It’s Football, But Not As We Know It.

RENFREW FC – Match Programme

League – August 22nd 2018 – Hurlford United

IT’S FOOTBALL, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT.

Time and tide wait for no man.

But, it would seem, both are understanding of the tardiness displayed by this great game of ours, Football.

While the world of sport in general has been quick to embrace the advancement of technology, Football has remained rather reticent; reluctant to change a perceived winning formula, preferring instead to adopt an ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,’ mentality.

For although there have been circa seventy changes to the laws of the game in the last fifty years (I will, perhaps, count them properly for a future article), many are simple tweaks to existing rules for the purpose of clarification, and nothing more.

Others are purely cosmetic, it would appear, instigated one could imagine, as a simple tactic to further delay the implementation of available scientific advancement. (Non-intervening, pointless and superfluous assistant referees behind the goals, for instance.)

However, the sport has now been dragged screaming and kicking into the twenty-first century, and we are witness to several key changes, both technological and human, some of which are of definite benefit and others which will, I think, possibly lead to further controversy.

Of the former, ‘goal-line technology’ is a winner. The ‘hawkeye’ system employed by the English FA, amongst others, is factual; it accurately tracks the ball’s position in relation to the goal line; it is not subjective, reliant on the opinion and adjudication of video referee, and there is no argument – the scoring team is correctly rewarded.

(I find it ironic that this innovation resulted from a disallowed ‘goal’ by England’s Frank Lampard while playing against Germany at a World Cup tournament in 2010! After much discussion, the laws were amended in 2012, and the English FA sanctioned its deployment for the 2013/ 2014 season. Incidentally, the first goal directly awarded by this method was that of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko against Cardiff City on 18th January 2014.)

Doubtless encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive manner in which all this was accepted, the Game’s decision-makers decided to follow the lead of other sports and phase in the Video Assistant Referee (VAR.) Of course this was given high profile visibility at this years’ World Cup in Russia, and elicited polar views.

Here’s where I’m at with this:
In UK, Rugby League first introduced the video referee in the 1996 Superleague season. I think it’s fair to say this has worked well in the twenty-two years since. Rugby Union was a little later to the party, but in 2001 it too introduced the TMO. Again, there is little resistance to the manner in which this is used. But where I and others have reservations, is that in the two rugby codes, the decision to use the technology is made by the on-field referee.

Now I’m not big on rugby union, so I speak more from the viewpoint of the thirteen man code: the facility is there for situations where the referee’s sight of a particular event is impeded and he feels there could be the possibility of him making an incorrect call. But his interpretation is still placed on record, and should the video evidence prove inconclusive, the ref’s call stands.

In such situations, his authority is not undermined.

But in the Football version of VAR, there were instances where the referee received messages in his earpiece from the Video Referees in the stadium studio, drawing his attention to something he may have missed. As we witnessed, there were times when this message reached the on-field ref during the following passage of play, which would then be stopped to the bemusement of players, managements and fans alike.

The referee then had the opportunity to view the disputed incident on a pitch-side monitor and possibly call back play to the point of the infraction.

Firstly, this system already seems much more convoluted than that of the Rugby models. Secondly, in this instance, the referee’s initial decision is being undermined, because when he is ‘invited’ to look at the monitor, he is effectively being told he cocked-up. This will not do his own confidence much good for the remainder of the game.

It puts the referee under much more pressure in my opinion. Either that, or in the case of a totally inefficient or lazy referee, it will encourage a reluctance to make any kind of decision, knowing that there is back-up from the video panel.

And what will be the players’ interpretation of all this? You can bet your bottom dollar they’ll play on it:

“Come on ref! You missed that last one. You’ve got this one wrong too.”

I know it is meant to be a bookable offence for players or managers to appeal for the ref to review a situation using the technology – but so is shirt-pulling and blocking in the penalty-box at corners / free kicks. It will take a very brave referee to implement this.

And here’s another thing – in Rugby League, video play-back cannot be used to determine a forward pass. All to do with camera angles and speed of play and all that. And yet in football, we have seen VAR used to determine possible offside situations. Linesmen, or assistant referees, were, I believe, instructed not to flag for offside in Russia – that any contentious incidents would be reviewed by the VAR team.

Sorry – that’s an absolute nonsense! Using video for those instances resulted in some very marginal decisions. Yes, technically, if a forward’s left ankle is closer to the opponent’s goal than the backside of the defender, he is offside. But come on – realistically, how much of an advantage has been gained?

Nope – leave offside out of it all. I for one don’t want to see a speedy, skilful player who times his run to within a couple of centimetres be penalised. I’d far rather shout at the linesman, if supporting the defender’s team, and head off home with a distinct sense of injustice.

And here’s another thing, one that may have slipped under the radar with the focus having been on VAR: from this season, managers and coaching staff in England will be able to view replays of key moments in a match on their phones and tablets, while in the dugout, as the game progresses. (This has been going on covertly for some time no doubt, but has now been deemed officially acceptable.)

Again, they will not be allowed to appeal decisions on the basis of video evidence. Nor will they be allowed to show on-field players where they went wrong / did well. But how long will it be before this is blatantly misused.

I for one am sceptical regards two of these three innovations. But given they are likely to remain (there has been so much financial investment in the first two) then I think it essential that the fourth change, currently being piloted at Step 7 and below in England, be fast-tracked.

This, a ten –minute playing-time Sin Bin punishment for players showing dissent to the referee, is going to be needed!

I concede many will enthusiastically welcome the oncoming tide of change, and may consider the above as no more than the ramblings of a grumpy old King Canute.

All I’m saying is I hope it doesn’t leave our Game all at sea.

THE MAD HATTER