VARs: The Pundits Results Are In

by | Jan 23, 2018

Sky News Health Correspondent Paul Kelso clearly and obviously retains many Twitter followers from his years as one of the country’s best national newspaper football writers.

“Bored with VAR,” he tweeted on Wednesday, as Chelsea’s FA Cup third-round replay with Norwich gave the BBC their first opportunity to hopelessly mis-analyse VARs (Video Assistant Referees). Within 15 minutes, however, Kelso’s followers’ football discourse forced him to “actually turn on the game to see what fuss about.” To which one wag (me) responded “Fuss about Alan Shearer arse elbow differentiation inability.”

As I’d feared/predicted, Shearer applied all the expertise he used as interim Newcastle United manager in 2009 (eight games, one win, five points, relegation) to the VAR debate. And yet…and yet…he began the evening talking more sense than predicted (i.e some). And more VAR-related sense than many counterparts on the other TV networks to have hosted games with VARs.

“Shearer talks sh*ite” is the “dog bites man” of football punditry news. “Shearer talks sense” is proper “man bites dog” stuff. And in the pre-match VAR discussion, alongside ex-Norwich striker Dion Dublin and Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola, Shearer bit hard. If only for a…well…bit.

On Tuesday, the immediate post-match headlines (well, BT Sport’s) screamed: “History made on BT Sport as VAR awards first goal in British Football.” Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho scored the first goal in English football to be given as a direct result of VAR intervention, VAR Mike Jones over-ruling an errant-by-millimetres offside flag to allow Leicester’s second goal in their 2-0 third-round replay win over Fleetwood Town.

On Wednesday, a national, free-to-air audience got its first taste of VAR coverage. There were shots of the pitch-side screen available for match referee Graham Scott to re-view incidents. And a glimpse of the “TV studios out near Heathrow Airport” (Stockley Park, where the VAR, the ubiquitous Jones, was “actually based”), screens-akimbo, resembling Turin’s traffic-control room in the (original) ‘Italian Job’ movie.

“Head of referees” Mike Riley then talked studio presenter Gary Lineker through the system’s basics, although he surprisingly overlooked the opportunity to show examples of decisions which VARs could/should overturn, such as the penalty he didn’t give Latvia in their Euro 2004 draw with Germany. Next time, perhaps.

Shearer said VAR worked at Leicester (or “on BT Sport”) because the overturned decision “was a matter of fact.” But he envisaged trouble “when it goes on someone’s opinion. Now I know you’re going to say: ‘Its only for the obvious ones.’ Well…who says it’s obvious?” Eeek! Good question. And the night’s pertinent question when Chelsea’s Willian hit the Stamford Bridge “Shed End” penalty-box dirt early in extra-time, under a challenge from Norwich’s Timm Klose.

Scott penalised and booked Willian for simulation, as he appeared, from Scott’s angle (the main camera angle too) to leap into the air nanoseconds before Klose planted his left leg. Two subsequent angles showed contact between Willian’s left foot and Klose’s planted leg. “A shambles,” Shearer ranted in headline-grabbing fashion.

Match commentator Steve Wilson confirmed that Jones, “didn’t feel” Scott made a “clear and obvious error,” precisely quoting from the formal VAR experiment guidelines. Lineker repeated the assertion: “The referee decided it was a dive, it went to VAR, they looked at it, they backed the referee up, they said it wasn’t ‘clear and obvious’.” But he added that that was “not what we thought in ‘ere.”

Cue Shearer again: “You are seeing why I was very doubtful about it and now it’s a shambles. You’ve got one, two, three four ex-footballers in here, you’ve got Jermaine Jenas, that’s five” (Jenas was Wilson’s co-commentator) “and we all think it’s a clear and obvious penalty” (although, as he twice insisted that Klose “slid in” to Willian, Jenas’s ‘clear and obvious’ might need VAR referral).

“He even books him for diving,” Shearer continued, momentarily forgetting that Scott did this before Jones’ involvement. “Who on earth is looking at that screen at Stockley Park and doesn’t think that’s a penalty?” This echoed Jenas’s in-play rhetorical question: “So, they don’t think it’s a penalty either? They think he’s dived?”

The incident was tailor-made for Shearer’s point and the logical conclusion to his thinking, that “matters of fact” will prove a better limitation on VAR remits than “clear and obvious errors.” But his thought-process went downhill from there. Faster than (insert downhill skier’s name here…the most contemporary reference I could summon was ‘Franz Klammer’) with a following wind.

By pure chance, while transcribing Shearer’s rant for this article, I froze the TV pictures and audio just as the pictures showed Willian airborne, ‘clearly and obviously’ before Klose’s challenge, thus fully explaining why someone “looking at that screen at Stockley Park” didn’t “think that was a penalty.”

Totally the wrong question, though. And the commonest, most glaring, scream-at-the-telly frustrating punditry error. As I’ve written before, and will surely write again, VARs don’t ask “was it a penalty?” but “was it a ‘clear and obvious’ refereeing error?” Different questions. Potentially different answers. Mine, for what little its worth, were “yes” and “no” respectively. Jones answered “no” to his question. And Scott’s decision stood.

Shearer was having none of that: “That’s why it’s all wrong because its someone else’s opinion and that’s why it’s a shambles.” And after Dublin called the decision “shocking” (“they are watching the same replays as us and its clear and obvious that’s a penalty”) and Zola agreed “ha-ha, big time,” Shearer concluded: “You’ve got another referee looking at a screen, slowed down and STILL doesn’t think it’s a penalty. Please. Shambles.” Cross, he was.

The Daily Mail revealed that Jones didn’t see “the super slow-motion replay…that showed Klose made contact with Willian.” Although TWO slo-mo replays showed contact and the Mail didn’t specify which one they meant, nor provide quotes to back their assertion that “those in charge of the video technology feel this was their first significant error.” And, 24 hours after the game, they simultaneously produced two opinion pieces trashing the system. Good job the Mail isn’t a paper which makes selective use of facts to pursue their own agen…erm…anyway)

Shearer was so ready to condemn the VAR experiment, seemingly based on disagreeing with one decision, that he forgot, or had never quite grasped, that it IS an experiment. “It is very, very early,” he acknowledged. But it’s earlier than that. And there were reminders throughout the evening of the twin criteria for determining the experiment’s success. Getting decisions right AND highlighting potential problems.

Communications to the crowd on how, or if, VARs were being consulted were rightly seen as inadequate (not that actual crowds will matter once TV annexes football entirely). For commentators, too. After the Willian incident, Wilson declared: “There’s no sign at the moment that they are going to go to VAR to double-check this,” just as the actual footage the VARs were indeed studying appeared on-screen.

Those of us of a certain age (see ‘Franz Klammer’ reference above) remember struggling to determine, watching live OR on telly, if a player was booked, before yellow/red cards were introduced domestically in 1976 (the year Klammer won Winter Olympic Gold). Technology can probably already make and communicate decisions equally efficiently and once there’s a will to communicate, there’ll be a way. Such as signals to the microchips which governments will install in peoples’ brains as a thought-control and monitoring mechanism (soon, sheeple, soon). However, there already is a way.

Experiment guidelines say referees “must clearly indicate that the review process has been initiated by visually showing the outline of a TV screen,” which works in cricket, where crowds are further from the action. This especially matters as decisions “cannot be changed unless the review signal is shown.”

This instruction has got lost…unless the new ‘review signal’ is the referee sticking his finger in his ear. Scott did this LOTS, although he might just have been using his earpiece to dislodge some particularly stubborn ear-wax. On Tuesday, match referee John Moss made the signal…but AFTER the process.

Lineker stumbled upon a more fascinating issue during a withering analysis of Chelsea scorer Michy Batshuayi’s first-half. Replays of a rare decent run in behind Norwich’s defence showed the Belgian striker through on goal but erroneously flagged offside. Lineker asked: “If he’d scored there (and) they look at that on VAR,” would the goal have stood, given that “the keeper’s half-stopped”?

Sadly, the question’s quality proved its downfall. “Perhaps we should discuss that, to give us something else to talk about rather than the first 45 minutes,” Shearer suggested, seemingly helpfully. Alas, he was “joking.” And Dublin ignored the issue entirely. Still, the question is out there. And very well worth asking, if the experiment facilitates feedback from ordinary punters.

Another, smaller, issue also arose. However bad an evening Shearer thought the VARs were having, Chelsea striker and 81st-minute substitute, Alvaro Morata’s was worse, booked twice in a matter of seconds, for diving in the penalty box and for dissent.

But Morata should have been booked for dissent, after an earlier unaided penalty-box collapse (the VAR fuss hopefully won’t erase Chelsea players’ predilection for swooning within 18 yards of goal from the memory banks…both Morata and Pedro were initially booked for ‘simulation’). The seated Spaniard threw the review signal at Scott. The guidelines state: “A player who uses the review signal will be cautioned.”

Despite Shearer’s predilection for “shambles,” the BBC’s coverage of the VAR system/experiment had the edge on their SKY and BT Sport counterparts, and the edge and more on exploding-head Steve Nicol and his despairing ESPN colleagues (see last article). There was certainly less of a reach for controversy on Wednesday, before controversy reached them.

However, even the BBC’s coverage is far from required standards…at least as far away as the nearest available copy of the experiment’s guidelines. Too few critical comments, on TV and/or in the papers, provide evidence that the guidelines have even been read. And it was as obvious on Wednesday as on previous VAR-on-the-telly nights that pundits struggled with information beyond their comfort zones.

This was also clear from Lineker’s incorrect assertion that the penalty shoot-out would be governed by the new “ABBA” regulations. Although this may have been due to Lineker’s over-fondness for the
cringe-worthy pun, such as the clearly pre-meditated and inappropriate “so VAR so good,” with which he closed the show.

The VAR experiment is proving successful, raising key issues which need addressing for the system to succeed. The system itself, less so (if not as much less so as the Mail would like). On Wednesday, there was, to add Fawlty Towers to this article’s 1970s ‘cultural’ references, “enough material for an entire conference.” And, Fifa’s hopes of using VAR at June/July’s World Cup should be dashed.

Next stop? Next Wednesday on Sky, at…Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?