Ask any fan what their favourite part of a game is and you’ll only ever get one answer. It is the ecstatic release of the crucial score. The Vardy volley, the Burns drop goal.  I have never heard anyone, even the most boring person from the most boring town (which is Coventry by the way), say their favourite part of the game is getting every offside decision “right”.

The best thing about Leicester City getting relegated was that the Championship has no VAR.  Goals are goals again.  Referees make mistakes but that’s just part of it.  As we’ve seen so starkly in recent weeks in the Premier League the VARs are human & just as capable of making errors.

Leicester actually has quite a history with both VAR (Video Assistant Referee, football) and TMO (Television Match Official, rugby).  The TMO was introduced into English rugby in 2001, the first ever use of it was in the Zurich Championship Final, between Leicester & Bath, when Steve Lander “went upstairs” to check the grounding on a Tigers try, as he was unsighted as a maul went over.  The first ever goal “ruled in” in English football was Kelechi Iheanacho’s 2nd goal in a 2-0 FA Cup win over Fleetwood Town in 2018.  I was at both games as it happens.

In both sports TV review was brought in because of a combination of obvious howlers & a sense that other sports were using it effectively. It is hard to see Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in 2009 and not see the benefit of allowing a referee a second chance to look at the screen & amend their decision.

But both sports show that it is impossible to keep it to just that kind of unanimous decision. Rugby is ahead of the curve, the TMO has crept slowly from being used solely for the act of scoring a try, to the phase of play leading to a try, to 3 phases before a try, to acts of foul play such as punching, to basically any decision they spot at any point of the game, to the current farce of playing tackles in slow motion from 3 different angles & if any suggests even a glancing blow to the head a yellow card must follow combined with a wailing & gnashing of teeth from the commentators. VAR is slowing going the same way as the definition of “clear & obvious” becomes more confusing & more obfuscated.

In rugby we also have the unedifying experience of listening to combined brains trust of the officials thrashing it out.  I love sausages.  Every week I buy some from Archer’s on Queens Road for a Saturday lunchtime cob. I have no desire to know how, exactly, they are made & less than zero interest in being told while I am in the middle of eating them. VAR and TMO are the same, maintaining a bit of polite distance from the gruesome business of officiating a sports match is better for us all.

The pouring over of the minutiae of the match sucks all the joy from the game, it empowers the worst aspects of us. The worst aspects of me at least.  In the rugby particularly where the referees are, frankly, weaker and can clearly be influenced it only encourages bombarding them with abuse & appeals for decisions. It works. You stand on the terrace & the referee is not 10m from you, the assistant referee or flag wagger is almost in touching distance. They can hear you. They react to you. If 15 or 50 people are screaming blue murder they check it.  Why not?  If it’s there you want to give it, and if it’s not you’ve covered your back.

When we score as soon as the initial euphoria of the score has passed you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, was there anything wrong with it? Please TV don’t show a replay and just let it stand. In rugby they play the TV commentary in the TMO room (unbelievable as that is, it’s true, one of them said it in an interview with magazine Rugby World) so a game being on TV, and who the commentators are makes a material affect on the decisions. In football the purple screen of doom after a goal gets the biggest groan of the night.

This is not fun. Getting your own scores ruled out is 10 times worse than when they go in your favour, and the sliver of hope that an opposition score gets ruled out and the appeals that brings is not fun. Everyone could do with repeating the affirmation “This is supposed to be entertaining; this is supposed to be fun”.

This is before we talk about the effect on the tempo of the game.  Football is an entirely free flowing game, the artificial breaks while the VAR places his dubious lines to determine offside to a gnat’s testicle tolerance char badly with the atmosphere, the occasion and the game.  Rugby is not without its breaks but there is a natural rhythm to the game that is lost with the constant chiming in from the “man in the van”.

There is no doubt when it goes for you it can be great. I’ll never forget Wembley & the despair turning to confusion, finally turning to elation as Chelsea’s equaliser was ruled out for a VERY CLEAR OFFSIDE THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Who hasn’t seen the video and enjoyed the schadenfreude of the Chelsea fans gloating then sudden realisation when VAR ruled it out? But those moments are nothing compared to what we have lost.

Is it possible to have a minimal TMO or VAR? Where Henry’s handball is picking up but anything with a touch of grey is let go?  20 years of rugby & 5 years of football tells us unfortunately the answer is no. We need to let go & recognise that mistakes can happen. And video refereeing is the biggest mistake of them all.


Words by Stuart Keene

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