A survey concluding that Middlesbrough is the worst place in England to live couldn’t quite do it. Nor could Dave Jones’ incompetence as manager of his beloved Hartlepool United, or their subsequent relegation to non-league. But with each passing rant, you wonder whether VAR will succeed where each of these just came up short and ultimately break Jeff Stelling.
On last weekend’s edition of football’s answer to Gogglebox, Sky’s Soccer Saturday, Stelling veered dangerously close to entering full Partridge mode, shouting “What’s happened to the game?” and urging the Premier League to scrap the ‘worthless, pointless and total waste of time’ after two particularly pedantic rulings assisted by the technology.
As the show’s presenter, Stelling, of course, is privileged enough to have a platform to air his views, while the rest of us are reduced to booing Martin Atkinson, chanting ‘f*** VAR’ and going for toilet breaks during checks instead. But beneath his theatrics, there was more than a grain of truth to this diatribe; a sense that here was a man echoing the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of football fans equally as passionate about the game, equally as dismayed by VAR, as him.
Not that he was entirely correct, though. There is undeniably value to VAR, and the Premier League should not and will not get shot of it just three months after introducing it. Teething problems were inevitable, even if this week’s seven-out-of-ten rating for its performance so far from its chief, Neil Swarbrick, seems overly charitable.
With Everton, along with Manchester City, Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion, writing to the Premier League to express their concerns over VAR this week, and the league and the PGMOL promising better in-stadium provision from December, it all feels like it’s suddenly come to a head. So, perhaps it’s best at this point to remind ourselves of the purpose VAR is supposed to serve.
As stated on the Premier League’s official website, ‘VAR can be used to overturn a subjective decision if a “clear and obvious error” has been identified’. The issue so far, though, has been that it has dove head-first into the minutiae of just what this entails. John Lundstram’s toe being offside in the build-up to an overturned Sheffield United equaliser at Tottenham last week (almost four minutes after the incident in question) is not clear and obvious. Nor was Roberto Firmino’s armpit supposedly being past the line of defence at Aston Villa the week before. Instead of serving its originally-intended purpose, each weekend there seems to be another case of the referee giveth, and the referee, after minutes of looking busy and fiddling with his ear, taketh away.
Indeed, slowly but surely, it feels as though the man in black is becoming obsolete, instead a mouthpiece for the real adjudicator, who is busying himself drawing arbitrary, multi-coloured lines on a screen in Stockley Park. The overbearing desire for officials to show its impact, to prove its worth, to silence its naysayers, ends up getting lost in the tedium of it all, and comes off as having some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder. So much so, in fact, that the good in VAR - such as this season’s increase to 91 per cent accuracy in refereeing decisions - becomes rapidly overshadowed by the ill it imposes on supporters, managers and players.
From an Everton perspective, Farhad Moshiri could be forgiven if he afforded Marco Silva a stay of execution as manager solely due to the pitfalls of VAR’s implementation. They squandered a lead at Brighton with ten minutes left after Michael Keane was deemed to stand a little too clearly and obviously on Aaron Connolly’s foot, conceding a penalty. Everton then lost 3-2 in a game which turned on a decision the Premier League has since acknowledged was incorrect. Fat lot of good that does now, mind.
Then the Tottenham game; possibly the most-discussed awful football match in history. While VAR took a back seat to André Gomes’ horrible injury in the immediate aftermath, this in itself should not distract from just how farcical the officiating was. First Theo Walcott’s foul on Ben Davies was reviewed to see if it was worthy of a red, then a potential penalty for Son Heung-min was checked not once, but twice, then a possible Everton spot-kick for a Dele Alli handball was brought to Martin Atkinson’s attention. Then the absence of an intervention when two separate Davinson Sánchez challenges on Richarlison caused the Brazilian to fall to the ground. Oh - and a side note - it ended 1-1.
It’s impossible to say for certain that Everton would have won both games with the correct use of VAR, but it at least renders that outcome far more feasible. Had Silva’s team earned those extra five points, they would currently be fifth, rather than 15th. This is how fine the line is in a particularly clustered league table this year, where besides the top four, the rest is really just much of a muchness.
What was particularly striking in the Tottenham game, though, was that even when technology ruled in Spurs’ favour, boredom and apathy to the procedure ruled over their contingent of travelling fans to the extent that even they performed a rendition of these explicit anti-VAR hits. Not that anyone inside the ground other than Atkinson was allowed to know what was being reviewed; no, it’s nothing more than a graphic on the big screen telling us mere mortals that something is being checked. The inconsistency in the decision-making, the endless monotony of waiting minutes on end for a man miles away in West London to reach a conclusion on an issue which, half the time you didn’t even spot clearly yourself, ultimately results in a siphoned atmosphere and diminishing returns for the paying customer.
How do you fix it? Well, the Premier League have already said these on-screen graphics for match-goers will be enhanced from December; instead of just saying ‘checking penalty’, it will now afford us the luxury of telling us what the potential penalty would be for (i.e. ‘checking penalty: possible handball’). Sure, it’s a baby step, but already it feels like we’ve gone through the looking glass and reached ‘take what we can get’ territory here.
Other than that, a time limit on checks, say 30 seconds, would not guarantee an invariable correct ruling, but would at least alleviate much of the thumb-twiddling among spectators. A rewriting of the rule on pitch-side monitors, too, which were generally well-received when used in last year’s World Cup, might be worth considering. At present, they can solely be used for unseen incidents or when deemed outside of the referee’s expectation range which, in that case, means it should be no surprise that they have been essentially reduced to the role of touchline bystanders thus far.
But above all else, just use it sparingly. Save it for the real clangers; the ones that even the peasants in the stands can spot without assistance. Because so far, a form of technology that was supposed to eradicate post-match ‘was he/wasn’t he?’ pub chatter is simply enhancing it, albeit in a far duller form about armpits, toes and squiggly lines.
As it is, 12 rounds of Premier League matches, about 800 checks, 29 overturned decisions and countless full-blooded Stelling tirades later, VAR has only added fuel to the Luddite fire, and typified the notion that you really can have too much of a good thing.