The ‘magic’ of the FA Cup seems to have lost some of its sparkle with the inclusion of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) testing in some of the recent high profile matches. Of course there has still been some cracking games, enough shocks to see the likes of Newport and Wigan still in the hat for the next round and on any other Saturday evening West Brom’s result at Anfield would have been right up there with standout performance of the weekend where it not for – and BT Sport commentator John Champion took great pleasure in constantly reminding us – the use of Virtual Assistant referee Andre Marriner, who was sat in a cabin near Heathrow airport, which seems like a strange place to be regardless, let alone when you’re officiating a game in the North West.
In many the addition of VAR made for fascinating viewing, seeing the process play out with multiple incidents and in a game of such magnitude, however you couldn’t help feel that the atmosphere and all round participation of the fans was severely hampered. We were assured in the post match analysis if nothing else, that fans can leave the stadium with no sense of injustice, that the correct decisions were made with no discrepancies, which should have made for an even less lively evening down the boozer. I mean part of the fun of being a football fan, particularly an English one is the right to complain and bemoan referees and their decisions, the future of football looks worryingly peaceful!
According to referee’s chief Mike Riley, the elite officials in this country get 96 per cent of the decisions correct, which makes you wonder what all the fuss is about and why we need it in the first place? Most people would be happy being right 96 per cent of the time. Saturday night’s referee Craig Pawson had a difficult enough job on his hands as it was, implementing the new system in front of a primetime TV audience more used to be settling down to Strictly and the X-Factor, but he was some way below the 96 per cent threshold in this particular game.
The way VAR works is that in this case Andre Marriner will only get involved in instances where upon watching the replays he feels the referee made an error, he then communicates this and the game is stopped while the correct decision is reached. However the final decision will always lie with the on field referee. With that in mind it must have been a pretty stressful night for Mr Pawson, to constantly have his initial decision questioned, it must have been like having your phone on silent in a meeting and it keeps vibrating in your pocket.
There is also the small matter of the window of opportunity. It takes approximately 30-40 seconds for the VAR to watch the replays and alert the referee, however if the ball goes out of play during that period and the game restarts, guess what? Too late. The VAR has to instruct the referee not to restart the game, fans better get used to lots of waiting around. In fact clubs might have to rethink their policies on what fans can take into a game with them, a picnic hamper, laptop’s to get that assignment done, toys for the kids to play with.
In the Liverpool v West Brom game every decision that was interfered with shall we say, was resolved correctly, as it should be, given that’s the whole point. And while Roberto Firmino doesn’t have a clean bill of health when it comes to taking penalties, the five minute wait must have had an impact. And as for the pocket of West Brom fans, they must have wondered what on earth was going on when they went 3-1 up, only to see the game continue from a free kick, even those in the KOP right on top of the incident looked bemused.
Many point to Rugby Union as the shining light in this ever decreasing circle. Firstly big screen replays will have fans nodding in agreement with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘fair enough’! Sorry, don’t think so. And what about refs being mic’d up, so we can hear the cordial exchange with captains and players as the decision is explained? Chris Brunt’s reaction to not being awarded a throw in down by the corner flag, which prompted an apology by BT Sport, tells you all you need to know about the potential success therein. Perhaps the bizarre 7:45pm kick off time, will see a shift towards post watershed fixtures to compensate.
It’s hard to imagine Premier League players reacting like England rugby player Chris Robshaw to a decision, if the surrounding and shouting that accompanied Saturday’s penalty review were anything to go by.
In fact sticking with the penalty review theme, can you imagine if Craig Pawson have had to negotiate walking past Fergie on his way to the pitch side screen?! It’s safe to say there’s more grey areas than a British Isles weather map, and with each experiment comes new challenges. At one point in Saturday’s pantomime, an injured Hal Robson Kanu himself gestured for the use of the television replay, to what end nobody knows.
And in probably the greatest of ironies, something that sums up the problem with interfering with the beautiful game, West Brom manager Alan Pardew whose side had previously only recorded 2 wins in 31 visits to Anfield, and could hold his head up high, safe in the knowledge his underdogs won fair and square, criticised the ‘bizarre system’, telling reporters,
“It’s hard to know where to start, you guys are all here and are all experienced reporters and have seen many, many games. I don’t think that’s what you’d want to see going forward.”
Tormented and frustrated losing manager Jurgen Klopp on the other hand,
“It’s important that if a goal should be disallowed then it should be, that’s what we all wanted… Usually in these two situations, after the game we talk about it and I have to talk about a defeat which maybe was not deserved because we didn’t get a penalty and they scored another goal.”
Maybe we’re heading into a new era whereby winning managers out of sheer habit, complain when they win! And finally what does the future hold for 24-hour sports coverage, how on earth will they fill the airtime with all these correct decisions? Football fans reserve the right to complain, it’s what we do, it’s what we’re good at, please for the love of God don’t take that away from us.