Bias, conspiracy theory or nonsense? Behind the ‘penalty to Rangers’ debate

James Tavernier of Rangers scores a penalty during the Cinch Scottish Premiership match between Aberdeen and Rangers FC at Pittodrie Stadium on November 26, 2023 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
James Tavernier slots away (another) penalty for Rangers - Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

After James Tavernier slammed in Rangers’ ninth penalty in 10 domestic matches on Saturday, a Scottish football conspiracy theory becomes an almost serious debate.

Rival fans have argued with little evidence for years that the blue half of Glasgow gets the better refereeing decisions, especially from the spot. No tin foil hat is required, however, to raise an eyebrow at the striking statistic that Rangers’ recent run of winning spot-kicks this season contrasts with a stretch of 71 Scottish Premiership games without conceding one.

Remarkably, that extends throughout the entire history of Var in the Scottish Premiership. Since the technology was brought in on Oct 21 last year, Rangers have been handed 19 penalties in league and domestic cup games without being punished once themselves from 12 yards. In their last 19 European games, by contrast, Rangers have conceded four penalties.

‘Another Var decision going Rangers’ way in the 90th minute’

Tavernier’s last two efforts from 12 yards have been particularly irksome for opposing teams. On Saturday referee Kevin Clancy penalised Dundee’s Aaron Donnelly, after a Var review, for pulling down Abdallah Sima from a corner. “I couldn’t really see what happened,” said Dundee’s on-loan forward Amadou Bakayoko. “I didn’t really get a good look at it. But they always manage to get penalties, don’t they? It’s one of the things that happens there.”

Referee Nick Walsh awards Rangers a VAR penalty during the Cinch Scottish Premiership match between Aberdeen and Rangers FC at Pittodrie Stadium on November 26, 202
Fans of rival clubs seem to think this sight is far too common: Rangers being awarded a penalty - Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Dundee manager Tony Docherty was even more scathing: “I’m hugely disappointed with the decision to give the penalty kick and Var’s involvement in it.” He added: “The image presented to Kevin Clancy favours the penalty being given but the reality is there is bustling in the box, Sima has hold of Aaron Donnelly’s shirt and Kevin Clancy deemed that to be OK. It’s difficult because we are re-refereeing games. Kevin Clancy’s positioning is good and it’s not a clear and obvious error. My problem with it is the image he gets shown.”

But the sense of suspicion was even more febrile three domestic matches ago as Rangers won what was their eighth penalty in seven games to salvage a last-minute point against Aberdeen. Opposing manager Barry Robson was incandescent. “For me it doesn’t look good, another Var decision going Rangers’ way in the 90th minute again,” he said.

Var had shown a clear shirt tug by Stefan Gartenmann on Connor Goldson and pundits were split over whether the Rangers man had then dived.

But Robson’s reaction – in which he added that “too many decisions have been wrong in Scotland” – prompted some established figures in the game to suggest some concern is justified.

“It would hardly be a stretch to suggest there is bias there,” wrote BBC Scotland presenter Richard Gordon in a Press and Journal column questioning Rangers’ lengthy spell without conceding a penalty.

“I am not suggesting it is intentional bias, that the referees are deliberately ignoring incidents, but for whatever reason, it clearly exists.”

Gordon, a lifelong Aberdeen fan who contributes to the club’s match-day programme, added: “How else, unless those Rangers defenders are somehow infinitely more disciplined than all their opponents, can that remarkable statistic be explained?”

Others, however, insist there are alternative explanations. John Brown, the former Rangers defender, suggested Robson had been using the penalty row to pile pressure on whoever takes charge of their Viaplay Cup final when the two clubs are reunited next weekend.

Former Old Firm derby referee Steve Conroy, meanwhile, was also withering in his assessment of the comment, adding that the constant conspiracy theories have an insidious impact on trust. “I know Celtic-Rangers can be inflammatory, but there’s also much bad feeling in the Aberdeen-Rangers game – the last thing it needs is for a manager to come out and try and blame the referee for his own player making a mistake,” Conroy told Telegraph Sport. “That just adds fuel to the flames. It’s irresponsible.”

Robson and Aberdeen had not been the first club to pedal suspicions, however, with “Penalty Rangers” becoming an increasingly common meme shared between rival fans.

Just days earlier, at Celtic’s AGM, Hoops chairman Peter Lawwell aimed a jibe, saying that “John Greig handled the ball that last time they [Rangers] conceded”.

At the same meeting, the club’s chief executive Michael Nicholson added a similar dig when asked why Brendan Rodgers’ side never received a penalty against St Mirren back at the start of last month when Kyogo Furuhashi was brought down by Mikael Mandron in the box. “Penalty Rangers,” was Nicholson’s response.

Where did the conspiracy theory start?

Steven Gerrard’s memorable referee rant at the start of the 2018-19 season had been pinpointed by conspiracy theorists as the moment pressure was put on Scottish officials to start giving Rangers favourable decisions.

After Alfredo Morelos, the Rangers striker, was sent off by referee Clancy, Gerrard fumed at the decision – having also been infuriated by a failure to dismiss Aberdeen defender Dominic Ball for a foul in his own penalty box.

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard reacts on the touchline during the Betfred Scottish League Cup Semi Final match between Aberdeen and Rangers at Hapden Park on October 28, 2018 in Glasgow, Scotland
Steven Gerrard believed his side were not getting justice when it came to penalty decisions - Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

“It’s not just today, it’s been happening for a while,” Gerrard said, just three months after his appointment as manager. “It’s been happening for a good while. I believe it’s been happening for seasons. That’s my opinion, just my opinion.

“It seems like the world is against us. I’ve watched footage. I don’t think we ever get anything to go for us. Everything always seems to be about Rangers, so someone should give me answers on that.

From that point onwards, no other team in the Scottish Premier League has been awarded more penalties.

Is it just Rangers who get a large number of penalties?

Rather than the 1960s-70s era of stalwart Greig, it was, in fact, January 2022 when Rangers’ goalkeeper was last tested from 12 yards. Conroy, who outed himself as a Celtic fan after retiring in 2013, and data analysts both point to the club’s record as a top team in Scotland to explain the long run.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” said Conroy, quoting the phrase popularised in the United States by Mark Twain. “There’s no way of proving that this is anything other than a statistical blip. Celtic and Rangers, on the whole, slaughter every other team in Scotland so they’re bound to have more penalties than anybody else and fewer conceded.”

Last season Celtic got only eight league penalties in the whole season while Rangers got 10, just behind Hearts on 11. Jaymes Monte, of StatsBomb, published his own analysis on X after the Aberdeen penalty, which compared penalties given with touches in the box.

“Rangers do get slightly more pens than average (relative to touches in the box) but not significantly so,” he concluded. “Aberdeen also above the average line.” His figures show Celtic and Hibernian are among teams, on his model, that could feel “aggrieved” as they fall below the average line.

‘People doubt I support Celtic because I gave a penalty against them’

Conroy and Roddy Forsyth, a BBC broadcaster and Telegraph Scottish football correspondent of 30 years, say the close-knit nature of Scottish football makes conspiracies such as this so quick to take root.

“Be warned that Old Firm fan sites are not rabbit holes – they’re warrens and if you start going down them you can be there forever,” said Forsyth. “Since the introduction of Var, the four pitch officials are now supplemented by another three in the studio. That would add up to a coachload of Rangers fans in charge of every SPFL fixture programme if the rumour was right!”

Conroy added: “There are some people who will never ever be convinced there isn’t conspiracy and collusion to conform with whichever side they fall on. It will never ever be put to bed. Even though I am a Celtic supporter, people doubt that I’m telling the truth because I dared to disallow a Celtic goal against Rangers one time. That’s constantly brought up again and again. I’m not a cheat and I don’t know anyone who has cheated.”

Claims of bias are nothing new. In 2019, referee John Beaton contacted police after being targeted with threatening messages online. Chris Sutton had also been among critics after unconfirmed pictures emerged of Beaton allegedly drinking at a Rangers pub.

However, for Conroy, the prospect of stopping Rangers or Celtic-supporting referees officiating at Old Firm derbies is no solution. “I don’t have a problem with a Celtic supporter or a Rangers fan doing a Celtic Rangers game,” said the 56-year-old doctor. “We are not cheats and we are a tiny tiny country.... you’d lose half the population of referees.”

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