You will forgive the profanity. But last evening, 30,000 Wolves fans were singing it with gusto – including a 12 year-old lad sitting behind me. The Wolverhampton night air was rent by a mass chorus of anger and contempt. Who can blame them? I actually found myself joining in, even though I was a fan of neither club, a neutral if ever there was one.
The occasion was an intriguing, and possibly pivotal, top (or near the top) of the table clash between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City. The first half was a cagey affair, both sides hanging back, hoping to catch the other on the break. That is their style – both teams – and when the opportunity for a swift counter attack presented itself, the speed and accuracy of the passing and the athleticism of the runners took the breath away. However, covering defence was well organised and there was little goalmouth activity. (Incidentally and wholly immaterial to my subject, why on earth did Manchester United get rid of Jonny Evans? He remains a fine player, a good reader of the game, judicious in the tackle and commanding in the air. Can anybody convincingly argue that his successors in the middle of defence at United have done a better job than he?).
Minutes before the break, Wolves took a quick, short corner. There was a rapid interchange of one-touch passes, the ball was crossed from the right and Willy Bolly headed into the net from close range. There was the expected eruption of triumph in the stadium, the Wolves players celebrated a crucial breakthrough, Schmeichel fished the ball out of the back of the net and angrily booted it away and the rest of his team made their disconsolate way back to the centre circle. Positions were taken and everybody awaited the referee’s whistle to signify the resumption of play.
But hang on – what’s this? People roundabout were pointing to the large screen. VAR PENDING - POSSIBLE OFFSIDE. A collective groan, followed by a cacophony of whistles grew in intensity as minute after minute passed. There were no images on the screen to observe; everybody, referee, players, managers, staff and spectators, stood around (we were all on our feet at this juncture) not having a clue what was going on. After what seemed an eternity, NO GOAL – OFFSIDE came up on the screen and all hell was let loose. The noise of wholesale booing was deafening and insistent until half-time, only a few minutes later, which thankfully defused the ugly mood.
It soon became clear via those with earpieces tuned into R5 Live that the decision to disallow the goal was on account of an eagle-eyed technician somewhere in a darkened room near Twickenham, which houses the review team, spotting a recalcitrant heel of a Wolves player that had strayed offside during the build up to the goal. “These bluidy overpoid Premiership footballers – you’d think boi now they’d’ve learnt to keep their bluidy ‘eels under the thoomb,” remarked one chap in the Gents during the interval. From along the pissoir came this loud comment, “Joost as well ‘e wasn’t wearin’ ‘is wife’s ‘igh ‘eels or ed’d’ve been well offside!” Black country humour, eh? You can’t beat it.
For the rest of the match – which did not lack skill, passion and excitement even if it did finish 0-0 – the decision of VAR and the controversy surrounding it filled my thoughts. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that on the way home, the subject of VAR dominated the conversation of every fan that evening. Not the goals – there was none – not the passing, not the skilful interplay around the box, not Scmeichel’s save with his legs, not the pace and power, to say nothing of the enormous thighs, of substitute Traore, not the spectacular overhead pass by Neves. No, it was f****** VAR.
In my opinion, a neutral, don’t forget, the moment had been ruined and the match spoilt by VAR. Football is all about goals. They come so rarely that the explosion of joy and the spontaneous celebration of the players is what we pay our money for. The delay in coming to a decision undoes all that. One is left deflated, baffled, resentful. As the players came off for half-time, the Wolves captain, Conor Coady, was seen engaging the referee in animated discussion. We could imagine the nature of the discourse. Later we learned it was no discourse at all.
Coady: Can you give me the reason for the decision?
Coady: You see. You’re the referee and even you haven’t got a clue, have you?
And no, he didn’t. Referee Mike Dean was as much in the dark as the rest of us.
What a farce!
Later, to satisfy my curiosity, I looked up the wording of the law governing the use of VAR. It is supposed to be used with “minimal interference” to provide “maximum benefit”. It should only be used in cases of “clear and obvious error” or of “serious missed incident”. None of those criteria was in evidence last night. It was clear and obvious to nobody in that stadium and it certainly was not used to maximum benefit, except perhaps to the minority of relieved Leicester City supporters. It was possibly marginal but it was not a clear and obvious error (the Leicester players were not making a fuss) and neither was it a serious missed incident (a stray heel nearer the corner flag than the goal, for heaven’s sake). And to rob the paying customer the opportunity of watching the replays which millions of television viewers at home had immediate access to seems to me to be crass and counter-productive.
So, what can football learn from other team sports? VAR, TMO, DRS…..governing bodies love their acronyms, don’t they? Rugby and cricket share the advantage that there are frequent pauses in the action which allow for considered review of the video evidence. In rugby, the referee enquires of the TMO (Television Match Official) upstairs if there is any reason why he should not award a try. The incident is played and replayed from multiple angles and the referee together with everybody else in the stadium watches the incident unfold in super-slow motion on the large screen. The referee consults and makes his decision. We are all in the loop. Sometimes the TMO might bring the referee’s attention to a piece of skulduggery that had escaped his notice but not of the television camera. Fair enough. Foul play and violent conduct should be suitably punished. The only question (one that has not yet been satisfactorily resolved in my opinion) is how far back should retrospective justice go? Back to an unsavoury incident in the tunnel? Back to an unseemly spat on the training ground?
DRS (Decision Review System) has revolutionised the game of cricket. Nowadays it is practicably impossible for an incorrect decision to be made, such is the precision of the technology on hand. My only gripe is with the ball-tracking device, the hypothetical trajectory of the ball after it has struck the pad. Nobody, no machine, no mathematical computation can predict with certainty what might or might not happen. I can point to many an occasion (well, perhaps not that many) when I have bowled a ball and neither I nor the wicket-keeper can understand how it missed the stumps. But miss them it did. Had the ball struck the batsman on the pad, I would have sworn on my grandmother’s grave that the ball might have missed leg and might have missed off but it wouldn’t have missed middle, in other words plumb LBW. So, get rid of ball-tracking is my supplication and leave it to the umpire to decide.
As for VAR…… It’s here to stay, of that there can be little doubt. You cannot uninvent the wheel. But for heaven’s sake, allow a certain amount of discretion and remind referees (and those in darkened rooms in front of a bank of monitors) of the spirit of the original wording of the law, “clear and obvious error” Let the game no longer be robbed of its drama on account of an armpit or a heel straying beyond an imaginary line.
On our way home, we encountered a confusing, double mini-roundabout. A little disorientated, my driver-companion, in common with other drivers, slowed down, not at all sure who had right of way. “Shall we consult VAR?” he suggested. It has come to that – an object of fun and scorn.