DURING the course of the summer a number of rule changes were introduced into the game of football which were akin, as they say, to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But we also saw the introduction of VAR (“Video Assistant Referee”) in the top flight of the British game – which will now give television pundits and fans everywhere something new to talk about ad nauseam.
Paul Gascoigne, speaking on television after the first weekend of VAR, was clearly dismissive of the system and questioned why we suddenly need so many match officials (I think he suggested there are now six in the stadium plus those at VAR HQ) watching a match when, for over a 100 years, we managed just fine with only three. He has a point.
Referees and their assistants are highly trained and experienced professionals, but at the same time, with the best will in the world, they are only human and will make mistakes. While such mistakes can be costly when so much money rides on the results of games, I think they should be allowed to do their job without VAR teams (hunkered down somewhere near Heathrow Airport I understand – presumably ready for a quick getaway) interfering every few minutes.
I think goal-line technology was and is a good idea because it removes any question of errors being made when it comes to the actual scoring of goals which is what the game is all about, but that was possibly as far as technology needed to go. VAR could be a bridge too far.
How VAR has justified its introduction was on the basis that referees can’t be everywhere on the field, nor do they have eyes in the back of their head. They are meant to run an approximate diagonal from (if you are looking down on the field) the bottom left to the top right. They then rely on the two assistants, each running half the touchline on the side furthest away from them.
Having been a qualified referee (at school football level) and therefore having had some experience of what I’m talking about, my suggestion would have been to have two referees on the field – one running a half-diagonal from one corner to the centre spot, and the other running the other half of the diagonal if you see what I mean.
This would have ensured that neither referee would have to be everywhere and could pick up the play as the ball entered their half of the field instead of constantly chasing after the action. Able to confer with one another, two referees are likely to make fewer mistakes than one. I did make this suggestion to the FA but they didn’t reply – maybe I was offside.
From a financial point of view, this system would mean the league only having to pay one more person instead of however many we now have observing every game. It would also mean lower league matches could operate under the same conditions unlike at present where VAR is restricted to top flight games. As Middlesbrough manager, Jonathan Woodgate, observed after his side was denied two goals on “iffy” offside decisions: “Are Premier League matches more important than Championship games?”
He has a good point, and certainly Championship managers get fired just as quickly if such “iffy” results go against them. Do we really need the game to be so technically overseen? The VAR system is supposed to only be used to identify clear and obvious refereeing errors, otherwise the best that he or she is doing should be accepted. But we’ve already seen it beginning to overstep that purpose.
In the very first game of the season, a goal was disallowed for offside after a VAR decision. Close video scrutiny showed the player’s shoulder to have been fractionally beyond the line of the last defender but, as a number of pundits commented, players can’t score with their shoulder so why did it matter? The referee was certainly happy enough with his decision – one that would have been accepted in every other league match being played that day. It wasn’t a clear and obvious error – VAR had to look through a microscope to find fault with the referee’s decision to allow the goal. Are we going to lose the element of spontaneity in the game?
I suspect things will get even more ridiculous before the system – which is clearly here to stay – settles down. In the meantime, in the quest to get things right, it will certainly take a lot of decision-making out of the referee’s hands and, much as we love a voluble debate on a Monday morning concerning the atrocious incompetence of match officials, VAR should at least help to reduce considerably the uninformed questioning of match officials’ parentage!
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.