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Wednesday, 19 December, 2018

Finally weight of opinion is shifting against the evils of VAR

The Thursday column

Leroy Sane of Manchester City scores a goal which would be ruled offside
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When you get things right as infrequently as I do you are afforded little opportunity to practise smugness, but I have had ample chance to get the hang of it since the VAR experiment started.

I’ve kept quiet about it here lately because (a) banging the same drum is boring and (b) I wanted to sit back and enjoy seeing people defect from pro to anti, as has been the case since this stupid idea was inflicted upon real football matches.

There are still a few obstinate souls who steadfastly refuse to admit that VAR is a disaster even though they must know it deep down, but plenty of others who, understandably it must be said, originally thought the idea of referring to a video replay would rid the game of a supposed curse of incorrect decisions but have not been too proud to admit it is actually an appalling innovation.

It is still said from time to time that whether we like it or not VAR is here to stay so we had better get used to it. That is not true. It is clear from how people have reacted to the experiment that it is largely unpopular and I believe it will only take one more farce in the World Cup to kill it for good.

It has been in the matches when it has not been used as much in those when it has been deployed that it is so clear why the VAR is unwanted.

The last three games involving Manchester City - two against Liverpool either side of the weekend derby - have been superbly chaotic affairs that have ebbed and flowed and illustrated just why football’s wonderful tempo is one of its greatest assets.

Stopping any of those games to check whether the ref had got it right would have killed the rhythm and created far more sterile encounters. And of course there is no guarantee whatsoever that any contentious decisions would have been rectified to provide what those remaining VAR advocates ludicrously refer to as justice.

Exhibit A is the disallowed goal for City that would have brought the Champions League tie on Tuesday back to 2-3 and made things extremely interesting.

The flag was raised incorrectly because the ball had rebounded from Liverpool keeper Loris Karius’s punch off one of his teammates, thus meaning Leroy Sane should not have been triggered for offside.

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But all three BT commentators, as well as the officials on the pitch, assumed the rebound had come off a City player despite the fact Pep Guardiola was doing his nut on the sideline.

At half-time the outstanding punditry team of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard (they may not have operated in perfect harmony on the pitch but they certainly do in the studio) and Rio Ferdinand picked up on the controversy, but there followed a comical cameo from Chris Foy.

The latest member of the ex-ref fraternity to earn a smutty fee for slagging off the current crop of arbiters reviewed footage of the incident and made a series of laughably wishy-washy comments about how hard it was to tell whether or not Sane was offside.

So if he had missed the source of the rebound who is to say the actual video assistant referee would not have done likewise?

Hilariously, BT attempted to spare Foy’s blushes and so commentary of the second period was interrupted while Foy, by now having finally cottoned on to what had happened, was given the chance to make a woefully late face-saving clarification of the situation, culminating in the hapless conclusion “the goal stood have should”. 

I was half expecting him to return five minutes later to reveal Thierry Henry did actually handball it against Ireland but thankfully that was the last we heard from him.

One of my favourite attempts to defend VAR is that it works perfectly well in rugby league, but having watched plenty of that fine sport over the Easter period I can confirm that is absolutely not the case.

Indeed the constant referrals to the video ref are the single most irritating thing when watching rugby league.

It is now impossible to celebrate the vast majority of tries with any sense of spontaneous joy because it is literally odds-on that the ref will make the imaginary square and let the video official spend ages painstakingly trying to detect an infringement of any sort in the build-up.

The situation was summed up perfectly by Hull coach Lee Radford after his side had won the derby with Hull KR on Good Friday.

He said: “The frustration of mine is the game took two hours. The difference from us and rugby union is the speed of the game, but too much is going up to the video referee.

“If the game isn’t on Sky, the ref has to make the decisions himself. You’re almost dreading a Sky game.”

So not only does the VAR not work remotely perfectly in rugby league, it has also not been working remotely perfectly for more than a decade, which rubbishes the popular but flimsy theory that the football equivalent of this ill-judged quest for refereeing perfection will get quicker.

Football became the world’s most popular sport because it is crazy and mad and chaotic and unpredictable. Introducing lengthy stoppages to refer the key moments to the video official will kill all that and therefore eventually kill the game. VAR really does carry that level of risk.

It warms my heart that so many people have realised this and now see VAR as a huge threat that needs to be dealt with urgently, but sadly those with the power to keep it alive are still trying to justify it, so the war goes on.

I hope and suspect, however, that by the time the World Cup final has been played on July 15 the appetite for referring decisions to a video assistant will have disappeared once and for all.

Five ways to improve all our sporting lives

If I was one of those columnists who could write about whatever they like, a list of five things that would improve my life right now would be topped by train passengers acting far less selfishly.

Since being forced from the comfort of my car a few months ago to becoming a rail commuter I have found my blood pressure rising on a twice-daily basis by people sitting in the aisle seat and resting their bag on the window seat.

This is fine when the train is empty but as it fills up, rather than pre-empt the arrival of more passengers looking for seats and moving to the window seat while putting their bag on their lap, these vile people sit tight and force you to have to humbly ask them to move.

Worse still, you regularly get situations whereby people who are too meek to ask these scumbags to move stand in packed aisles while seats remain occupied by bags. I despair.

Anyway, this is a sport column so I have to restrict myself to sporting annoyances such as these five.

1 The continuation of 24-hour declarations for the vast majority of jump races
This has to stop. One of the joys of the Cheltenham festival this year is that all runners were declared at the 48-hour stage, meaning we had far more chance to study form, place bets and generally get enthused by each contest. Aintree should have followed suit but instead they have continued with this half-baked composite of 24- and 48-hour decs, which means, for example, that the fields for two of the four Grade 1s today were finalised on Tuesday with the other two being revealed yesterday. Illogical and pointless.

The BHA should make all jump races 48-hour declarable and at the same time keep up the good work to minimise non-runners using the removal of the self-certification facility for those trainers who are constantly pulling out their horses.

2 Umpires should signal when it is not out
If it is necessary for the fielding team to appeal when they think a batsman is out, it should be equally necessary for the umpire to make it clear he has turned down that appeal. Some deign to give a little shake of the head but others just stare impassively down the track. Poor communication.

3 No it’s not a matchplay situation
Listen up, golf commentators. When a strokeplay tournament appears to boil down to a duel between two people, that does not make it a matchplay situation as you love to tell us. In matchplay if one guy plays a hole in three shots and the other takes six the one who takes three wins the hole. In a strokeplay situation he zooms three shots clear. It’s completely different so stop saying it.

4 I need to avoid being careless
In last week’s column I clumsily promoted Matthew Tester to the new BHA head of handicapping when the reality is Phil Smith’s replacement will, of course, be Dominic Gardiner-Hill. Sincere apologies for my shoddiness.

5 A bookable offence is a bookable offence
Except for the vast majority of referees it is not if it takes place within roughly three minutes of the opening whistle having been blown. It remains the case that players know they can go in hard and illegally on opponents early on safe in the knowledge the ref is highly unlikely to pull out a card. It is something that requires an urgent clampdown.

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Constant referrals to the video ref are the single most irritating thing when watching rugby league
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