IT was hard not to have a degree of sympathy with Nick Montgomery in the media room at Celtic Park late on Wednesday night as the Hibernian manager bemoaned the penalty which had been awarded against his side after a VAR check.

The visitors’ left back Lewis Stevenson had certainly appeared to make contact with Alistair Johnston inside his own area in the second half of the cinch Premiership encounter as the hosts’ right back tried to get a foot on a Matt O’Riley cutback.

But was there really enough force in the challenge to merit a spot kick being awarded by referee John Beaton? Montgomery thought not. And he revealed that Johnston had been of exactly the same mind.

"The player who actually went down didn’t even think it was a penalty," said the Englishman. "He didn’t think he got touched. He said that to the boys afterwards."

The comment made by the football fan who STV interviewed about VAR during a vox pop on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow last month sprang to mind. "You’re looking at things in slow motion," he said. "Sometimes a peck on the cheek can look like a porno." It was a soft award and then some. 

Glasgow Times: But, at the same time, it was difficult for an impartial observer, and they do exist in Scottish football, not to feel for Beaton a little too. By the letter of the law, he had to give it. There would have been an outcry in the stands if he had allowed play to continue.

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Dermot Gallagher, the former Premier League referee, endorsed the ruling after he had looked back at a replay of the incident on Sky Sports News the following day. "He catches his back leg as he slides in," he said.

Montgomery’s contention that the noisy protestations of the crowd had influenced the call was, unlike the shot that Luis Palma confidently netted from 12 yards out during Celtic's emphatic 4-1 triumph, well wide of the mark too.

VAR official Gavin Duncan was miles away in the warmth of Clydesdale House when he suggested that his colleague should go over to his pitchside monitor to review the passage of play. He was under no pressure from the fans whatsoever.

The Hibs manager then lamented the fact that his charges have not been given a single spot kick since he arrived in Scotland. "Maybe I should ask our fans to shout loudly," he said.

The antennae of conspiracy theorists, of whom many most definitely exist in Scottish football, who believe that referees secretly favour the Glasgow clubs due to their affiliations with one or the other instantly pricked up. 

Their paranoia has been fuelled quite a bit of late. Aberdeen manager Barry Robson stated that Rangers being handed a late spot kick in a Premiership match at Pittodrie was "not a good look for Scottish football" after James Tavernier had stepped up and earned the Ibrox club a draw at the death.

Why exactly? It by no means fell into the "stonewaller" category. But Leon Balogun had clearly had his shirt pulled by Stefan Gartenmann as he challenged for the ball at a corner. 

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Rangers great John Brown dismissed Robson's remarks the following day as the Govan club's former chairman David Holmes launched his new book One Voice.

He is firmly of the view that the Old Firm clubs get more penalties than their domestic rivals because of their superiority, the amount of time they spend in the final third, the number of scoring chances they create. 

Glasgow Times: "Rangers and Celtic get decisions because they dominate the ball for large periods and have maybe 20 or 30 efforts at goal," he said. "They’re in the box. Defenders are going to make mistakes and there’s going to be more decisions coming their way." 

The stats this term back him up. Celtic, who are eight points clear at the head of the top flight table, have been awarded no fewer than nine penalties in the league the 2023/24 campaign. That is more than they have had at this stage of this season this century. They have, too, not had a penalty given against them on the home front in either of the competitions they have been involved in. 

Rangers, meanwhile, have given away spot kicks twice in the Viaplay Cup, against Morton at Ibrox in August and Hearts at Hampden in November. The tin foil hat brigade, who are currently in a state of heightened arousal about the 70 Premiership games which they have gone at home without having to face a penalty, appear to have conveniently overlooked them. 

It is, no doubt about it, a remarkable run. There have been a few instances, not least when Aberdeen forward Duk was wrestled to the ground by Conor Goldson back in May, when a spot kick should probably have been given. But anyone who believes our referees are biased towards a club which has lifted two major trophies in the past 11 years deserves a straight red card. If they do harbour sinister hidden agendas, they aren't working very well.