Craig Salmon's Soapbox: Will VAR kill football's appeal?

I will always remember the cloud of uncertainty and air of scepticism when football's law-makers devised the '˜back-pass rule' in 1992.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 17th January 2018, 9:05 am
Updated Thursday, 18th January 2018, 9:45 am
Jon Moss calls upon the VAR on Tuesday night
Jon Moss calls upon the VAR on Tuesday night

For a century and more, outfield players had been able to knock the ball back to the sanctuary of their goalkeeper, who was able to pick the ball up.

I myself – a child predominantly of the 1980s – recall during my junior football days being relieved to toe-poke the ball to the safe hands of our No.1 under pressure from the opposing striker after a lung-bursting run back towards my own goal.

But in an attempt to make the game better and more exciting, the ground-breaking rule – which prevented goalkeepers from picking the ball up after it had been intentionally kicked back to them by one of their own players – was made law and a fundamental change to the game came into force.

Encouraging defenders and goalkeepers alike to be more skilled in possession, the back-pass rule has made the game more free-flowing and also eradicated a once common time-wasting tactic.

While some traditionalists objected at the time, there can be no doubt that the rule has been a huge success and has benefited the game immensely.

Now fast forward more than 25 years, football is faced with another huge, fundamental moment in its history – whether to implement the Video Assistant Referees (VAR) concept in matches on a consistent basis in an effort to reduce major errors made by on-pitch officials.

Will it be a change for the better like the back-pass rule or will it become detrimental to the simplistic human core values of the game?

VAR has been trialled at various levels over the past year or so and this season the system was introduc ed in both Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A – receiving mixed reviews.

And earlier this month, it was implemented for the very first time in an English club match when Brighton and Crystal Palace faced each other in the FA Cup – with Preston ref Neil Swarbrick acting as the video assistant.

It has since been used during the League Cup semi-final first leg between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge. And on Tuesday night history was made when the first ever goal was awarded on English soil using the system when Leicester City defeated Fleetwood Town 2-0 in a FA Cup replay at the King Power Stadium.

No matter what Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho goes on to accomplish in his career, his name will forever be etched in history as the man who scored the first ‘VAR goal’.

His 77th-minute strike was initially ruled out for offside after assistant referee Lee Betts raised his flag.

However, that was cue for the video assistant referee Mike Jones to jump into action to assist on-field match referee Jon Moss.

From a studio in London, Jones viewed the incident back on video and correctly adjudged that Iheanacho was indeed onside when Riyad Mahrez made the defence-splitting pass.

Armed with the evidence, Jones relayed, via a direct link, the information to Moss, who promptly awarded the goal.

While there is no doubt VAR worked successfully in reaching the correct decision on that occasion, I worry that the system will take away from the spontaneity of the sport.

Will we see goalscorers nervously looking over their shoulders at the referee to see if he is talking to the video assistant rather than celebrating a goal.

On a moment of fact like Iheanacho’s goal, where he was clearly onside, VAR can be useful – in a similar way of course to goalline technology.

But when it is used to adjudicate whether a foul has been committed in the build-up to a goal or a possible penalty, then I think the sport is moving into more of a grey area.

You only have to look at the incident during last night’s FA Cup replay between Chelsea and Norwich where video official Mike Jones did not think there was a clear and obvious error with referee Graham Scott’s decision not to award the Blues a penalty after William had appeared to have been caught by Timm Klose.

The free-flowing aspect of football in general does not lend itself to video technology – unlike other sports which are more of a stop-start nature. We have seen at Wimbledon for example where the introduction of Hawk-Eye has actually improved the spectator experience for tennis fans.

And in cricket, the Decision Review System (DRS) has actually put the power into the hands of the players, who are able to challenge an umpire’s call although they are only allowed two incorrect challenges per innings.

Perhaps that’s the way football should go?

Why not hand the power to the managers and give them the ability to challenge one decision per match.

Imagine Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho on the touchline sending a decision to the video ref when they are certain their team has been wronged. If nothing else it might put an end to officials being blamed for a defeat in the post-match Press conference.