VAR in Scotland: About bloody time, Neil

by | Apr 22, 2022

And so, three-and-a-quarter years after introducing video assistance referees (VARs) to assist Scotland’s top-flight match officials was agreed in principle, Scotland’s Professional Football League (SPFL) clubs finally had the opportunity to vote it in on Tuesday…and all bar one did so, though I won’t mention which ‘one’ as that would be unfair on mid-table Championship outfit Greenock Morton.

VAR has long been a glaring necessity for Scottish club football. When you strip away the noise about officiating bias, towards the only two Scottish clubs which matter to too many people, Scottish match officials are not very good; as is obvious from any edition of BBC Scotland’s Scottish Premiership (SPS) highlights show, Sportscene.

Scottish VAR was agreed in principle in January 2019, when Scottish FA Chief Executive Ian Maxwell chaired a meeting at St Johnstone’s McDiarmid Park, after “a string of (refereeing) criticisms and controversies in the first half of the season.” As the Daily Record ‘newspaper’s’ Gary Ralston reported, in purest tabloid-ese: “Bosses and whistlers…united behind the introduction of VAR at the SFA pow-wow.”

The gap between principled agreement and implementation will be nearly four years when Scottish VAR starts this December, after the World Cup. This has been largely attributed to Celtic and Rangers. Celtic and Rangers fans are respectively convinced that Rangers and Celtic have been against VAR because they would no longer benefit from the ‘honest mistakes’ that Scottish referees make ‘for’ them in times of on-field strife.

However, the highest-profile obstacle to VAR has been SPFL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster. And it was no surprise that even when ‘his’ clubs voted 41-1 for VAR’s implementation and financing, Doncaster insisted that “it simply wouldn’t have been ready” for the new season’s 30th July start.

But reality has bitten. Scottish match officials need help (polite version). As video assistants will be drawn from the ranks of said officials, opponents argue that VAR will be equally error-prone, and won’t improve officiating standards. But this has never been VAR’s responsibility. That remains eliminating “clear and obvious” decision-making errors, which continually pock-mark Scottish club football.

Such errors have been largely attributed to “big club” decisions. The “old Glasgow Long Blink,” Hearts’ boss Robbie Neilson called it after Hearts’ game at Rangers last October. Masonic conspiracies and unseen Fenian hands are perennially cited by Celtic and Rangers fans respectively. But conspiracy has seemed a logical explanation for some decisions. When Celtic’s Eric Sviatchenko conceded a penalty at Ross County in 2017, one Celtic fan noted that the ref was well-placed to give it because he was “closer to the incident than Sviatchenko.”

And the calls for VAR seem louder when Rangers are wronged. For instance, in February at Dundee United, Rangers were denied a penalty when Joe Aribo’s shirt was visibly pulled out of shape, ref Bobby Madden presumably thinking Aribo was wearing his number sideways. Two other clubs were denied clear penalties that day. But they were relatively ignored. The VAR calls were rightly intensified. But only because Rangers are getting sawn off these days too.

Too many outside the Scottish game (and too many INSIDE it) need reminding that the SPFL has FORTY-two clubs. A day before Madden’s mishap, fellow ‘leading’ Scottish ref Willie Collum made a thumping horlicks of things at Livingston, giving nothing when St. Mirren’s Charlie Dunne whacked Bruce Anderson in the face. And high-profile calls for VAR have come from all corners of the SPS, although many have also shown that the loudest VAR advocates are often ‘wronged’ managers.

Graham Alexander was mad for VAR after David Munro gave a nonsensical penalty against his Motherwell side at Hearts in October (although VAR would also have over-turned Liam Kelly’s save for leaving his line too soon). And while St Johnstone supremo Callum Davidson didn’t “particularly like VAR,” he called it “something we have to look at” after Saints were denied a win at Aberdeen in February when Callum Booth fouled Gavin Ramsay so far outside the box it was obvious on radio.

Yet Scotland’s VAR debate remains Celto-Rangercentric (new word for you); that’s how Scotland’s football media ‘works.’ The all-encompassing example of this came in January 2020, when Guardian golf correspondent Ewan Murray noted how VAR “flew back into Scottish football’s vernacular after various controversies” in Rangers’ then-recent 2-1 win over Celtic. “Rightly or wrongly,” he added, ignoring the media’s role as pilots. He also wrote: “Celtic’s refusal to supply a formal position on VAR endorses the suspicion they are against it,” which led his article’s sub-headline to state, unevidenced, that “Celtic oppose” it. Opposition Murray ludicrously called “silent.”

But amid Murray’s trademark anti-Celtic dross, he rightly identified key financial and infrastructural issues: “It remains a stretch to suggest that” some clubs “will gladly remove tens of thousands of pounds from their annual bottom line. Screens would need to be erected at umpteen Premiership grounds.” The “provision of suitable connectivity” for a “Stockley Park equivalent” would “be a challenge” as the SPS “is played in places as remote as Dingwall.”

And he stressed Doncaster’s above-mentioned and already transparent reluctance. In September 2018, Doncaster said VAR wouldn’t “eliminate controversy (or) decisions people disagree with.” He insisted that “we need to investigate thoroughly how it works,” especially in European leagues then “trialling” VAR, because, bewilderingly, “it’s not necessarily an area where we want to be ahead of the curve.”

Doncaster also cited “the resource issue” with a system that the BBC reported “would cost more than £1m-per-season.” And, to those intellectually stretched by the bleedin’ obvious,, he ‘explained’ that “for every game…you need a video assistant referee and a second assistant in the van with him.” He was also “unclear” if “there were enough qualified referees to enable the system.”

Murray quoted an SPFL spokesman exposing how little had progressed in the 16 months since Doncaster’s words. Discussion was “at an embryonic stage” (long gestation periods). And they and the SFA were STILL “monitoring” VAR’s implementation “across Europe.” Murray also cited Maxwell’s then year-old admission of “a real appetite to fully investigate VAR” from top-flight bosses and whistlers. And Maxwell, significantly, believed “that Scottish football can afford it.”

With Scottish officials fearing losing international appointments to the VAR-operational experienced, pressure for action continued. So, on 8th October 2021, the SFA and the SPFL co-hosted a “productive and positive” meeting with SPS clubs on introducing VAR for SPS games and “selected” cup-ties. The SFA said clubs remained “broadly supportive” in principle, that “conversations” would “continue” and that the association would underwrite “training costs” with “match costs being borne equally” by top-flight clubs.

In significant contrast, Doncaster rambled about “working up” a “formal proposal, with a view to putting forward a resolution…as soon as practically possible…not an overnight process…lengthy training and set-up required.” Blah…blah…blah.

Three weeks later, with more controversies keeping VAR topical, reports emerged that SPFL clubs would vote in February on its introduction, after lower-league clubs received assurances that the top-12 would meet the still-£60,000 costs. And last December, first reports emerged of the proposal upon which clubs eventually voted.

There were few qualms about a mid-season introduction. Indeed, SFA refereeing chief, Crawford Allen, wanted it introduced “as early as we can” and “(sped) along,” despite admitting that it would “take a while.” He also re-iterated VAR’s limited decision-making remit, “the factual ones and the ones that are clearly wrong.”

But, suddenly, reported costs became, without explanation, “£60-80,000.” And on 14th January, the Times newspaper’s Michael Grant reported that the vote was “being pushed back to April” with Doncaster needing “more time” to “gather information” to “adequately answer any questions clubs may have.” And ‘new’ costs must have been in that gathered info. Because when SPS clubs discussed VAR’s cost implications on 28th February, they discovered that those costs had doubled.

Robert Grieve’s Scottish Sun newspaper piece on the meeting claimed that costs had risen from the £60,000-per-club-per-season SPS clubs were told last October, to £118,000, due to “enhancements to the original proposal,” such as a VAR hub, like England’s Stockley Park, rather than “VAR rooms inside stadiums,” and a sudden need for two extra cameras. But was this the SPFL trying to put clubs off VAR, reluctant to expose SPS match officials to greater scrutiny of their, ahem, true competence, and to have to admit that cost was an issue at least partly due to the league’s criminal underselling on Doncaster’s watch?

And three years after agreeing to VAR in principle, SPS clubs may have had one other question: “WTF?” Both “enhancements” could have been costed long ago, if the SPFL really had monitored VAR in Europe (or 2020 Guardian golf correspondent articles). VAR has been used for European games at Hampden, Celtic and Ibrox Parks. And Doncaster was trailing higher costs than £60,000 in 2018. Was he just plucking figures from his arse then? Or was this info withheld for use if VAR ever looked likely? It is hard to escape the latter conclusion.

When costs became a potential deal-breaker, Talksport’s Jim White asked: “If (Celtic and Rangers) want it that badly, why don’t they pay for it?” Rangers might have millions of answers, given their debts. But White is paid to provoke, not inform, debate. More (i.e. at all) pertinent was Allen, choosing his words impactfully, to say that if he was “moving Scottish football forward,” he would consider VAR “an investment rather than a cost.”

It is an investment which clubs have voted to make, with costs dependent on league position, the costs differentials covered in multiples by SPFL prize money. And costs should be spread. Officiating error could decide every SPS issue, not just the first close title race since 2011. For prime example, it nearly derailed Ross County when the SPS split on 9th April and they needed a win at Aberdeen to reach the top-six.

On 78 minutes, with the score 0-0, Regan Charles-Cook was unarguably upended in the penalty box. Ref Greg Aitken ‘thought’ not. But six minutes later, he penalised Aberdeen’s Jonny Hayes for an unintentional, unavoidable AND arguably outside-the-box handball. As if Aitken knew he’d fcuked up, so had to fcuk up again to at least give County the goalscoring opportunity he’d wrongly denied them. VAR would have saved Aitken the need to atone. And it would have ruled on where Hayes’ ‘errant’ hand was.

The preponderance of such scenarios is why VAR has come to Scottish club football years late. And that falls on one man; who kept VAR distant for so long, despite his league being so poorly officiated for so long; who has so badly undersold his league that £118,000-a-year costs could have been an issue; and who couldn’t facilitate the introduction of fundamental changes to matchday laws and procedures at the start of a season, the only time such things should be introduced. Neil Doncaster.