Until the Final Whistle Blows

Continuing our series on Sports in Tayside Christian Fellowship, we hear from Gordon Crawford, a member of Tayside Christian Fellowship who was an Assistant Referee at the 2023 Scottish Cup Final. Read below to find out more!

1. Let’s get back to the start, how did you get into refereeing?

I played amateur football (badly) in Perth until I was 30. I dislocated my shoulder and broke my arm during a match. Having a young family, I decided that I couldn’t risk another similar injury in the future. The janitor at my school was a referee and asked if I would consider doing the course. I had never considered it before but thought it would be a safer way for me to stay involved in football.

I started off doing youth games and worked my way up to refereeing semi-professional games. By the time I was 37, the Scottish Football Association (SFA) asked if I would consider becoming an assistant referee on a regular basis. I accepted this offer, knowing that it would allow me to be involved in a higher level of game.

So, for the last 10 years, I have been working as a Specialist Assistant Referee (SAR) in the top 4 divisions of Scotland, with over 100 matches in the Premier League.

2. What does it take to be a referee at that level?

It takes a high level of dedication and discipline. There are no professional referees in Scotland, so it is a self-employed job in addition to my full-time occupation as a teacher.

I am assessed by an observer in the stand during almost every single game. He will provide a report and grading score on my performance. If this falls below expectation, then it will have a detrimental impact on my future match appointments. Therefore, that is quite a lot of pressure.

In one of my first premier league games, one of the assessors said that I was carrying a bit too much weight. Although that was difficult to hear, I accept that he was probably correct. It was the catalyst that I needed to change my diet quite significantly. I still follow that diet between Monday and Friday but am not as strict at the weekends. I love all the foods that are bad for me, so this is a particular challenge!

I have a physical exercise programme that I follow every day of the week except Sunday. During these sessions, I am required to wear a watch that records my physical data and the SFA downloads these to ensure I am doing what they expect. At the end of every month, they provide feedback on our training. If it does not fall into the excellent or good category, then I would be taken to task and asked to review my schedule. I get up very early to train each morning before work – alternating between running, cycling and strength work.

3. What was it like on the day?

The pinnacle of my career definitely came on 3rd of June 2023, when I was appointed to be an assistant referee at The Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Inverness Caley Thistle. Very few officials get the chance to participate in this fixture. I was competing with a lot of other assistant referees, so it was a real honour to receive that phone call.

I had a couple of weeks to prepare, and I was definitely nervous. However, I had to remind myself that I had been chosen on merit and that I had built up a lot of experience to fall back on.

The day itself was beautifully sunny. Perfect cup final weather. I determined to take in as much as I could because I knew this would be a one-off experience.

The game itself went very well. Celtic won 3-1 and there was no controversy. If the referee team can come off the pitch and nobody is talking about them then that is seen as ‘mission complete.’

The bit I enjoyed most was the ten minutes between the final whistle and us being presented with our medals. I could relax and absorbed the atmosphere fully in those minutes. I also got a little bit emotional because I would have loved for my Dad to have still been alive to witness the day. It was great to have Mina and my children at the game, because without the support and sacrifice of your family, refereeing just simply wouldn’t be possible.

I have lots of happy memories from the day and I have my framed jersey hanging in our wee office room at home.

4. Have you got any stories of how your faith has helped you on your journey?

The referee’s changing room can be quite a stressful and “colourful” place at times. The topics of conversation and language used are not always the most wholesome. My Christian witness is to endeavour to refrain from entering into that while at the same time not isolating myself and coming across as aloof. It is my desire to be a quiet, consistent ambassador for Jesus when I mix with other referees. 

Matches can often throw up controversy and pressure. In those scenarios my faith allows me to remain calm and composed when the temptation is to let off steam and maybe say things that you might regret.

Sometimes other refs will ask what I’m doing on Sunday. I always mention church and that leads to some interesting conversations about the Christian faith. I always aim to respond to any interest and scepticism with transparency and respect, ensuring that I don’t compromise the values that have been instilled in me from a young age. I also try to avoid officiating on a Sunday unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Prayer is a huge part of my refereeing life. I know that there are people, especially my Mum and my family, who pray for me before every game. I have no doubt that that support has helped me to reach the levels that I am currently officiating at. Those who honour me, I will honour.

My dream is to be part of a referee team (referee and two assistants) who are all Christians and who pray together before going out for a match. I don’t know if that will transpire before I retire but it would be amazing if it did happen.

5. Do you have any examples of football and faith interacting?

Yes, not so much from a refereeing perspective, but there are many high-profile players who openly profess to being Christians. Despite all their wealth and success, these men and women recognise that everything they have is thanks to God and that all the glory and honour belongs to Him.

Beni Baningime plays for Hearts in Edinburgh. Last year he visited our church and shared how his faith is the bedrock of his life. Please pray for him.

In one of my most recent matches, the Rangers attacker called Danilo, broke his cheek bone while scoring a goal. After his operation, from his hospital bed, he posted these verses from Psalm 121 to his many followers on social media: 

I lift up my eyes to the mountains –

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.

The Lord watches over you –

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm –

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and for evermore.

It’s great to read of somebody like Danilo using his elevated platform in life to communicate with others that his relationship with Jesus Christ comes before all else. Pray for him.

There are also other organisations like ‘Christians in Sport’, ‘Gospel Goal’ and ‘Ballers in God’ that use football to communicate the Gospel to the many unbelievers who love the game. Pray for them.

6. What’s next in your football and sporting career?

I probably don’t have too much longer to go in refereeing. It is a young man’s game and, at the age of 46, I know my days are numbered. I’d like to keep going for another year or two because I feel fit and able enough. However, if I’m asked to move aside, then I will do so graciously because someone had to do the same to allow me to start my journey.

I enjoy running. Last year I did my first and only competitive 10K to date. Last week I did my first half-marathon. When I stop refereeing, I think I will need an alternative. The competitive aspect of these races is probably something that I need, and I may well look to do some of these road races on a more regular basis.

Regarding football, my oldest son, Nathan, has just begun his refereeing career at a much younger age than I did. The early signs are good, so I can foresee me going to watch him in his future games whenever I have the opportunity.

Header photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash 

Article published October 2023