had it been cheeky wee Ally McCoist who had done the deed? Quite possibly so.
Smith has claimed that he felt compelled to book Gascoigne due to a supervisor being in the crowd who was assessing his performance. He feared being marked down had he laughed along with what could be interpreted as a disrespectful action.
What I cannot watch whenever this infamous example of authoritarianism is YouTubed is Gascoigne’s face. I’ve seen it once and that was enough. I recall the bemusement and the anguish as his fun world collides with an altogether more serious one and it equates to innocence lost. It should be noted too that the caution led to a two match ban with a subsequent appeal coming to nothing.
And it is that failed appeal that doesn’t excuse Smith, but at least puts him in less than illustrious company in the dock on the charge of sucking the joy from a game that should always aspire towards it. Smith has claimed that he felt compelled to book Gascoigne due to a supervisor being in the crowd who was assessing his performance. He feared being marked down had he laughed along with what could be interpreted as a disrespectful action.
Smith’s sharing of the blame with his employers holds water when you consider that later in the season, respected official Jim McGilvray prematurely retired due to the stringency of the laws he was expected to uphold. The final straw for McGilvray came when he felt forced to book Gascoigne for a goal celebration that involved the midfielder self-deprecatingly rubbing his generous belly after Partick Thistle fans had spent much of the game claiming in song that he was over-weight. McGivray said on his announcement that, “Referees are running scared of a system that is flawed in so many areas”. He also stated that the SFA’s guidelines were creating “robots with whistles”.
On the evening of December 30th 1995 the Ayrshire Referees Association was scheduled to have their Christmas night out at a bowling alley in Saltcoats. Being a prominent member, Dougie Smith was expected to be present but in the event he was a no-show, worried as he was of possible reprisals from Rangers fans. Those reprisals – of a sort – came two days later when Smith returned to the engineering hanger where he worked. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Rangers supporting colleagues gave him ‘dog’s abuse’ with Smith defending himself by insisting that he felt his authority had been undermined. He also admitted to immensely regretting his decision.
He returned to Ibrox on just the one further occasion, as a linesman two years later.
Yet there is an argument that perhaps some good came of Dougie Smith’s humour by-pass. Maybe lessons were learned and the draconian mentality of football’s authorities lightened if only a touch.
Seven years later in a Premier League clash between Birmingham City and Newcastle Robbie Savage was unintentionally flattened by referee Matt Mathias and as a group of players and a thoroughly embarrassed match-day official stood over the stricken player, Alan Shearer pickpocketed the ref’s red card and brandished it high in the air. The crowd wooped with delight while Mathias held out his arms in mock protest.
In 2007 another game featuring Birmingham saw Mark Clattenburg drop his yellow card at the point of awarding a free-kick to the hosts. Brum winger Gary McSheffrey not only ‘booked’ Clattenburg but mimed calling him over and scribbling his name down while the crowd cheered. The referee on this occasion – a man not known for his humour it has to be said – dramatically swiped back his belonging for comedic effect and walked off laughing. The crowd laughed too. It was a nice, harmless, funny moment. Gazza would have loved it.