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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Money issue adds no value to argument over video refs

The Thursday column

Video replays wouldn’t have settled the debate over Seb Larsson's red card
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This is one of those columns I want to write with the caps lock on because the message needs shouting rather than a gentle delivery, but I know how hard that is on the eyes so I’ll stick with traditional upper and lower case.

Since I spelt out why the impending introduction of the video assistant referee, or VAR as it is known (note the project is so far advanced it even has its own acronym), nothing I have heard or read has derailed my conviction that it will ruin football.

Indeed, thanks to the absurdity of the pro-VAR arguments, I am now more concerned than ever of the damage it will cause. Every day someone tries to state the case for why it will help but they only succeed in offering yet another chilling insight into how it will catastrophically break up the flow of matches and in return all we will get is a tiny, barely noticeable uplift in the number of correct decisions that are made.

On Monday Henry Winter, rightly regarded as one of the best football writers there has ever been, said of Sebastian Larsson’s red card for Sunderland against Manchester United the previous day: “Hackett and Halsey say Larsson on Herrara was not excessive force so yellow not red. Poll says red. Refs split. Roll on VARs.”

I assumed at first this tweet was laced in sarcasm and he was making the point that if three ex-refs could not agree with the actual arbiter there was no point having an official in a video booth because his decision would be unreliable.

But the Times wordsmith then followed up by tweeting: “Larsson red shows why VARs needed.”

It’s utterly bewildering. So if the VAR was a leading former match official – and that would seem a sensible idea given that (a) they presumably retain their powers of judgement even if they can’t get around the pitch as well these days and (b) it might limit their grubby desire to earn a few quid by slagging off their former colleagues – it is clear they would not always get the decision right even with the help of videos.

Keith Hackett and Mark Halsey viewed the footage of Larsson’s challenge and decided he should have been booked, whereas Graham Poll decided Craig Pawson was right to brandish the expulsion tool.

Brilliant. Cue more confusion and controversy with the added bonus of a lengthy delay to the game while the VAR painstakingly reviews the action. What a joke.

 Then on Tuesday a Juventus player was flagged for offside and immediately made all the classic gestures of a player who disagreed with the linesman.

Commentator Ian Darke reacted by claiming the incident could have worked out very differently if a VAR was available, whereupon his colleague Steve McManaman rightly pointed out that the ball had not gone into the net so it probably would not have been reviewed.

“Players will just have to carry on and ignore the whistle then,” said Darke, seemingly seriously.

So he, and indeed others who do not share the minority (but correct) view that video refereeing will be a farcical disaster for football, actually think when an attacking side get pinged for offside they should just play on regardless and hope they can stick the ball in the net so the VAR can decide whether or not the flag was raised correctly.

That’s ridiculous enough but of all the gormless, irrelevant arguments put forward to support the introduction of video referees, none is as mad as the chillingly popular one I have heard far too often lately: that we have to get these decisions right because there is so much money at stake.

The simple answer to that is I don’t care. It’s not my money. If a team is relegated by a bad call that’s no concern of mine and nor should any fan be remotely interested in the financial implications.

It has always been possible that a team could drop down a division because a referee wrongly awarded a penalty. We have lived quite comfortably with that risk for well over a century so I don’t understand why it is such an issue now.

Even if a referee with access to a replay was on duty, the vast majority of teams suffer demotion because they are not good enough and blaming the ref would just add embarrassment to the relegated side’s ineptitude.

One reader contacted me recently to comment: “So you’re saying, just to let you (and others) selfishly enjoy a moment of pleasure, you want major decisions which could affect the outcome of a multi-million pound industry to continue to be totally on the shoulders of one official who may or may not get it right in the split second he has at his disposal.”

Yes. Yes I do.

And it is not selfish to want to enjoy that moment of pleasure when your team scores without having to quell your delight and glance nervously towards the ref in case he using his index fingers to indicate he wants to go upstairs.

That moment of pleasure is why I support a team and why I bother to go to games. Take that away and football instantly loses its magic and becomes nothing but a set of data.

Supporters of the introduction of video refs have not thought it through properly. Their arguments can be easily defeated by throwing in a scenario and asking them how it would pan out. It is actually quite fun watching their sentences tail off as they realise they have reached checkmate.

If the vast majority of football fans genuinely believe something needs to be done to improve refereeing decisions then let’s at least trial the extra assistants behind each goal line.

These people do not, as is commonly claimed by morons, stand there doing nothing just because they do not have a flag like their colleagues on each touchline. They communicate with the ref verbally via a headset and their extra eyes improve the accuracy of decisions without delaying the game.

If we go straight from where we are now to a new world of VARs it will be the worst thing football has ever done, and the only consolation will be hearing those who currently hanker for it backtracking like mad when they have sat through yet another half that lasted well over an hour and did nothing to benefit the accuracy of the decisions.


Aintree feast shouldn’t be an afterthought

The racing calendar has its imperfections. Goodwood and Galway simply shouldn’t take place in the same week, for example, and that summer Saturday when the July Cup is staged is ludicrously hectic.

But there is no worse a piece of scheduling than the proximity of Cheltenham to Aintree, an almost bizarre planning fault that would never happen if we incinerated the calendar and started again.

How it is tolerated I have no idea. I sometimes speak to trainers who offer a resigned shrug of regret that the two biggest meetings in the jumps season take place within two or three weeks of each other, but other than that everyone just gets on with it.

This year there were two weeks and three days between Gold Cup day and the start of Aintree but sometimes that gap is only 13 days, which is crazy.

Something must be done to enable the best horses to run – and run effectively without being hampered by fatigue – at Cheltenham, Aintree and also Punchestown, which this year starts 18 days after the Grand National.

With some fixture conundrums there is little obvious chance of an easy solution, but this particular problem is actually quite easily remedied. Bring Cheltenham forward by one week or ideally two.

Neither option would cause great disruption, with Kempton’s meeting that features the BetBright Cup having the scope to come forward as well.

An earlier Cheltenham festival might minimise the chances of the crowd enjoying a beautiful spring day like the one we were treated to on the Wednesday last month, but that would be a small price to pay for a better structured end to the season.

As things stand, Aintree’s brilliant meeting is, with the exception of the National, treated as something of an afterthought and suffers from a lack of the intense build-up that helps make Cheltenham so special.

Of all the suggestions this column has made down the years this has one of the slimmest hopes of being heard, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

There is simply too little to get excited about in January and February and then not enough time to enjoy the feast that follows the famine.

Even if a referee with access to a replay was on duty, the vast majority of teams suffer demotion because they are not good enough
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