‘Refereeing is not a science, it’s an art. VAR needs changing’

Former Premier League referee Mark Halsey on who is to blame for VAR’s controversies and failures

I’ve hated watching football this season. More than I can ever remember hating it.

I know West Ham are on the verge of their best season since Harry Redknapp was leading us to Intertoto glory.

But my opening gambit has absolutely nothing to do with West Ham.

I have hated watching football this season – Premier League football specifically – because of the warped, diluted, contactless product we are served up thanks to the potent mix of awful, inconsistent officials, baffling laws and the over-use of VAR.

There are just so many decisions this campaign that defy belief and make me shrug and say: ‘What’s the point?’

And as with anything, it is not love nor hate that signals the death of a thing, but apathy.

And that is exactly what I’ve felt at so many times this season while trying to sit and enjoy a game of what Premier League football has become.

The aforementioned potent mix has robbed football of its essence.

Patrick Bamford’s sleeve being offside as he pointed to where he wanted the ball before a goal while his legs and every single actual goal-scoring body part was way onside. What’s the point?

Tomas Soucek’s red card at Fulham. What’s the point?

The ref blowing his whistle to allow a free-kick to be taken before changing his mind after Brighton scored it because he noticed West Brom’s keeper wasn’t ready. What’s the point?

Scott McTominay’s fingers brushing Son Heung-min’s face and a fine Edinson Cavani goal ruled out as a result. What’s the point?

And most recently, and for me by far the worst one ever and the pinnacle of the ‘Game’s Gone’ movement, Fabian Balbuena getting sent-off as West Ham chased a valuable point against Chelsea for kicking the football during a game of football.

Any swat who tells me in a smarmy voice: ‘Actually, according to the rules, that was technically a red as he was out of control’ does not love football.

If anyone wants to argue that’s what football is supposed to be about – whereby the rules not only prevent you from rarely coming into contact with an opponent, but you’re also not allowed to play the ball if an opponent just happens to be near you at the risk of endangering them – then they can get in the sea. And so can football.

And one more thing, for every absolutely ridiculous fun-sucking shocker of a decision that is given after VAR has studied it 7,000 times, there are 5 million blatant fouls that are still missed and ignored despite the existence of the technology. What is the point?

When I have expressed these sentiments, and as I write them now, I fear being accused of being stuck in the past like most boomers I know.

But I am 29. I’m still one of the young ones for Christ sake. I’m not a 60-year-old harking back to the good old days when pitches were mudbaths, everyone had perms and Norman Hunter and Francis Lee were smashing seven bells out of each other in the middle of the park.

I was pro-VAR. I was sick of the blatantly obvious undeniable Old Trafford ref bias. And linesman missing glaring offsides when it happened to be Liverpool (cough James Milner cough) or other so called big sides who ended up benefitting.

But the whole thing is a mess and at Premier League level, I barely recognise the game I love anymore.

Our sport has become a pointless joke made up of inconsistencies and confusion in which no stakeholder seems to benefit. Everyone hates what it’s become.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing is those responsible – the International Football Association Board (IFAB) lawmakers, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) – have such a huge burden of responsibility but they don’t seem to give a flying duck that they are eroding our game to the point where it is unrecognisable from three years ago and a damn site less enjoyable.

Anyway, as you can tell, this is a somewhat emotive topic for me and the Balbuena incident all but tipped me over the edge.

However, I wanted to channel my energy into something positive and I’m delighted to say I did that.

I managed to get former Premier League referee Mark Halsey – who officiated in England’s top flight across three separate decades after his Prem debut in 1999 – on to our We Are West Ham podcast where we put all these things to him and asked him who or what is to blame.

On Balbuena, he said: ‘For me it was the West Ham defender trying to clear the ball, he’s not making a challenge, he clears the ball, slips a little bit and you look at it and think: “Where is he supposed to put his foot after that follow through?”

‘And Chris Kavanagh, he’s right there. He’s looking right at it. But what annoyed me was VAR Peter Banks getting involved as it’s not a clear and obvious error.

‘We’ve seen VAR this season being consistent at being inconsistent. But VAR should not have got involved as that was not a serious foul play challenge with excessive force and brutality.

‘It was just another one of those with certain officials knowing the laws of the game but not knowing the game of football.’

So who is to blame for farcical decisions like these Mark?

He added: ‘If you look at IFAB protocol, for me, it’s not VAR. It’s the personnel implementing it in the Premier League.

‘It’s the leadership and direction from the PGMOL management, that’s where the problem lies.

‘There are so many incidents where VAR are getting involved when they shouldn’t be. A clear and obvious error or a serious incident missed, that’s when they should get involved.

‘Some of the referees are re-refereeing the game and that’s not what VAR is there for. I blame the PGMOL.

‘We’ve got some very good officials but it’s about how you manage your dressing room. A team of referees are just like a team of players and you manage them.

‘Some need a kick up the backside, some need an arm around them and some need a bit of loving. I know how the PGMOL works and they’ve not got the man management skills in their armoury.’

On specific rules that need changing, Halsey said: ‘The handball law. We’ve had so many goals ruled out this season because of the T-shirt line. You can score with the top of your arm and your armpit.

It’s nonsense. For me handball is the top of your shoulder down to your finger nails. And the sooner we bring that back we’ll see a lot more goals scored.’

On the PGMOL under Mike Riley, Halsey said: ‘The standard of refereeing has been on the decline since Mike took over from Keith Hackett.’

What changes would he make?

Halsey replied: ‘Active on-pitch refereeing and VAR in front of a screen are two totally different professions. I think you should have active referees and a retired pool of top referees doing VAR.

‘There’s nothing wrong with VAR, it’s the personnel who are using it.

‘With offsides, it’s factual, you are off or you’re on but we’ve seen so many incidents this season where goals should have been given for that toe nail, that heel. So take away those lines, use the naked eye and you can tell by the first replay if someone is a yard or half a yard offside.

‘If you can’t tell he’s off within the first or second replay, 15 seconds, bang it’s a goal.

‘Refereeing is not a science, it’s an art. But the powers that be have to listen to the fans.’

Hear more from William on the We Are West Ham podcast, new episodes every Wednesday.

It’s your weekly dose of exclusive ex-player interviews, top journalists, transfer chat, match previews and much more!

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