A technological revolution is about to change the game we love – and, as a result, I fear we are about to lose one of football’s most cherished traditions.
From next season, dodgy refereeing decisions will no longer prompt a reaction that is seen as comedy gold by fans up and down the country.
We’ve all heard it – we may even have bellowed the immortal words ourselves, quietly hoping for an approving smile from those around us. ‘Oi ref: you should have gone to Specsavers!’
But, I’m sorry my friends, those days are almost gone. Finished. Finito. Färdiga.
As of next year, Specsavers are history. From now on, the rebuke will have to be: ‘Oi ref: you should have gone to VAR!’
Not all questionable judgments will go to the Video Assistant Referee, so it will still be possible to gently remind Lee Mason that opposing players are supposed to be 10 yards from the ball at a free kick, rather than the seven he paced out against Watford just before Christmas.
But, from next season in the Premier League, key moments will be reviewed by VAR. Essentially, these are goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity.
For me, the “mistaken identity” category conjures up a mental image of half the squad in a police line-up following a night out in Southend.
However, the other reviews should be more useful to long-suffering West Ham fans who regular-ly look on in disbelief as yet another decision goes against us.
Take goals. Basically, the question will be: should they stand? Were the laws of the game broken in the build-up – maybe a handball or a foul?
And was there an offside that should have been flagged? Or, in the case of Felipe Anderson at Old Trafford, was there a flag that never should have been raised in the first place?
Not content with denying West Ham a rare victory in Manchester, the officials got it badly wrong against Leicester in Stratford a week later.
I thought Lucas Perez was onside when I saw what should have been our third goal in real time. The fact that technology then proved me right didn’t make the bitter pill of the visitors’ last-gasp equaliser – and two more dropped points – any easier to swallow.
Talking of offside decisions that didn’t exactly go our way, I still wake up at night in a pool of cold sweat having endured the recurring nightmare of Liverpool’s opener at the London Stadium in February.Embed from Getty Images
There were people sitting in the Bobby Moore Stand who were more onside than James Milner in the build-up to that ‘goal’, and there was a clear handball that somehow got overlooked as well. As officiating goes, it was a disgrace.
If I’d ever had any doubts about the need for VAR, they were dispelled that night. Penalty decisions will also benefit from being put under the spotlight.
Yes, they will still come down to a matter of opinion from time to time, and some marginal decisions will not please everyone.
But, hopefully, VAR will put an end to diving – and may-be do something to redress the balance of spot kicks awarded at grounds like Old Trafford and Anfield, where too many refs are clearly intimidated by the home fans.
Not that I’m biased you understand, but I don’t think the Mancs would have been given either penalty last month if VAR had been available.
The first was never a foul by Robert Snodgrass on Juan Mata and the second should have been ruled out when Marcus Rashford touched the ball in an offside position.
‘With technology we have a different score,’ said Manuel Pellegrini afterwards. ‘Felipe Anderson was onside. It was not a penalty from Robert. The last goal from Man Utd was offside, the last pass. With VAR, I am sure we would win the game 1-0.’
I beg to differ, Mr Pellegrini. With VAR we’d have won that game 2-0.VAR does have its critics – not least those people who reckon it will slow the game down. Really? It’s not as if hold-ups are unheard of following a contentious decision now.
While angry players surround the ref pro-testing at his decision to award a penalty, or demanding that he consult his assistant to check if there was an offside, VAR could be working its magic and resolving the issue once and for all.
Others say it will remove the authority of the on-field officials, and eventually lead to an even worse standard of refereeing than we have at the moment.
Let’s leave aside for now that it is actually possible to lower the standards set by today’s refs (yes, Mr Dean – this sentence is all about you).
Other sports, which have embraced technology with far more enthusiasm than Association Football has ever been able to muster, have found exactly the opposite to be true.
Just look at what’s happened in cricket. Umpiring, which is a highly subjective business at the best of times, has improved immeasurably with the help of innovations such as Hawkeye and Hot Spot.
Now, when decisions are reviewed, a staggering 98.5 per cent are found to be correct.
Better still, cricket supporters at hi-tech grounds such as the Oval get to see a re-run of the incident as its being checked.
If only the screens at the London Stadium were used in same way. Not that VAR is going to end that particular frustration in the foreseeable future.
Armchair supporters will get to digest end-less replays at home, but diehards who’ve paid to watch the game will have to sit in not-so blissful ignorance while a decision is reached. What is it about the people who run foot-ball? Do they ever take notice of other sports?
More to the point, do they give a monkey’s about supporters in the stadium who spend a fortune week in, week out? I think we all know the answer to that.
Both sides of the argument can point to the way VAR was used in Tottenham’s Champions League victory against Man City to support their case. But, given time, I am certain the new technology will mean big improvements.
Not only will there be fewer terrible decisions, it should improve the quality of refereeing in this country – just as it is said to have done in Major League Soccer in the US. If nothing else, it will give officials the confidence to let a move run its course, safe in the knowledge it can be reviewed if it results in a goal. In other words, the advantage rule may finally count for something in the way it does in rugby.
Who knows, it might even stop MOTD pundits and their ilk trotting out that old chestnut: ‘Bad decisions even themselves out over the course of a season’. Okay, so we were awarded a goal against Fulham that should have been chalked off for hand-ball. But that’s hardly evening things out. The statistics prove they don’t.
One independent survey doing the rounds reckons we’ve been denied 10 points this season. Perhaps, from now on, the scales of justice will be slightly more balanced.
But, of all the plus points, there’s one that’s better still: with VAR in place I may finally be able to sleep at nights without dreaming of James Milner.