“So what do you make of VAR?” the guy behind the counter in my local garage asked the customer in front of me in the queue.
The question was posed in a casual, off-hand manner, like he was just making a bit of idle talk to lubricate a routine transaction for petrol and paper. The customer’s reaction was anything but relaxed, however, as he promptly erupted into a savage and prolonged denunciation of VAR, the new rules, football’s powers-that-be and how the grand old game was going to the dogs.
Except he put it a bit more colourfully than that. When he’d finally stomped off, still muttering darkly to himself, the shopkeeper surrendered to a hearty chuckle.
“Man City fan,” he said, as if an explanation was really required, adding with a smirk, “and it couldn’t happen to a better team”. Which, though he clearly didn’t mean it that way, is probably only the literal truth in the context of the current Premier League.
Not that he himself was a Spurs supporter, he hastened to assure me. It’s just that he couldn’t resist the temptation to wind up a City man, further evidence of a changing of the guard. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, ABU was the order of the day in English football. Now it’s ABC. Poor United – they can’t even claim the gong for being the most despised team in Manchester anymore.
So it wasn’t just Tottenham fans who took great delight in seeing that Gabriel Jesus’ ‘winner’ disallowed last Saturday, although having witnessed history repeat itself – “the first time as tragedy, the second time as VARce” as one wit put it - they were the ones happy to take schadenfreude to a new (decibel) level by serenading the technology to the skies.
Mischievously, Gary Neville even went a little bit further, suggesting that VAR had been Spurs’ best player in a game in which City had been utterly dominant everywhere but, at the bitter end, on the scoreboard. One presumes it’s only a matter of time, therefore, before we see patrons turning up at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium with the name VAR and the number 12 proudly emblazoned on the backs of their shirts.
Of course, the glaring irony in all this is that, strictly speaking, the all-seeing eye of the camera was not the reason why City’s stoppage-time goal celebrations were stopped in their tracks. Without the rule change which forbids any kind of contact between ball and arm in the build-up to or scoring of a goal, there would have nothing for VAR to see here, let’s all move along now, please.
But between the strict implementation of a brutally unforgiving new diktat and the technology’s ability to spot an ant offside on a blade of grass, a perfect storm of controversy was created at the Etihad. One consequence has been a surge in the criticism of VAR as a “passion-killer”, for players and fans alike, the concern being that both will become increasingly reluctant to celebrate a goal for fear that their jubilation will soon be made to die in their throats.
To which I can only say: welcome to the world of Irish football everyone, nice of you to finally catch up.
Long before Thierry Henry single handedly – or, to be more accurate, double-handedly – made his own compelling case for VAR, Irish football supporters had grown accustomed to controlling their emotions when we ‘scored’ a goal, so often had we seen our celebrations wiped out by frankly grotesque decisions on the part of the officials on the ground, especially away from home.
Like the bould Sting and his Tantric sex, the Green Army learned to master the discipline of holding back, as it were, their first impulse on seeing the ball hit the back of the opposition net being, not to give vent to joy unconfined, but rather, trembling with apprehension, to turn as one to the linesman to see, with a grim, heart-shredding inevitability, that he was slowly hoisting a flag in the air.
And if not him, then the ref would be odds-on to intervene, furiously blowing his whistle and waving a finger in the general direction of some perceived infringement, the nature of which would never be known to anyone, perhaps not even himself. And if you think I’m exaggerating, just ask Eoin Hand.
The other hand, the one of Gaul, was merely all that stuff taken to its illogical conclusion and - in common with the countless other miscarriages of justice across the whole history of football which have conspired to deny teams goals and cups and titles and promotions - remains the great, unanswerable argument in favour of today’s appliance of science.
There’s room for improvement, of course, especially in a reduction in the time it takes to reach a definitive decision – essentially, the ambition should be to get back to the good old/bad old days when goal celebrations, such as painfully outlined above, would be wiped out in a matter of a few seconds, much to the glee of opposition supporters and the mortification of the scorer who had managed to complete his spectacular triple somersault before the truth finally dawned.
Passion-killing is never nice but it’s nothing new in football. What’s important is that the motive for the killing is legitimate.