IN the seven years that he has been refereeing in the top flight of Scottish football, Don Robertson has not so much developed a thick skin as grown a rhinoceros hide.
The bile that is aimed in his direction from the stands on a Saturday afternoon and the criticism that rains down on him after he blows the final whistle regardless of how well he has fared, no longer bothers him as much as did when he started out.
Yet, Robertson is well aware that younger and less experienced match officials who are operating at a lower level are being driven out of football in this country because of the sickening treatment they are so often subjected to on match days.
And he is optimistic the imminent introduction of VAR to the cinch Premiership will make their lives, as well as his own, far easier in future and prevent them from being lost to the sport forever.
The SFA believe the escalating condemnation of referees following controversial incidents in high-profile cup and league matches is having a trickle-down affect – and is empowering players, coaches and supporters to target their officials with verbal and in some cases even physical attacks.
There are high hopes that introducing modern technology to the decision-making process in the Premiership – and it is set to be in place by the middle of next season – will reduce the abuse of match officials from top to bottom.
“At grassroots level there is absolutely a big problem retaining referees,” said Robertson. “Getting people to come to the class and be interested in becoming a referee isn’t the hardest part, it’s retaining them. After one game, two games or six games they say: ‘Do you know what? This actually isn’t for me’.
“It’s not that they don’t enjoy being out on the field, making decisions or being part of football, it’s all the nonsense that they have to put up with outwith that.
“At the top level in some ways you’re protected from that, but when you’re refereeing amateur football or youth football you’re there, you can smell it, parents or spectators at the sidelines of the pitch, and for some people it’s not worth their time or effort.
“Football is a sport where that noise will always be there, even with the implementation of VAR. But it might just turn the noise down a little bit because with really clear decisions, we can get them right at the time and that will calm the situation down.”
Research has shown that referees get 99 per cent of their major decisions correct when VAR is in use – as opposed to 92 per cent when it is not.
So it is little wonder that Robertson and his colleagues, who have been receiving specialised SFA training in the technology for the past 18 months, are counting the days until it is up and running.
“We’re very much looking forward to it,” he said. “Referees are the same as players and spectators and want to get as many decisions correct as possible.
“Everyone now recognises that VAR is a useful tool in that regard, so from referees there’s no reluctance at all. We are really behind it and would like to implement it as soon as we practically can.
“There is an element of frustration that we can watch European football or English football and VAR is involved, but it’s not only in the big countries. Other countries have been quicker to adapt VAR than we have.
“We can see that referees are making similar decisions to those we make in Scotland, but they have VAR to help them. We don’t have that second opportunity that VAR allows. But everyone is trying to push the implementation of VAR and we are getting closer to it finally happening.”
At the moment, Robertson can sometimes be the one man in a 60,000 capacity ground who is unaware that he has got something badly wrong.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “We’re in 2022, so there can been a decision on the field that I called incorrectly and within seconds viewers at home can see what the decision should have been and within seconds spectators in the stadium can see it on their phones. Often you’re the only guy in the stadium who doesn’t know.
“VAR is an opportunity to solve that problem. You can get that decision right on the field and it won’t be an injustice on the team. Then as a referee I will not be coming in at the end of the game thinking ‘I have affected the result of the game by a mistake I have made’.”
The Ryan Kent goal that was disallowed after a VAR check during Rangers’ win over Borussia Dortmund at Ibrox last week highlighted that it is not a perfect system and Robertson acknowledges that mistakes will still happen.
However, he speaks to match officials in other countries and is confident it will mean the outcomes of matches are no longer decided by errors.
“I keep in contact with a lot of referees who I have worked with throughout Europe who have seen VAR implemented in their leagues,” he said.
“The feedback I have received from a lot of countries is that with VAR you no longer have the howler – the really clear, obvious, incorrect decision that affects the outcome of the game.
“That no longer happens with VAR. It doesn’t take away a lot of the debate in football. Was it a foul? Was it not a foul? What kind of contact did he make there? But a player being two yards offside and scoring the winning goal? With VAR that doesn’t happen.
“A consequence of that is the decision on the field is correct, the sense of injustice from the teams is gone because the decision is made on the field correctly with the use of VAR. Then the days of talking about it and the agendas that arises out of a decision like that are gone.”