Liam Mackey: VAR - Too much of a good thing

Liam Mackey: VAR - Too much of a good thing
A VAR decision shown on the big screen indicates Crystal Palace’s Connor Wickham is onside before the equalising goal is scored in the Premier League clash against Norwich City at Carrow Road on New Year’s Day. Picture: Marc Atkins

Perfectly good goals disallowed. Travesties of justice waved on. Players and managers tearing their hair out. Supporters in uproar. Officialdom lambasted. The grand old game going to hell in a handcart.

Ah, yes, who wouldn’t miss football’s good old pre-VAR days?

Except, of course, that the VA has actually been with us for donkey’s. Just not the R bit.

In vacant or in pensive mood — well, mostly vacant these days, to be honest — those of us who are grey of beard can cast our minds back nearly 50 years to when Leeds United saw their 1971 title challenge fatally holed in the run-in after an infamous Jeff Astle goal gave West Brom a 2-1 victory.

Crossed wires between referee Ray Tinkler and his linesman saw the Leeds players pull up for an offside flag only for West Brom’s Tony Brown, after a brief hesitation, to be allowed continue on an unimpeded run towards the Leeds goal where he squared to Astle for a simple tap-in.

At which point, understandably, proceedings descended into chaos on the pitch and on the terraces at Elland Road, with the Beeb’s Barry Davies squeakily hollering above the mayhem:

“And Leeds will go mad and they’ve every right to go mad…And that will be a decision, or a non-decision, which will be talked about for years.”

And, thanks to the video assistance of the day — that would be the television replays which, though a touch rudimentary by 21st century standards, meant millions watching Match Of The Day could see clearly what happened and, all these years later, can still see it any time they like on YouTube — Davies was right.

That the goal effectively cost Leeds the title — they won their remaining three games but finished one point behind Arsenal — has only served to cement its place in the all-time Hall Of Infamy.

Had VAR been around at the time, it would have been interesting to see what decision Stockley Park would have come to. As far as referee Tinkler was concerned, Colin Suggett, the West Brom player whose isolated position prompted the offside flag, was not interfering with play.

And so the ref overruled his linesman and effectively penalised the home side for not playing to the whistle.

Technically, Tinkler was probably within his rights to allow the goal but, given the bizarre circumstances, he would have been better advised to apply the unwritten Law 18 — the one which allows for the referee to apply some basic common sense.

And, in 2020, the very same now urgently needs to be applied to the appliance of science. You don’t need to cite the most infamous, high-profile examples, from Maradona to Thierry Henry, to recognise that the video assistant referee was long overdue in football.

For decades, football has been disfigured by routine miscarriages of justice — some proving far more costly than others — that, thanks to saturation TV coverage, have become increasingly clear and obvious to everyone bar, absurdly, the only people entrusted with the power and responsibility to actually do something about them as they occur.

VAR, in principle, is a good thing, its merits even winning over avowed sceptics during the 2018 World Cup. But, in practice, what we’re getting far too often in the Premier League this season is, literally, too much of a good thing, the wildly over-zealous use of a technology which, particularly when it comes to adjudicating on offside, is making a mockery of the concept of what constitutes either “clear” or “obvious”.

The skin of a heel here, the tip of a toe there — this is the kind of bonkers pedantry which serves only to make the cure worse than the disease.

Even more maddeningly, the cure for the cure ought not to be anything much more complicated than a dose of simple common sense. The game’s rule-making body, IFAB, said as much recently, its General Secretary Lukas Brud pointing out:

“If something is not clear on the first sight then it’s not obvious and it shouldn’t be considered… Trying to find something that was potentially not even there, this was not the idea of the VAR principle.

“In theory one millimetre offside is offside, but if a decision is taken that a player is not offside and the VAR is trying to identify through looking at five, six, seven, 10, 12 cameras whether or not it was offside, then the original decision should stand.

This is the problem: people are trying to be too forensic. We are not looking to make a better decision — we are trying to get rid of the clear and obvious mistakes.

Note, please, the almost touching reference to “people” — a necessary reminder that, contrary to the Luddite view, it’s not the technology which is calling the shots, it’s those who are charged with interpreting the evidence, with the result that a valid attempt to undo human error is frequently being undone by, well, human error.

And while it was always likely that the Premier League would experience teething problems with VAR this season, they didn’t have to compound things by taking a hammer to their mouth.

I wonder what the redoubtable Mr Tinkler, who is now 85, would make of it all? In a 2009 interview, he recalled the fall-out from his role in one of the football controversies for the ages.

“There are people who still bear a grudge,” he related. “I was a farmer and used to sell potatoes in the Barnsley, Leeds and Rotherham area. There was one man who’d come to me and say, I’ll have some of that bastard referee’s potatoes.

I used to charge him a fiver a ton extra for calling me a bastard. It’s never bothered me. I’ve always said yesterday’s dead, tomorrow’s yet to come.

Well, it’s here now. And it’s not going away. So, in more ways than one, football better learn make the best of it.

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