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24 January 2024

Most of football’s changes have improved the game – but not VAR

Let me count the ways in which football has reinvented itself since 1848…

By Hunter Davies

Is VAR the stupidest, most annoying, pointless, confusing, irritating invention in the long and glorious history of football?

Well, let me count the ways in which football has reinvented itself over the centuries. In 1848, when the so-called Cambridge Rules were formed, you could still hack people. That meant chopping them down, from the back or front, sideways, upside down – any old way. Half kill them, really. “Come on, it’s a man’s game, we don’t need any namby-pamby rules,” they all said. You could also handle the ball. If it came to you in the air, you could catch it and then play it with your feet.

The public-school version of the game was so tough and brutal that when there were discussions about changing the size of the ball, someone was heard to say, “Oh, damn the ball – let’s just get on with the game.”

I still don’t know how or why 11-a-side came in. Rugby always had 15, so why did football decide on 11 in each team? Answers, please.

The game in the mid-19th century was a bit like school-playground kick-and-rush. Most of the players charged up the field together, then, when they lost the ball, they all ran back. Modern football was the creation of the FA in 1863, which codified the game – and at last all clubs agreed to play by the same rules.

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There have been loads of changes since, tinkering and tampering, but if you could be transported back to 1863, you could still roughly follow the game, admire the dribbling and passing and shooting. The main and simple object, trying to score a goal, has not changed.

Corner kicks came in 1873, crossbars in 1875, two-handed throw-ins in 1882, penalty kicks and nets in 1891. Goalies’ gloves were introduced in the 1880s. Belts were big in 1912 and all sports shops and football catalogues offered a large selection. Some were enormous, and must have been so heavy to wear.

Old-fashioned boots did of course weigh you down, with their solid toe, part polished like steel, and stiff leather uppers that came over the ankle. I remember them well in the Fifties. In rain or mud I could hardly move. And the leather-panelled ball, dear God, when it got wet it was like kicking a cannonball.

On the whole, changes to the game have improved football. And, of course, the present-day pitches – they were like quagmires in winter. Now in the Prem they are perfect all the year round.

Over the decades there have been endless changes in shorts, tops, socks and shin pads, as well as balls. I have a huge collection on my bathroom walls of photos of 19th-century football teams, all unknown. I amuse myself when in the bath by studying the shin pads, balls, shorts and shirts, and how they line up for the team photo, trying to work out the exact date it was taken.

Subs are a fairly modern invention. In the old days, you could only change a player before the game began. You gave in a team sheet and if someone had not turned up, was drunk, poorly or had just got lost, you could substitute another player. On-field substitutions during games did not come in till 1954. Quite recently, really, when you think it was such a sensible change.

The modern offside rule dates back to 1925. One of the things it helped to limit was goal-poaching. So many teams had a player who just hung around the opposition goalmouth. Offside changed all that: a sensible advance, if a bit hard to follow.

Goal-line technology – when a camera can instantly see if a ball has crossed into the goal – is new, dating to 2012, but is totally excellent. It never causes arguments.

Unlike VAR (the video assistant referee). This first appeared in the Premier League in 2019 – and has been disliked ever since. Yes, it discourages goal-hangers, but it takes spontaneity and enjoyment out of the game, for players and for spectators, often wasting up to ten minutes of playing time. Things are not always fair, in life and in football. Mistakes are made. But a ref on the pitch, and the assistant referees watching, can make instant decisions. VAR is like so much of modern technology. It gets used because they can use it. I hate it.  

[See also: At its midpoint, this season is shaping up to be one of football’s oddest]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars