VAR. What Is It Good For?

VAR - Decision No Goal

So I dub thee Unforgiven.

I still haven’t forgiven Roy Carroll for saying it didn’t cross the line. There was a minute to go at Old Trafford on a cold January night in 2005. United were in transition and Spurs in the midst of yet another ultimately unfruitful five year plan, this time with cuddly Gandolfini look-a-like “Uncle” Martin Jol at the helm.

Pedro Mendes hit one from just inside the United half and it looped high and slow towards Roy Carroll in the United goal. Roy, inexplicably, took his eye off it and managed to throw it back over his shoulder into his own goal. The ball bounced once about a yard over the line, Roy clawed it back out and the assistant didn’t give it. Play went on, Spurs were furious, Fergie was relieved and it ended 0-0.

If ever an incident summed up the real meaning of that god awful top bantz phrase “Spursy”, this was it.

Technology is the answer to all of our pains.

In a fit of petulance I refused to applaud Roy Carroll whenever I went to see him play for Northern Ireland after this. And I demanded more technology be used to ensure a travesty of justice such as this was never carried out (against Tottenham) on a Premier League football pitch ever again.

And why not? I’ve worked with technology for my whole career, building software and data models. I know how powerful it can be. So who wouldn’t want the officials to get all the help they can to make sure the right decisions are made? How naive I was.

Goal-line technology wasn’t introduced to the English Premier League until eight years after the Mendes incident. Pedro Mendes’ Spurs career never recovered and a year later he took his shiny locks and silky passing skills to Portsmouth. His next brush with English football notoriety came in August 2006 when Ben Thatcher almost elbowed his head clean off his shoulders in a game against Manchester City.

A seizure in the ambulance on the way to hospital and a subsequent eight game ban for Thatcher were hardly the additional lasting memories he’d have wanted from his English football career.

The rise of VAR.

Goal-line technology became the thin end of the wedge when FIFA started to pilot VAR. Already a firm fixture in other top level sports like Rugby Union, tennis and cricket, the Video Assistant Referee system was supposed to remove all doubt about controversial decisions that real-life refs may have missed. It hasn’t quite worked out that way though.

VAR’s introduction in the 2018 World Cup in Russia led to widespread condemnation of it’s ability to suck the life and spontaneity right out of every game. It used to be bad enough having to temper your goal celebrations to look across at the nearest linesman for a flag but now it means a complete standstill as we wait for the ref to signal if he’s went to VAR for a decision as well.

VAR is meant to rule only on the most disputed of calls like goals, penalties, cases of mistaken identity and potential red card incidents. Coupled with the horrendous new reading of the handball rule, it’s led to many a quarrel in last season’s Champions League and the new Premier League season, already only a couple of games old.

Johnny Nic hits the nail on the head. As usual.

Football365’s John Nicholson explains the major cause of dispute between the two camps of VAR lovers and VAR haters. Some of us like our football a little rough around the edges. We accept that the odd offside might go against us. We let it go when a Mendes happens against us because we know, over a lifetime, we’ll have our keeper sneak one back from just over the line ourselves.

You can’t sanitise the whole thing to make it 100% “correct” (as if that were possible in the first place) and still have the raw gut-bursting emotion that keeps us coming back year after year, disappointment after disappointment. I may have lost my shit back in 2005 when Roy Carroll got United out of jail but if I’d known this was what would be coming down the line to “fix” such future problems, I would have thought twice. It’s just not football Geoff.

The VAR-lovers will point to things being technically correct as the ultimate end point and how this has to mean we sacrifice a little of the rawness as we move towards a utopia of perfect refereeing decisions. I don’t agree but, as John says in his article, neither side is going to change the other’s mind by shouting on Talksport phone-ins or arguing on message-boards.

It’s just another example of polarised intransigent sides of a debate in modern British society with no grey areas, only black and white with no room for discussion in the middle. At least with VAR it won’t lead to any disruption in the distribution of food or shortages in vital medicines so we can look to the positives there.

I should be a fickle football fan of VAR.

I should point out that, as a Spurs fan, I have been very well rewarded by VAR. Raheem Sterling’s disallowed goal in last season’s Champions League meant I could reverse my sweary stomp out of the living room and apologise to my crying children, safe in the knowledge that Tottenham would live to fight another day. And it was worth it all to see Pep’s face when it was disallowed.

Same again this week when Jesus’s late winner was wiped out by VAR for something that wouldn’t (and probably shouldn’t) have ever been seen by a human official in the history of the game.

But I still hate the momentary hesitation I’ve had to become accustomed to after a goal now while I look to the officials for any sign of it being called back. Like Johnny Nic, I prefer my football to be a bit more Hendrix duffing some notes on the Star Spangled Banner live at Woodstock. Taking it into the studio and re-touching the blemishes doesn’t improve that. It lessens what I’m listening to.

Where does it all lead to eventually?

We get enough in-depth debate from the likes of Neville and Carragher in a TV studio, poring over slow motion replays of every incident from every conceivable angle. Once the whistle goes for kick-off, can we not just leave the game alone and let the officials do their best, however that may turn out? Otherwise, we’ll reduce it over time to nothing more than a perfectly synchronised computer simulation and no-one wants to watch that.

Dull. Lifeless. Emotion-less.

With all big decisions made by some knob watching a TV screen. If I wanted that level of “entertainment” I’d start watching the cricket…


Alan Hylands

Alan Hylands is a writer and solver of difficult data problems from Northern Ireland.
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