Chris Dance has a rant at the usual suspect.
Remember the clamour for professional referees? I first became aware of it in the early nineties, when the world decided that we hooligans were right after all, football was very important, and they repackaged it as a flashy gameshow, stuffed it with whooshing noises and scribbled on the screen while fireworks went off and Martin Tyler screamed about the liveness of it all until his eyeballs popped out of his head.
In the early years of this gaudy jamboree there was a swelling grumble that the one thing spoiling this otherwise perfect new sport was the poor refereeing. This would be solved, the grumblers insisted, by making the referees professional. Putting some men on a payroll would instantly give them bionic vision and make them infallible: salaried men never make mistakes. The theory was as logical as it sounded, and we ended up with flawless pros like David Elleray.And Graham Poll. Phil Dowd. Uriah Rennie. (Insert your least favourite here). At least they got better paid to be abused, I suppose.
All of these men ruined my day at least once, and as a football supporter I carry my grudges against them with unshifting conviction. But putting those aside I am able to look at the bigger picture and say that, by and large, I think referees do a bloody good job. It’s hard. I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how they get so much right, frankly.
I recently heard a gob on a podcast spewing that the state of refereeing in our top league has now hit rock bottom and is beyond repair, and he couldn’t see how things are ever going to get better. Well here’s an idea for him, and for every other pundit and podcaster flapping their tongue about to that effect (incidentally, recent studies show that you are now never more than two hundred yards away from a man who does a podcast that casts a sideways glance at the beautiful game). I know how things could get a bit better, and it’s quite simple: we can stop analysing the game to death.
Of course this has all been exacerbated by VAR, which football has always needed like it needs the ball replacing with a sharp box of trumpets. VAR is now so awful that if you could capture it on cloth you could make a Spurs third kit from it. I hear a lot of arguments that it’s not VAR itself but the way it’s used that’s the problem, which I’m sure I’ve heard said about guns too. Anyway.
It’s not a coincidence that the more cameras you point at football the more mistakes you see. There is a price to pay for this, for trying to iron out all traces of human fallibility from football: the price is that one day there won’t be any referees left. If I was a referee now I’d be jacking it in. Who wants their work scrutinised like that? Every movement, every decision pored over by your bosses and then queried and criticised for weeks by panels of tight-trousered thickos, just in case a tiny mistake is made that might cost a top top club a few million quid, Gary, it’s shocking, very much so.
There is already plenty to hate about the handing over of refereeing to technology, but the constant redrawing of lines and laws does nothing but multiply the chaos. This is what happens when you give the football authorities an inch: they take millions of miles. It’s turned out to be a very short step from “It’ll only be to check if the ball has crossed the line” to “Josh, roll the tape back five minutes and measure that left back’s knee“. At this rate we’re only a few tweaks away from Stockley Park reviewing the whole game at full time and Nick Knowles announcing the result as part of the lottery programme.
Even the slavering money-grabbers who launched the Premier League with the tagline, “It’s a whole new ball game,” didn’t mean it quite like this, but a whole new ball game it now most definitely is, one about what the ball might have hit, where it was possibly going, and who was near it making what silhouette. We’ve now got fingers being ruled offside and arms being deemed not arms. When you open the door to this sort of scrutiny, this is the outcome. It barges in with an update here and a reboot there, and before you know it you’ve got a bloody animated paperclip with the face of Mike Riley, saying, “It looks like you’re trying to referee a game of football! Do you need help with that?”
What football needs is less technology, not more. It’s time we started helping referees, rather than undermining them. That means less inspection and fewer replays, and absolutely none in super-slo-motion, which is one of the most misleading developments of the whole mess. Slowed down to Gareth Barry’s pace, the slightest contact can be made to look malicious. Freeze almost any tackle and there’ll be a frame from one particular angle where it looks like attempted murder. You could smear marmalade over the camera lens and point it at a cloud and it wouldn’t show you a less accurate picture of what really happened. Take away those replays and fan angst is vastly reduced. I’d champion no replays at all, so the game on television has to be experienced as it is by the thousands of supporters who normally go to matches in person every week and enjoy the spectacle for what it is. Live, once, and with no gormless pundits boring on for a week afterwards. What’s not to like about that?
When global pandemics allow I go to watch my local non-league side, along with a few hundred other people from this suburb. Aside from a microwave oven which blasts the pies to the temperature of Vesuvius there is next to no technology at the ground. I take it in good faith that the referee will do his best, just as all the players will throughout the match, and that occasionally they’ll all make the odd boob here and there, what with them being humans and all that. The matches I watch are imperfect but entertaining, the experience infinitely more enjoyable than any Premier League football I’ve seen recently. Not one game I’ve seen would have been enhanced by stopping the play to watch any single moment back. Forensically analysing every incident from all angles is no different to Gordon Ramsey shining his ultra-violet torch over a motel bedspread to show you where somebody once leaked. It might be enlightening but it makes you feel sick and keeps you awake at night. Personally I’d rather not know.
When I’ve argued against VAR – and I have, with gusto – I tend to be engulfed in whatiffery; what if my team lost to a goal that should have been disallowed? What if a bad decision meant relegation, or a lost cup final? My answer is that it already has. My team, like every other, has both benefitted and suffered from mistakes many times. When it goes your way you accept it, because often it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t you’re bloody annoyed. I’m not sure it evens itself out, as some like to claim, but that’s sport: like life, sometimes it’s grossly unfair. As Pete Davies once wrote, “Football is not about justice. It’s a drama – and criminally wrong decisions against you are part and parcel of that.”
Pundits always bang on about wanting ‘consistency’ and ‘common sense’ from referees, but as long as referees are lots of different human beings these things are incompatible, that dream is unachievable. Yes, Mike Dean would have pulled out a red card for that, but it was Kevin Friend so it was a free-kick the other way. In the same way that Kane would have buried that chance, but it fell to Richarlison so he fell over clutching his face instead. Maybe this would all be easier if we regarded refs as part of the conditions, like the wind or the rain or the artificial turf. Or accepted that they’re different, rather than trying to level things up with machinery.
VAR hasn’t improved anyone’s judgment. It hasn’t made football any fairer. All it’s done is make everyone wait a very long time for a dreadful decision, and worst of all it’s made us all pause before we dare to punch the air. It’s killed that spontaneous, joyous moment that we watch football for.
And it’s made people think that referees are worse than ever, when they’re probably not. It’s something the authorities need to discuss. And while they’re doing that, someone should sneak in and box up every last camera, monitor, SCART lead and extension cable that makes VAR possible and take it all down to Barnardos. Stick it next to a crate of Val Doonican records and flog it all for a fiver I’d rather go back to the old method of referees making instant, human, catastrophic errors all on their own. David Elleray never needed any help with that.