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Steve Conroy will be an able debutant in Old Firm clash, say former referees

IT was once said that a referee had enjoyed a good Old Firm match if nobody spoke about him afterwards.

That is not a luxury, though, likely to be afforded Steve Conroy after he takes charge of his first Glasgow derby on January 3.

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“Those days are gone now,” said Hugh Dallas, the Scottish Football Association’s Head of Referee Development, who was no stranger to officiating Old Firm fixtures himself. “Referees are a lot more high-profile now. These games get more media coverage than ever before. The referee’s performance is always closely observed.

“If there is little happening in the game, then people tend to talk about what the referee did or didn’t do.”

Dallas will meet with Conroy, a 43 year-old doctor, for a coffee and a chat later today to try to prepare him for the cauldron of noise and colour that will greet him when he walks out of the tunnel at Celtic Park a week on Sunday.

Dallas likened it to a Rangers or Celtic veteran taking a debutant to one side before entering the fray, and recalled Les Mottram, another former referee, doing something similar with him before his first Old Firm match 14 years ago.

“I remember my first game well, it was 1995 and it finished 3-3,” he added. “There was all sorts going on and at times I wondered what I was doing out there.

“In the build-up to the match people were wanting to speak to you to offer advice and that was a big help. Les Mottram, an old hand when it came to the Old Firm games at the time, had a word in my ear about how to handle it. Those words of wisdom were priceless.”

Louis Thow, the former Grade 1 referee now working as an SFA referees’ assessor on matchdays, ran the line at two Old Firm matches and remembers receiving some unusual advice from referee Jim McCluskey before his first experience.

“I remember Jim saying to me as we walked out ‘Louis, just keep looking at me as you won’t hear my whistle’ and he was dead right. You could hardly hear a thing. I just watched Jim the entire game so we could communicate. You have to be fully concentrated for 90 minutes. It was like nothing else.”

Both Dallas and Thow believe Conroy has earned the right to handle the most high-profile fixture in Scottish football. A referee since 1993, Conroy, from West Lothian, handled his first Scottish Premier League match a decade later and was the fourth official at last season’s Scottish Cup Final between Rangers and Falkirk.

He was, until recently, John Hughes’ favourite referee, although the Hibernian manager wondered aloud after his side’s recent draw with Kilmarnock whether his effusive praise had started to affect Conroy’s performances, lest the official be accused of pro-Yogi bias.

Conroy’s career has not been without controversy, although more often than not he has been absolved of blame. He handled his first Edinburgh derby at the tail end of last season, sent off Hearts’ Christos Karipidis late in the match, and awarded Hibernian a penalty that Derek Riordan converted to win the game.

Enraged Hearts supporters piled on the pitch to try to get at Riordan, with Conroy grappling with one of them as an ugly scene threatened to spiral out of control.

It was also Conroy who sent Walter Smith to the stand during a Rangers match at Kilmarnock earlier this season. Pedro Mendes and Manuel Pascali were also dismissed, and there were a further 11 bookings. Smith later apologised to Conroy for his offence, although, coincidentally or otherwise, the referee has not handled a Rangers match since.

It has not been all fury and anger, however. Conroy was the poor whistler given a kiss by Alex Williams after the striker scored a late, late equaliser for Ayr United against Kilmarnock in an enthralling Scottish Cup tie earlier this year, and he was left similarly red-faced last month when he sent off St Mirren’s Chris Innes at Celtic Park only to realise he hadn’t already booked the defender and had to call him back on.

“He’s deserved a crack at it,” Dallas said. “It’s a fixture where you have to work harder to keep all the players onside, talk to them throughout and have good man-management. Steve’s got all those attributes. Being put in charge of this fixture is a sign the SFA trust you to handle such a big game, one that attracts attention throughout the world.”

“There have been occasional blips,” Thow added. “But overall he’s been generally consistent with his performances. He’s done well and deserves his chance.”

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