SAY what you like about Steven McLean – Steve Clarke just did – but he isn’t afraid to make the tough decisions. I know this because the under-fire whistler once awarded a soft penalty in my favour in a media match for the Scottish Football Writers’ Association. Against the SFA.

Referees are asked to make decisions without fear or favour but they would only be human if the ramifications flashed before their eyes from time to time. Exactly what thoughts were running through the mind of McLean when he presided over Kilmarnock’s rancorous home encounter with Aberdeen on Saturday remain unclear but for Clarke at least the fact his father Stuart called this ground his home for 16 years placed him in an awkward situation.

Like a father subconsciously tougher on his son when refereeing down the park, the inference was that McLean was trying too hard to distance himself from allegations of bias and had consequently left himself wide open to them.

“Since I’ve been here, he’s always seemed to struggle with Kilmarnock games,” said Clarke, of a referee who studiously avoided officiating matches played in by his brother Brian, a professional footballer for many years.

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“Maybe - or definitely - that’s because his father was a player here for so many years. I have mentioned privately that maybe Steven shouldn’t referee Kilmarnock games just to take that burden, that extra pressure, off him. Now I’m saying it publicly.”

By the close of play today, Clarke will learn whether he will face disciplinary action for those comments – with fast-track tribunal hearings scheduled for tomorrow as the club endeavour to overturn the dismissals of Kirk Broadfoot and Rory McKenzie.

It takes some creative thinking to look at the stats and find evidence pointing to any vendetta, involuntary or otherwise, towards his old man’s former club. While you could look at the three home matches he has presided over this season, all of which have ended in defeat, they have won two and drawn one of the three away games. But regardless of the rights and wrongs, Clarke’s comments have re-opened a pandora’s box which John Fleming, the SFA referee’s boss, will find hard to close again.

Because let’s face it, every team has them: referees who, for whatever reason, bring a baggage to the proceedings which evokes a feeling of dread. And – perhaps aware of the negative PR around the refereeing operation at times this season – there appears to be an increasing correlation between this background noise and their appointment schedule.

For every McLean at Kilmarnock, for instance, there is a Craig Thomson at Motherwell, who the fans castigate for sending off five of their players last season, including the dismissal of Cedric Kipre in last year’s Betfred Cup final. His popularity in Lanarkshire hasn’t increased in the two times he has refereed them this season, both times against Rangers. The 7-1 defeat at Ibrox earlier in the season saw Carl McHugh sent off and Stephen Robinson sent to the stand.

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Then there are the strange goings-on relating to certain officials and Celtic and Rangers. Willie Collum has refereed Rangers just twice this season and has done little to endear himself to Steven Gerrard or the club’s fans. Publicly criticised by Steven Gerrard for the non-award of a ‘foul’ by Tom Rogic on Ryan Jack in the lead-up to Olivier Ntcham’s only goal of the first Old Firm game of the season, the official drew the ire of Gerrard again for the controversial dismissal of Daniel Candeias in a 2-0 win at St Mirren for the apparent crime of blowing a kiss at an opponent. Collum hasn’t refereed the Ibrox club since a withering Ibrox statement about “underlying issues”.

Then there is John Beaton, who hasn’t refereed Celtic since they spoke of their ‘surprise’ about his failure to take action against Alfredo Morelos for three separate misdemeanours by the Colombian during the 1-0 Old Firm defeat at Ibrox in December.

Canny scheduling to take certain officials out of the firing line, or pandering to the lowest common denominator, it certainly made for a busy February/March period for Bobby Madden, who refereed Celtic and Rangers three times during that period – including the Old Firm match – as well as Aberdeen twice. Clearly, the SFA cannot allow clubs to hand pick who referees their matches. But is it any wonder Clarke should give it a try if both Glasgow giants can get away with it.

AND ANOTHER THING ...
SADLY I couldn’t make it to Tollcross International Swimming Centre last week but was thrilled to see Duncan Scott making such a splash at the British Championships. Ending the week with three British titles to his name, this 21-year-old Commonwealth and European champion booked his place on the flight for the World Championships in Gwangju, Korea – alongside his fellow Scots Ross Murdoch and Scott McLay – in scintillating fashion.

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Returning from Australia this time last year as Scotland’s flagbearer, the stats of this young man’s progress are frightening.

His Glasgow time of 47.97 for the 100m freestyle puts him fourth in the world this year and therefore well and truly in the mix for world medals with the likes of Russia’s Vladislav Grinev, Australia’s Kyle Chalmers – who he defeated on home terrain at the Gold Coast last year – and Marcelo Chierighini of Brazil.

When it comes to the 200m freestyle, the event in which he took European gold last year, he is currently the second fastest on the planet behind just Martin Malyutin of Russia. Then, perhaps most impressive of all, is the 200m individual medley, where he now has the world lead by a tenth of a second.

And all this by the age of 21. Like Laura Muir, reared almost exclusively in Scotland, the unassuming Scott seems to be timing his run for Tokyo in 2020 every bit as perfectly as the double European indoor champion in an athletics, and is every bit as versatile. One of a new breed of Scottish sporting superstars, he scan be confidently expected to make a few waves when those world championships tick round in July.