VARs – The ‘Inevitable’ Controversies

by | Jan 13, 2018

‘Inevitable’ was as misused a word this week as ‘irony’ usually is. So, it was ‘inevitable’ that video assistant referees (VARs) would cause ‘controversy’ when experimentally introduced to English club football on Monday and Wednesday.

BT Sport presenter Lynsey Hipgrave said so, after Monday’s Brighton/Crystal Palace FA Cup third round tie, won for Brighton by Glenn Murray’s late goal, which was scrutinised by VAR Neil Swarbrick and assistant Peter Kirkup. “Of course, there was the inevitable VAR controversy,” she told studio pundits, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand.

‘Of course,’ there was virtually no controversy. Nor on Wednesday, when Swarbrick, then assisted by Mark McDonough, was thrice consulted by match referee Martin Atkinson to clarify penalty-box decisions. But that didn’t stop TV analysts’ attempts to create controversy, largely at the expense of the genuine issues highlighted by the VAR experiments.

Murray’s goal raised two VAR-relevant questions. Was the ex-Palace striker offside? And did he score with his arm? The answer, twice, was “nope.” Ergo Brighton visit Middlesbrough in the fourth-round. On Wednesday, Swarbrick and McDonough had two more questions. Did Chelsea’s Victor Moses help Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles fly through the penalty-box air with the greatest of ease, on 40 minutes? Did Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck win the ball legally when tackling Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas, on 88 minutes? The answer, twice, was “nope.” And on life went.

Sort of. The second incident took some while to resolve. The Daily Telegraph’s ‘minute-by-minute’ reporter, JJ Bull, wrote, at 9.43: “The referee says no instantly. There will be no VAR decision.” But at 9.45, Bull wrote: “Oooooh” (FIVE Os for dramatic effect) “but now Martin Atkinson is talking to the VAR. The replay isn’t conclusive at all!!” And on life went again. Sky presenter Kelly Cates later said the decision took “one minute 25 seconds.” But no-one who was asked thought ‘penalty.’ And “VAR” was pundit Thierry Henry’s first suggestion as man-of-the-match.

So. The ‘issues.’ Not those raised by pundits of varying ignorance (ranging from pig to pigsh*t). But, well, MY issues, anyway. I missed Brighton/Palace due to other football commitments (Kingstonian 4 Enfield Town 1, Kingstonian’s first league goals and second, third and fourth league points since 18th November…yaaay!). So, my in-play issues came from Wednesday.

My first was the VARs being sat in the Premier League (EPL) control room in West London’s Stockley Park, for FA and Football League Cup-ties. Dictated by the availability of the requisite technology (the ‘other’ Carabao Cup semi-final had no VARs because Bristol City’s Ashton Gate ground is VAR-technology-incompatible)? Or the EPL, for far from the first time, calling others’ shots?

The application of the system hinted at the over-reliance on technology predicted by many VAR-sceptics. Atkinson’s first visible call to Stockley Park concerned a penalty-box stramash between Arsenal’s Calum Chambers and Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta, as they waited for an Arsenal corner, which left the Chelsea captain on his arse.

There was no question of a penalty as the ball was not in play. So, presumably Atkinson was checking for a potential red-card offence. The lack of furore from players near the incident suggested nothing so major and, actually, nothing above the pay grade of either ON-FIELD assistant.

Perhaps Swarbrick initiated talks. But the replays Sky showed also suggested nothing so major as to involve him. And even bookable offences are, currently, beyond VARs’ remits. Either way, the Guardian’s minute-by-minuter Scott Murray reported that “the VAR chappie” told Atkinson “to give both players a b*llocking,” which is, currently, FAR beyond VARs’ remits. Unsatisfactory. As was the afore-mentioned 85-second delay in clearing up Wednesday’s second penalty incident.

BT Sport’s post-match coverage on Monday involved former ‘top’ referee Graham Poll, who insisted that Swarbrick and Kirkup had viewed just one angle, and not the best either, of Murray’s goal but made the right decision anyway, and timeously, too. On Wednesday, play continued for some seconds after Fabregas hit the Stamford Bridge deck. And it was suggested that Swarbrick and McDonough viewed numerous angles before e-tapping Atkinson on the shoulder.

BT and Sky pundits claimed that ‘clear and obvious’ refereeing errors could be ‘clear and obvious’ from one angle only. This seems unlikely. One angle might reveal a potential foul. But if an error is not ‘clear and obvious’ from a second angle, then surely BY DEFINITION it is not ‘clear and obvious’ at all.

Cricket’s Decision Review System (DRS) quickly expanded way beyond its original ‘clear and obvious’ errors remit. Not by decree or because of early experimentation but when third umpires (cricket’s VARs) started unilaterally searching for all errors, ruling that size didn’t matter. Increased delays were tolerated. And DRS is now formally used to MAKE decisions.

Nowadays, on-field umpires have almost no faith in personal judgement on ‘line decisions.’ Even clear and obvious stumpings and run-outs are now referred. Last week, in a New Zealand/Pakistan one-day international, a relatively close run-out decision was NOT referred and the match commentators, as clickbait headlines often say, “couldn’t handle it.”

Meanwhile, without formal instruction or rule change, bowlers often remain unpunished for overstepping a line which is literally almost under umpires’ noses unless/until technology is used to determine if a batsman is out (bowlers cannot dismiss batsmen after overstepping). Atkinson’s involvement of Swarbrick, or Swarbrick’s willingness to get involved, in three penalty-box incidents smelt of tiny erosions of faith in personal judgment. One for experiment assessors to study hard.

VARs should not be able to make that leap from ‘clear and obvious errors’ to actual decision-making. Because cricket can accommodate 85-second stoppages within its own natural rhythm. And because controversies the system is designed to eliminate would, at the very LEAST, remain. Indeed, pundits would find it easier to generate them…like they need the help.

This week’s VAR-analysis in various TV studios was scream-at-the-telly awful. Judgments on how awful must be reserved until the BBC’s Alan Shearer, Martin Keown et al have their almost ‘inevitably’ ill-informed say. But there was a special kind of weapons-grade idiocy on display at ESPN on Wednesday.

Ex-Liverpool midfielder Steve Nicol and Paul Merson stunt-double Craig Burley both thought Arsenal should have had a first-half penalty. Nicol was adamant (“he clearly kicks him”) but Nicol is habitually adamant when he senses controversy. Burley claimed: “Two Premier League referees didn’t think it was a penalty,” including “Neil Swarbrick back at base.” Before repeatedly insisting “that’s how it works,” almost to the point of catchphrase, even though “that” wasn’t how it worked at all.

Nicol insisted that “the referee on the field” had to have “the final say,” but appeared not to listen when told that was so. He asked why Atkinson “would not go and look at it.” And, evoking a nightmare vision, “If I’m the referee,” he declared that “I’m not going on some guy making the final decision when it’s going to be on me if he gets it wrong,” which was “one of the problems.”

Presenter Dan Thomas should have corrected Nicol’s clear and obvious errors but instead claimed, unhelpfully, that “the angle we saw says there’s contact.” Venezuelan pundit Alejandro Moreno said it “would have been much more of a penalty if Maitland-Niles goes down right away” (yawn) and that it was “much more difficult to sell the call.” Erm…OK. Luckily, the first YouTube clip I used as research cut to Alan Curbishley discussing the game. And if THAT is “luck,” no further comment is required.

A second YouTube clip repeated the arguments, with Thomas’s patience exhausted by Nicol’s tiresome, comprehensive misunderstanding of the system. Nicol thought it was a penalty and NOTHING else mattered, not even the prospect of his head exploding if he carried on much longer.

Back on BT Sport, Poll nailed it on Murray’s goal: “I think they thought even if it brushed his arm, it’s not a clear and obvious error, so there’s no need to clear it up.” Nothing, then, for Hipgrave, Gerrard or Ferdinand to add, so they focused their post-match discussion wholly on the game itself…………… Only kidding. Poll unwisely agreed with Hipgrave’s suggestion that the VARs didn’t view “the key angle to look at.” And it descended from there.

Post-match, Murray was told it was “kind of inevitable that there was going to be a VAR controversy somewhere.” Brighton boss Chris Hughton was informed that “you knew there was going to be something controversial with VAR.” And when Palace boss Roy Hodgson threatened disinterest, he was told the VARs hadn’t looked at all the angles. “Mmmm,” Hodgson pondered, before readily admitting that the goal was fine, something managers in a non-VAR scenario have almost NEVER done.

Ferdinand’s misunderstanding of VARs was as comprehensive as Nicol’s, if more leisurely expressed. He claimed “all” the Palace fans “are saying why wasn’t the other angle looked at,” having apparently done the speediest Vox Pop in journalistic history. “It has to be cleared up completely. You can’t have no grey areas,” he added, grammatically and factually incorrectly, before referencing “grey area(s)” every 20 seconds, as if he’d been sponsored to do so for charity.

And when Murray said he thought “VAR would have pulled me back,” Hipgrave leapt on the opportunity to regurgitate the controversy. “If they didn’t look at that key angle, aren’t they just guessing?” she asked Poll, who claimed he didn’t hear the question, perhaps trying not to blurt out “you’ve already fcuking asked me this.”

Poll asked Hipgrave to “remember, this is an experiment,” and suggested the VARs were thinking: “Next time we do it, Wednesday night, we’ll make sure we look at all angles.” Hence, 85 seconds-per-decision, presumably. And Hipgrave concluded: “We’re not really debating too much whether it was handball and it certainly wasn’t clear and obvious, so it wouldn’t have been disallowed. So, obviously, not looking at that angle is a bit of a concern.” Eh?

The printed press reaction was just as confused. The Guardian hailed the system’s “smooth debut.” The Mail discovered a “video ref rumpus.” The independent said Palace and Brighton were “left unconvinced,” while Australia’s SBS TV channel website declared them “happy with VAR debut,” although SBS attributed Palace’s happiness to “not initiating” a review of Murray’s goal, which isn’t allowed anyway, “happy” or not.

Such mis-analysis was constant. On Wednesday, Sky’s leading mic-man Martin Tyler declared that “VAR” would have overturned Mike Dean’s penalty award to West Bromwich Albion on New Year’s Eve. And while Sky viewers who’d read the VAR-guidelines screamed “that’s bollocks” (or variants thereof) at their screens, pundits stayed silent.

One common criticism of increasing TV’s role in football is the importance of controversy to their business model. If VARs lessen tensions, TV must heighten them, or create ‘feelings’ of controversy, in a world where ‘feelings’ trump ‘facts’ (pun intended). So, even if the VAR experiment succeeds, TV will continue to court controversy. ‘Inevitably.’