Why video-assisted refereeing will take the fun – and angry meltdowns – out of football

TV cameras had shown the incandescent Neil Warnock screaming in unmistakably salty terms at the fourth official, Chelsea’s manager and passing Chelsea players out on the field. 

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Even by his own peerless standards in this area, the raging meltdown suffered in plain view by Neil Warnock the other day felt special. Never one of football’s quieter touchline presences, the manager of Cardiff City was brought swiftly to the boil when a late, equalising goal by Chelsea, scored from a clear offside position, was allowed to stand.

His mood in no way brightened when, as Cardiff pushed to restore their lead, a Chelsea defender was merely booked for breaking down an attack in a manner that might more typically have got him sent off. Nor was Warnock especially appeased when Chelsea scored a winner in injury time.

With so many of the core elements of classical tragedy present and correct (reversal of fortune, a sense of malign fatefulness, bathos, implications for the Premiership relegation places), the stage was set for the mother and father of all final-act confrontations between Warnock and the officials at full-time. Even before that winning goal the television cameras had shown the incandescent manager screaming in unmistakably salty terms at the fourth official, at Chelsea’s manager and at passing Chelsea players out on the field, jumping and jabbing his finger vengefully with such agitation that, even when watched in real time, he seemed to be on fast forward.

At the whistle, Warnock, his jaw now firmly set, strode out to the centre circle, where the officials stood in a line, waiting for the pitch to clear. He then stood with his hands on his tracksuited hips and, from a distance of about ten yards, stared at them. Time seemed to freeze. Trigger fingers twitched. It was like something from a Western. And eventually it was the officials who blinked, walking gingerly past Warnock, who continued to stand and stare. Exquisite drama. In a managerial career spanning nearly 40 years and 15 different clubs, Warnock had rarely attempted to harness the power of silence. But this was an unusual occasion. As Ian Holloway, a fellow manager, supportively put it on Talksport, “That game was wrong.”

Commentators subsequently pointed out that video-assisted refereeing (VAR) would have ruled out Chelsea’s equaliser very simply, in a matter of seconds. One call from the ref to the operations centre at Stockley Park and the game would have been that much less wrong. And VAR is on its way. Thus far fitfully employed in cup competitions, it will be used throughout the Premier League next season – “probably too late for me”, as Warnock darkly remarked. It can’t come soon enough, was the general reaction.

Really, though? If there was ever a steel-encased argument for delaying VAR, or even cancelling it entirely, it was surely these scenes. A world in which Neil Warnock isn’t practically bursting into flames with irritation and staging Mexican stand-offs with the officials is, without question, a less colourful world. Is it even a world one wants to live in? If the referee is never wrong, what will managers have to get properly angry about? And what will any of us find to feel aggrieved about/honkingly delighted with forever afterwards? Grievance/honking delight is a large part of the fuel on which football fans run. Reduce the opportunities for grievance/honking delight and it’s a very real question what you’re left with.

Yet time will finally be called on football’s battered old expression of faith that “these things even themselves out over the course of a season” – the painfully thin creed that has stood valiantly between the professional game and anarchy for all these long years. Why a season should be the reliable unit of time over which injustice self-corrects, rather than, say, one and a half seasons, or five seasons, nobody has ever really taken the trouble to explain. We have just agreed it to be the case, and used it to underpin that other dubious footballing assertion: “the table doesn’t lie”.

However, as a rule of thumb it remains surprisingly serviceable, even now. Consider Warnock’s Cardiff, so wildly wronged that Sunday afternoon. Yet one recalls the last-minute goal, scored from an offside position, which gave them three points against Brighton in November. Or indeed the late penalty awarded against them to Huddersfield, with the score at 0-0, but then narrowly rescinded after a consultation between the referee and his assistant. Warnock was notably less incandescent on that occasion. Instead, in a seemingly high old mood, he chose to entertain the press with his views on Brexit. (“I can’t wait to get out of it, if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world.”)

Still, the future will not be halted and all one can do is cast around for consolations. Some of the early experiments have suggested that the verdicts of VAR are not always reliable or definitive and may simply be another starting point for endless arguments. So that’s an encouraging thought. And it’s still a person making the judgements, of course, albeit from a screen-lined cupboard near Heathrow. Basic human frailty remains just about in play. One can cling to that.

And then there are the still developing behavioural issues arising from players and coaching staff urging the referee to consult the video official – a new and possibly fruitful area of vexation that might plug part of the gap that’s about to open up. As the Times reported back in January, it has already been made clear by the authorities that managers who “aggressively use the television sign” will be reprimanded. Although, it is something of a struggle to imagine how the “television sign” (a rectangle drawn in the air with two index fingers) will ever lend itself to being performed aggressively. Then again, I can already think of one manager who is probably ready to give it a try.

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 05 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers