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Ken Early: Referees and VAR now thrust to centre stage

The Premier League title race is effectively over so conspiracy theories about decisions will fill the void

Manchester United’s Harry Maguire remonstrates with referee Stuart Attwell after his decision not to award a penalty against Chelsea following a VAR check of an incident at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Andy Rain/PA

Another Super Sunday hype match, another dismal non-event, as two Premier League titans, in the absence of the competitive tension a crowd would have brought to bear, settled for a goalless draw that suited both sides.

“A high-quality game” said Thomas Tuchel after overseeing his side of the non-aggression pact, and it’s true that the fake crowd noise piped in on the main match feeds sounded as enthusiastic as ever.

Unfortunately, even on the feeds that are unpolluted by the ever-sicker joke of fake noise, the pitchside microphones were not quite sensitive enough to pick up the alleged exchange between the referee and Harry Maguire on the subject of that tenth-minute penalty appeal that was ultimately not given against Callum Hudson-Odoi for an apparent handball.

We had to rely on the testimony of Luke Shaw: “The ref even said to H, I heard him say, if I say it’s a pen, then it’s gonna cause a lot of talk about it after. So I don’t know what happened there. H said they got told it was a pen, he got told it was a pen by VAR so. I’m not sure.”


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose side have one goal and no wins in seven league matches against ‘Big Six’ opposition this season, maintained that the decision had cost his team two points. The United manager went on to refer opaquely to some mysterious mind game Chelsea had apparently tried to play on the referees concerning Maguire.

He seemed to be talking about a match preview on the Chelsea website which had included remarks about how Harry Maguire had been fortunate to escape punishment by VAR in recent matches against Chelsea, once for locking his arm around Cesar Azpilicueta’s neck at a set-piece, and once for seeming to kick out at Michy Batshuayi.

Solskjaer’s contention seemed to be that the master puppeteers running the Chelsea club site had thus tilted the discourse in such a way as to make it impossible for the refereeing team to grant United a deserved penalty.

In normal times you might be tempted to react to such a patently ludicrous suggestion with scorn and ridicule. Instead, Solskjaer’s mad theory about the Chelsea site’s black ops provided a welcome distraction from the featureless grimness of the game.

The United coach’s ravings were in keeping with the conspiratorial lean of the age of VAR. It’s the problem football’s lawmakers failed to anticipate: when the referees can review everything that happens on the pitch in slow motion from multiple angles – and still somehow get the decisions wrong – what explanation can there be but corruption?

Fans have been identifying the hidden hand of conspiracy in decisions against their team forever so it’s good to see players and managers unashamedly joining in too, with suggestions that referees have been cowed by the prospect of the biased media going to town on their decisions, or brainwashed by propaganda on club websites.

The fact is that video review has not eliminated incompetence from refereeing decisions, only made it crueller and more incomprehensible because we thought this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen any more.

There was an outstanding example of this in the best game of the weekend, which was West Brom against Brighton, not so much for the quality of the play as for the financial implications of the result for the two relegation-threatened sides.

Into this high-stakes contest strode referee Lee Mason, blowing his whistle confidently to restart play and then blowing it again, somewhat hesitantly, a second later, after Lewis Dunk had clipped a quickly-taken free kick towards the West Brom goal, but before it had bounced into the net past the unsuspecting Sam Johnstone.

The only thing wrong with the goal was Mason’s inexplicable second whistle, but that whistle meant the goal had to be chalked off, a fact Mason eventually accepted, but only after an apparent attempt to brush his mistake under the carpet by allowing the goal to stand.

There was no explanation for this fiasco but rank incompetence, but it’s important to remember that the referees are not the only ones guilty of this.

Dunk complained bitterly about Mason’s actions in a TV interview that went viral after the game. The Brighton defender’s self-righteous rage was slightly undercut by the fact that Mason had also given his team two penalties, both of which they had missed. Can any team that misses two penalties complain about losing? Yes, it appears that yes they can.

And the blur of matches goes on, matches all day, matches every night. It’s not just the captive TV audiences suffering from football burnout.

Manchester City have already all but sealed the Premier League title with a third of the season remaining, and only relatively minor details remain to be decided.

At this point refereeing blunders are pretty much all anyone can get excited about; we can whinge all we like about the obsession with decisions, it increasingly beats talking about the games. The glaze can be seen descending on the faces of the players and coaches. Just get it over with, declare it a high-quality game, and move on.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer