he reluctance by football’s governing bodies to introduce technology always centered on the potential to undermine the referee. And now it has. But not in the way that we might have expected.
Saturday night saw a farce at Anfield as Liverpool went down 3-2 to West Brom in the FA Cup fourth round with Alan Pardew claiming that the use of the VAR system was ‘bizzare’. I’d love to have heard his comments if West Brom had lost.
Referee Craig Pawson referred to the controversial VAR system on eight separate occasions becoming increasingly unsure of his own decisions and showing little faith in the judgment of his assistant referees either. Pawson’s reluctance to believe his own eyes saw hold up after hold up and a system that showed itself to be anything but the finished product.
Craig Dawson had seemingly headed Albion 3-1 ahead from a corner but VAR showed clearly that teammate Gareth Barry was interfering with play in an offside position. It was a decision that referees and assistants used to be able to make themselves within five seconds.
Just before half-time, VAR came into play again as Dawson’s cross-shot was turned in by Matip. Rodriguez had been offside earlier in the move, but as he had not touched the ball at any point he was not interfering with play. The television footage was reviewed and the goal stood but you had to wonder again why the assistant referee couldn’t have been trusted to call it himself.
But the longest stoppage surrounded a penalty awarded to Liverpool midway through the first half after Jake Livermore was adjudged to have tugged the shoulder of Mo Salah. Pawson referred to a monitor by the players’ tunnel and, after consulting with video assistant referee Andre Marriner, pointed to the spot.
The decision did nothing to appease West Brom’s players who were adamant that Salah had dived. It was an incident that needed resolving but that resolution did not receive anything like a universal agreement both on the night or since.
Three minutes passed between the initial incident and Firmino’s penalty, which struck the underside of the crossbar. The first half ended on 50 minutes.
The pauses hurt Pardew’s team with the West Brom manager suggesting that the time delay in making decisions led to hamstring injuries for two of his players as they stood around in freezing conditions.
Pardew said, “We have to keep our players ticking over. It took so long. You’re going from such high-tempo work to literally waiting. That’s something we need to look at.”
The bigger concern for me — after all I’m not the West Brom manager — is that while referee Pawson was watching the VAR evidence for Liverpool’s penalty claim, he had West Brom defenders Johnny Evans and Allan Nyom in his ear trying to persuade him not to give it.
That’s not right but in fairness to Evans and Nyom it was clearly worth a go because Pawson was referring everything to VAR and the players knew that he was clearly unsure of himself.
And this is the danger with VAR. the spectacle of football as we know it instead becomes a sanitised version of itself with fans struggling to muster up an atmosphere around the decisions that decide matches.
Nobody argued when goal line technology came in because it was black and white. A goal has either been scored or it hasn’t. Goal-line technology clinically took away the uncertainty around certain human decisions.
But VAR doesn’t always give that certainty. Liverpool’s penalty claim on Saturday, for example, was open to interpretation by anybody that saw it either live or on the replay. VAR could not tell us for sure if Jake Livermore had pulled Mo Salah down because it isn’t able to gauge the pressure being applied to Salah’s shoulder. It can’t tell us what either player was thinking and it knows nothing about the context of the match.
It might sound like a tenuous argument so let me reinforce it with the ultimate name drop. I was chasing Cristiano Ronaldo along the touchline and I was keeping up with him - I used to be able to shift when the mood took me – and as I got to within tackling distance I put my hand on his shoulder with about the same force as I’m using to tap the keys on my laptop. With the pitch rapidly running out as we headed to the corner, Ronaldo, predictably, collapsed in a heap.
United didn’t score from the wide free kick but I did learn a very important lesson. Referees only have the look of the situation to go on, they have no idea how strong the contact generally is. Little nudges in the back can be made to look like common assault with the right theatrics. A raised arm can be made to look like a swinging elbow if a player rolls around holding his face.
If a referee, most of whom are human, has the added benefit of his instinct to go on, then VAR has no chance, no matter how many times it replays the same incident.
VAR will continue to undermine referees but Pawson is the first referee to undermine himself. He has shown us that referees don’t trust themselves and that the technology isn’t always 100% right.
So where does that leave us? Please don’t say rugby.