VAR from the madding crowd

JUST as some West Ham fans are prematurely writing off £24million summer signing Pablo Fornals, we believe the Video Assistant Referee should be given time to flourish. That is not to say the system isn’t without its faults. VAR has been brought into the Premier League too quickly, without full assessment and minus any thought for us, the supporters who pay for the privilege of attending games.

Nevertheless, we believe if implemented properly we might see the twin benefits of a reduction in big-team bias, a feature of top-flight football ever since we’ve been watching, as well as a welcome reduction in referee error, leading to a fairer game for everybody. Those of us who prefer consistency to “common sense” in officiating would benefit.

First a description of how the system works: Administered from Stockley Park in West London VAR is concerned with four areas only; goal/no goal, penalty/no penalty, red cards and mistaken identity. A referee, assistant and Hawkeye operator are in communication with officials at the ground.

The criticism falls broadly into two camps: The information given to supporters and the way it is implemented. We see no reason why the decision under consideration shouldn’t be more clearly explained – a retaken penalty in the first game of the season against Manchester City was handled farcically with few people in the stadium aware of what was happening.

Big screens (except at Old Trafford and Anfield where none exist) have the capacity for far more information than at present. An audio feed from the referee would surely help. Replays of the incident under review are routinely played on television. There is no good argument for match-going fans receiving less information, especially as the vast proportion will be in possession of a smartphone. Any suggestion crowds might be “incited” by being better informed is ludicrous.

It is useful to compare the use of VAR with rugby union’s Television Match Official – a sport where initial scepticism has matured towards an understanding and appreciation of the usefulness of a video referee.

In rugby, the referee will make an on-field decision and ask the television match offical (TMO) whether it is correct. If an official is doubtful over an event they ask the TMO something like: “Is there any reason why I can’t award the try?”

In football, the only time this seems to apply is for offside and only after a “goal” has been scored. When it comes to penalties and red cards, VAR only comes into play when there is a “clear and obvious error” – a subjective criterion which has created a reluctance for VAR to get involved.

The different use of replays creates an unequal balance in the relationship between officials. In rugby they seem to work as a team whereas the football referee is at the behest of his colleagues in the box – something FIFA were keen to avoid (“The referee is the sole judge of fact in law”). Rugby fans’ awareness of why, say, a try is disallowed and being able to follow that decision via a miked-up referee and replays on screens seems to enhance their experience, with the bonus of correct decisions being reached.

It is with a wry smile we recall one of the big pre-launch arguments (and one we never subscribed to) was VAR will “Kill post-match argument around decisions”.