Talking about referees is famously one of the most boring things you can do, like telling other people your dreams.
Talking about your own history of talking about referees, and compiling statistics to illustrate the patterns of your ref-talk over time? I’m not sure anyone has even attempted anything that boring before.
But here goes.
I’ve been writing this column for 10½ years. In that time I must have written 500-550 weekly pieces, leaving aside other work on international tournaments and so on.
By my reckoning, only about 3 per cent of these pieces have been mostly or partly concerned with referees and refereeing controversies – the dullest subject in the game. That doesn’t sound so bad.
It’s the pattern that has me worried.
Of the first 200 or so columns from 2013-17, a total of zero focused on refereeing issues. The referees were there that whole time, making mistakes like they always did. They just never seemed like the relevant thing to write about.
My first refereeing column was in March 2017, on the occasion of the Ireland v Wales World Cup qualifier, when Neil Taylor broke Séamus Coleman’s leg with a reckless challenge. That piece, however, was not an attack on the referee, Mario Rizzoli, or on referees in general. It was an attack on the culture of accusing referees of “ruining the game” by enforcing the rules.
A few minutes before Coleman’s horrible injury, Gareth Bale had committed a bad foul on John O’Shea and got away with a yellow card. I argued that if Rizzoli had given Bale the red card he deserved at that point, then Coleman’s terrible injury might have been avoided: refs should try to stop the cycle of violence before it spirals out of control. “We are all ‘that type of player’ – if it turns into that type of game.” (Not much progress has been made on this front. When Curtis Jones was sent off on Saturday night, Sky’s Gary Neville immediately lamented that the red card was going to spoil the game).
The next foray into ref-talk was in January 2018, when I wrote about the first use of VAR in English football in that season’s FA Cup. The next was the following week, when I wondered what difference VAR might have made to a chaotic 2-2 Anfield draw between Liverpool and Spurs (not much, was my conclusion).
The next was in March 2019, when a debatable penalty awarded to Harry Kane in a North London derby led to people bemoaning the fact that the Premier League hadn’t yet introduced VAR, unlike their counterparts in Spain, Italy and Germany. I argued that VAR would not have solved the problem in that game, since the question of whether Kane deserved a penalty depended on your subjective interpretation of whether or not he had been “attempting to play the ball” at the time he was fouled.
I then mentioned an incident from that same weekend in Spain: Sergio Ramos had hit Lionel Messi in the face, but VAR had taken no action. Noting that Ramos had been getting away with this sort of stuff all his life, I wrote: “the availability of VAR changes the dynamic surrounding these moments in ways that football might come to regret. In the past referees could always claim they didn’t see the incident. Now it looks as though they’ve chosen to turn a blind eye.
“What this means is that we are at the dawn of a new golden age of football conspiracy theory. Incompetence was always the great alibi of referees and one unintended consequence of VAR is to take that away. Bad calls that used to be explained as mistakes will now be interpreted as corruption, and football’s integrity… will become harder to believe in than ever.”
Looking back through these old columns reminded me that I have spouted a great deal of nonsense in these pages, but every so often I did get something right.
By the summer of 2019 I had written 300+ columns, of which only four were ref-talk (with three of those focusing on the negative implications of VAR).
It was at this point that VAR was finally introduced to the Premier League.
In the four years since, I’ve written 15 columns that were to a large extent concerned with refereeing controversies. Welcome to number 16.
To summarise: 20 total ref-talk pieces, of which 19 were complaining about VAR. Zero ref-talk in the first four years, 16 VAR-talk pieces in the last four. In each case the piece was about or became sidetracked by some idiotic contradiction or frustration of VAR. Some of these pieces were angry, some were bitter, some were impassioned, some resigned. All were fundamentally boring.
We can argue about what VAR has done to football but there is no doubt that it has been a disaster for this column.
Sadly, this isn’t the only place where ref-talk has mushroomed in the age of VAR. The well-meaning fools who wanted it used to argue that it would take the pressure off referees – make the game fairer, more objective, soothe the boiling rage. Everyone can see now that it has accomplished the exact opposite.
Think about the disallowed Luis Diaz goal that caused the current eruption. The old pre-VAR system would have delivered the same basic outcome – the goal disallowed because of an incorrectly raised offside flag. But in the end it would have gone down as a mistake, like thousands of similar mistakes before. People would have been angry at the time, and then they would have forgotten about it.
What we have instead is a scandal. We have another apology from the referees’ organisation PGMOL and a promise to conduct another “review”. We have seen the VAR officials involved, Darren England and Dan Cook, taken off their next games. We have heard a cover story that England and Cook somehow… did not notice… that the Diaz goal had been disallowed by the on-field team. They simply didn’t notice Diaz with his head in his hands, the celebrating Tottenham fans, the stony-faced linesman with his flag up. So when they said “check complete”, they meant to imply “so give the goal” rather than “we’ve checked the offside call and it is correct”.
This series of alleged events is so weird that PGMOL really should be rushing to publish the unedited audio recording, so that we can all understand how the episode took place.
And then we have the speculations that naturally follow any such bizarre events. Were England and Cook asleep at the wheel because they were tired after flying back from the United Arab Emirates where they were officiating a local Pro League game on Thursday night? Why are professional Premier League refs doing midweek gigs in the Gulf anyway? Has PGMOL chief Howard Webb, whose CV includes a stint as the head of refereeing at the Saudi Football Federation, never worried that such gigs might affect the all-important perception of integrity?
It sure doesn’t look like it – but it’s a bit late for him to start worrying now. Conspiracy theorising is now practically the main form of social discourse. Webb’s inept PGMOL have helped to ensure that football is no exception.
For football, getting rid of VAR can help. There was never any need for it. We know now that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t solve the old problems and it creates new, worse problems besides. We don’t actually have to persist with this nonsense. We can just get rid of it, the way the Americans repealed Prohibition. The VAR future is not inevitable. It can go down as a misguided interlude.
If only there was such a simple fix for PGMOL.