Alan Green Goes Too VAR

Video assistant refereeing (VAR) was a significant feature of the Uefa Champions League this week,  for the second consecutive week. And, as Mark Murphy discovered to his aural cost, it brought an old ‘’’friend’’’ back into view.

In (ulp!) September 2009, I wrote on this site: “There’s nothing original about criticising Alan Green. But that’s no reason to shy away from the task.”

Green still operates with 2009’s tiresome faux-cynicism and a too-frequent need to ask colleagues what just happened. But Green has fallen off my annoyance radar in the intervening years, almost certainly due to me subscribing to Sky Sports and thus listening to football on the radio a bit less, rather than Green becoming a better commentator. Or maybe, as pundits are wont to say when given two choices on football issues, “it’s a bit of both.”

I have never subscribed to BT Sport, partly for financial reasons and partly for fear of over-encountering Robbie Savage or Michael Owen or Steve McManaman. So, with the Champions League on BT Sport, I listen to it on BBC Radio Five Live, whose coverage is, very often (whisper it) very good, especially with the excellent Mark Chapman hosting. But, on Tuesday, the tiresome Green took a dismal centre-stage, as Five Live commentator on Manchester City’s City of Manchester Stadium tie with Schalke 04, when the much-maligned VAR system got much-more-maligned by Green.

Green’s co-commentator was Pat Nevin, renowned as an intellect ‘for a footballer’ in his 1980s/1990s playing days and, slowly, nearing that status as an analyst. And the contrast between the two was painful. Indeed, Nevin’s analysis of Tuesday’s use of VAR, particularly on offside flags being delayed until the end of the pertinent phase of play, was outstanding. Properly-researched. Cogently expressed. And therefore the polar opposite of Green’s.

Like the game itself, their debate was a slow-burner. There were VAR checks on all three of City’s late first-half goals (with a 7-0 result, it is easy to forget that it was 0-0 for 35 minutes). And, just after half-time, Green was still claiming, in semi-song, “I’m in favour of VAR,” protesting that “it was just a shambles the way it was used towards the end of that first half.” Then, on 53 minutes, a well-offside Leroy Sane ‘scored.’ And then the fun began.

“Sane surely offside… NO HE’S NOT… the assistant kept his flag down and Sane scores a fourth. But I’m not sure about that,” Green commentated, roaring “HOLD ON A SECOND” when he, eventually, spotted the offside flag. While on-field referee Clement Turpin sought video assistance, Nevin patiently explained (to listeners as much as to Green, in fairness): “That’s the rules. They’re told not to put their flags up (but) to allow play to go on and then decide afterwards.”

“After the player’s taken possession?” an already befuddled Green asked. “After the ball’s gone in the net sometimes,” Nevin continued. “The assistant referee knew (it was offside) all along. He kept his flag down until the ball was in the net and then he said ‘I think that’s offside.’” Green let out an unspellable cry of anguish before Nevin admitted: “ It’s quite tiresome, it’s quite a lot to get used to, these changes, but it will be offside. I know it sounds and looks stupid but they’ve done it precisely by the rules.”

Green’s comprehensive lack of research on “these changes” was suddenly exposed. And his knee-jerk response was predictable: “Well…the rules are stupid, then.” So, as play restarted, an audibly, increasingly exasperated Nevin expounded: “The reason why is quite simple. If you put the flag up, people stop. (And you) don’t let people stop because it changes the way the game’s going to run.”

Forty seconds later, City seemed to kindly manufacture a VAR offside goal scenario to explain these late flags to the dumber-and-dumbest. And they were by now so in control that they could have done so. When the ball was “slashed into the net by Sterling,” Green said:  “Is that offside? Yes. Half-an-hour after Sterling hit the ball into the net, the assistant raises his flag.” Nevin interjected: “That’s the rule.” And Green declared: “I don’t care if that’s the rule. The rule is ridiculous.”

As VAR cranked into gear again, Nevin said: “I know the rule now and I’m used to it,” which, you’d like to think was Nevin suggesting that Green should “know the rule” and be “used to it” too.  “He’s miles offside,” Nevin re-iterated. “The referee knows that. The assistant referee knows that. They wait until the ball hits the back of the net.” Then…the twist. Sterling wasn’t “miles offside.” But where Green sulked at being prove wrong, Nevin seemed delighted. “There’s the argument. Now that we look at it, it looks tighter. That’s almost the precise reason why that rule is in place.”

“He’s looking at VAR,” Green sighed. “GOOD!!,” Nevin shouted. “He might get it right. You play on until the goal is scored and the move finishes and then you can make a decision. Because if… the linesman puts his flag up…and he gets it wrong, we’ve blown it. Now you’ve not blown it. I know it’s annoying (but) this is VAR working correctly and I bet you this one is a goal.”

Nevin would have won his bet. But, as background cheers confirmed that “this one” was a goal, 74 seconds after Sterling did his slash, Green was still uncomprehending. “Sterling wouldn’t have stopped. It might have been disallowed initially for offside and then they would have consulted VAR. Now, what’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong with it,” Nevin snapped, his patience wearing as thin as Peter Crouch, “is other people might stop.” And, for the umpteenth time, he stressed that “the ruling has been followed to the letter by the officials. And they’ve got every one of them right. I can’t complain when they get every single one right. That’s all I want. People will phone in and be angry and annoyed but I’m absolutely on the side of the officials because they’ve followed the law.” Green’s considered response? “The law is an ass.”

Green then wondered aloud if “that Schalke player in an offside position? Only by half-a-mile” as they mounted a rare attack. “Yeah, and he raised his flag,” Nevin flashed back, leaving “so, shut the f**k up” barely unsaid. “We can have this debate another time,” he pleaded, on behalf of a nation, before re-re-iterating that “they’ve had four or five decisions to make, they’ve got every single one of them right with the use of VAR, even though it was a bit slow.”

Green’s considered response? Bring in colleague John Bennett for an update on the night’s other Champions League tie, in Turin, between Juventus and Atletico Madrid. And even Lionel Messi’s biggest fans were probably relieved to hear about Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus heroics, rather than endure more Green griping.

By the 78th minute, Green was babbling incoherently into the middle distance: “Again there’s a suspicion of offside… ha!… suspicion and half-an-hour later, the assistant raises his flag…oh, don’t tell me, he was waiting to see if the ball was going into the net…I tell you, he was WAY offside.” And Nevin, having exhausted all fact and logic-based options, accepted “that its counter-instinctual,” confident that Green would (like me, admittedly) doubt that “instinctual” was even a word, and start commentating on the game again.

However, with City scoring at will, Green could focus on VAR at will: “(In) the Premier League…the assistant waits and waits until the player actually touches the ball before he raises the flag. Here, he touches it, he dances with it, and then he raises the flag.” And Nevin retorted “And VAR changes it,” before advising Green: “You need to let it go.”

So, Green grabbed the non-issue of stoppage time: “All these changes in the second half, the substitutions, and we’ll still only get two minutes added time…and that includes the VAR.” And when Turpin blew the final whistle dead on 90 minutes, Green blew a fuse: “That…is a joke. On what legal football basis was that whistle blown on the 90 minutes? If this was a youth game, or a Sunday League game, OK. But not a Champions League game,” he said, forgetting that stoppage-time is at the referee’s discretion.

Nevin called it (presumably the lack of stoppage time) “a small thing in the end,” desperate to discuss City’s win over what he gloriously labelled an “absolutely average beyond belief” Schalke. “I’m only guessing. I haven’t a clue,” Green admitted, like we needed telling. And off-air he went, leaving listeners to contemplate being happy to hear Paul Ince instead.

Submerged by Green’s stupidity was Uefa getting this rule absolutely right, unlike last week’s handball nonsense. Gary Lineker spotted the issue with offside flags erroneously stopping play after Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi had a goal disallowed in an FA Cup-tie during domestic football’s VAR experiment last season. And the “VAR Protocol,” incorporated into the 2018/19 ‘Laws of the Game,’ directly addresses the scenarios which so vexed Green and energised Nevin.

Delaying a flag “is only permissible in a very clear attacking situation when a player is about to score…or has a clear run into/towards the opponent’s penalty area. If an assistant referee delays a flag, (they) must raise the flag if a goal/penalty/corner or attacking free-kick or throw-in results, as this decision will be the basis for any ‘check’/’review.’

And last month, Uefa referees’ chief Roberto Rossetti (concoctor of the “make yourself bigger” handball ‘rule’) reported on a delayed flag in the Manchester United/Paris St Germain first leg at Old Trafford: “The assistant referee correctly delayed raising his flag against a Paris player as this was a tight offside and a clear goalscoring opportunity. This was in line with (the protocol) which encourages assistant referees to flag for tight offsides when a player is about to score, since decisions can be reviewed (if)a goal (is) scored.”

Though this is not straightforward, and the offside law has arguably not been straightforward since about 1924, it only took me half-an-hour to research and understand. So, although it should have played a vital part in Green’s Champions League commentary research, it shouldn’t have played a time-consuming part. Yet it seems that it played no part at all.

My tweeted hot-take was to label Green the “Theresa May of football commentators,” who spat the dummy when his ignorance was exposed. But he also channelled his inner Donald Trump, echoing the US president’s damning predilection for disparaging opponents in terms exactly describing his own ill-behaviour. Thus, when Green called the VAR offside rule “stupid,” “ridiculous” and “an ass,” it was hard not to conclude that you were listening to a stupid ridiculous ass. Arrogant, too. Blaming the rule for his incomprehension of the rule.

In September 2009, I asked why Green continued “to be indulged?” by the BBC. After Tuesday, that question seems more pertinent than ever.