Fan-free football has at least served one purpose.
It has put to bed a myth that being overwhelmed by the pressure of baying crowds is responsible for the lamentable decisions made by referees.
In theory, empty stands and terraces should have made the working lives of Scottish football’s top level officials more straight forward by turning down the volume and upping concentration.
Instead, in the main, it has distilled their contribution on a Premiership match day down to its most basic form – sheer ineptitude.
Apologies to the one or two who have handled a St Johnstone match with a sure touch this season – believe me, it has only been a couple.
But the pandemic-induced chaos in our professional game has masked, or shoved down the priority list, the woeful decision-making that is the ingrained norm rather than the exception.
It has been a long and tortuous road to Pittodrie, with Saints suffering on this front more than in any campaign I can recall.
But even with the bar at an intolerably low level, the game-defining intervention by Alan Muir on Boxing Day was remarkable in its incompetence.
It doesn’t need me to spell out the significance of awarding a penalty on the stroke of half-time and effectively levelling a match that Saints had worked so hard to deservedly chisel out a one-goal advantage in.
What on earth was Muir thinking?
You can rule out the guesswork explanation because he is looking straight at the Sam Cosgrove/Shaun Rooney/Ali McCann part of the penalty box when a cross comes in from the left.
And you can rule out a guiding word from his assistant referee because he points to the spot (then trots to his position on the goal-line with the sort of irritating half-grin only certain referees can manage) without any hesitation.
That leaves two scenarios.
1 – Muir genuinely believes that two men barely touching each other, one of whom throws himself to the ground, warrants a penalty kick.
2 – He has seen a trivial incident but, with the protestations of the Aberdeen players and management still ringing in his ears for a handball claim he (correctly) turned down, his thought process is, ‘Did I make a mistake? Ach, I’ll just give this one to be on the safe side’.
Neither of those options, or any others you can think of for that matter, bring you to the conclusion that Muir is fit to officiate in our highest division.
The fact he is refereeing again on Wednesday (St Mirren vs Rangers) is more confirmation that the governing bodies have little to no interest in accountability or improving standards.
There is certainly no accountability on a Saturday afternoon, that’s for sure.
Everything that played out post-match had a two plus two equals four predictability about it.
The protection of referees
The wronged manager and one of his players couldn’t say what they really wanted to and the manager who has benefitted danced around the main talking point but was more than happy to speak at length about the other penalty that he felt his team should have been awarded.
And the man who made the most significant contribution to the game of football?
He doesn’t have to speak to the managers if he doesn’t want to and he certainly won’t be putting himself forward to be questioned by the media to enlighten the supporters who are paying money to keep the game going during a pandemic.
In short, there is nobody more protected in Scottish professional football than an over-promoted referee.
For Saints, all they are left with is the ‘hopefully it evens itself out over the course of the season’ cliché. They know, and we know, it doesn’t.
🗣️ 'I'm yet to see what the penalty is for, even watching it back…'
St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson questioned whether Aberdeen should have been rewarded a penalty in their win over his side.
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) December 27, 2020
Jamie McCart was on his best behaviour with his reflections on the match-turning incident.
“I didn’t really see it,” said the former Inverness Caley Thistle centre-back. “I was just concentrating on my header and I don’t know what he has given it for.
“Hopefully these refereeing decisions will start to go our way in the next few weeks.
“It was Shaun (Rooney) who was marking him and, having seen it back, there was virtually no contact made.
“It’s disappointing but we move on.
“Regardless of what happened we still need to find a way to win games like that – or even draw them.
“It’s on us to put it right.”
There is a temptation to bracket this defeat with others that have preceded it – largely because Aberdeen’s winner has come from a bread and butter cross ball, as has been the case with a few Saints have conceded of late.
That would be unfair, though.
The strong wind was clearly a factor in Liam Craig’s misjudgement and it was the only occasion Saints didn’t match-up well in their own box against a powerful Aberdeen side.
Freakish rather than systematic would be my description on this occasion.
Strip away the frustration of that goal and the fury surrounding the penalty and this felt like a step forward as Saints go into fixtures against the bottom two sides in the Premiership, Hamilton Accies first and then Ross County.
Craig made a big impact at the base of a beefed-up central midfield – and Ali McCann thrived as a consequence. Also, as alluded above, the backline coped very well with Cosgrove, Kennedy and the rest.
Losing Scott Tanser for a long period would necessitate back-up for Callum Booth being sorted out in the January window and whether Danny McNamara’s replacement will be cut from the same cloth has yet to be seen.
Three players being sent off in three games, Callum Hendry was the latest, is another issue Callum Davidson could do without and whether there is any realistic prospect of Guy Melamed making an impact at McDiarmid Park is an elephant in the room.
But a combination of appreciating the predicament Saints find themselves in and faith that they will put it right before too long seems a fair assessment of where they are at.
“It (the Aberdeen loss) has been a bit of a story of our season so far,” said McCart.
“We’ve pretty much always been in games and we’ve either not seen them out through losing sloppy goals or we’re not getting the break that we need, which is bitterly disappointing.
“It is a wee bit concerning but we know in that changing room that we can get up the table. The gaffer has the belief in us too.
“It’s about finding the right balance – scoring goals when we’re on top and cutting out the sloppy ones we’re conceding.
‘There’s a lot to look forward to’
“I’m sure we’ll be OK.
“The next two games are massive for us – Hamilton and Ross County. We’ve just got to dust ourselves off and prepare for them.
“We need to stick together. It’s disappointing we’ve lost a man in these last three games but we’ll deal with it.”
It’s approaching a year since McCart arrived from the Highlands. Saints turned their season around in January and February of 2020 and that is the plan again.
“It’s a busy schedule with games coming thick and fast,” he said. “Beating Hamilton would give us a massive boost to kick on in the new year.
“There’s a lot to look forward to – we’ve got a semi-final in January and hopefully we can get back up close to the top six as well.
“This is a fresh start and we need to find it within us as a squad to end this winless run and go on another good one.”