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Pantomime Villain or Masked Avenger?

3 weeks ago

As a youngster, all those decades ago, I used to look forward to my Saturday afternoons playing in goal for the local village team, way up in the wilds of the North Tyne Valley, where the word “caaad!” was generally considered to be the correct meteorological term used to describe playing conditions.

On the odd occasion that there was no one available to run the line – and let’s face it, most who were capable had better things to do on a Saturday afternoon – we just played without.

Of course, this would lead to some dodgy decisions, but in those days you just had to accept that an amateur ref could only see so much.

I remember one time the ball went out for a goal kick – a good 10 yards out of play. I ran to get the ball, carried it back onto the pitch and plonked it down. As I backed up to take a run at it, the ref blew for a free kick, eventually explaining that I’d taken more than the permissible four steps while carrying the ball.

I did say it was a while ago.

Fast forward a few years and I always thought it strange that the viewers at home, those in the studio, and even fans in the stadium, had the benefit of watching a frame by frame replay from five different angles, while the one person who actually needed all the information available to make the right decision, had to make his call based on what he had seen real time, through a crowd of players, while often looking in the wrong direction.

These days, Premier League coverage uses up to 30 cameras at a match and the days of players getting away with pushes, trips, kicks and dives are long gone. Well for most players, at least.

Can you imagine the likes of Steven Taylor or Mike Williamson playing with VAR monitoring their every move? There would be so many VAR reviews that games featured on Match Of The Day would be showing the highlights while the game was still playing.

Well, on to the point.

Yes, there is one.

I think it would be fair to say that VAR in the Premier League got off to a bit of a shaky start.

The stopping and starting, and the delays certainly contributed to the frustration of the fans, but what really wound up the terraced masses was the accuracy of the system. Referred to by fans as “nit-picking”, or “ridiculous”, they did not take kindly to officials actually giving decisions that were, how shall we phrase this politely, only just a little bit offside; decisions that would have been too close to call had we still been using the old “naked eye” method.

Personally, as a technical person, I went with it pretty early. I’ve said from the beginning of this new technological era that if VAR calls it – we go with it. Offside is offside. Yes there will be some dodgy decisions but the system will, as a result, and as it already has, evolve.

If you want to talk rules, the FA rulebook clearly states which bits of the body count, and uses the word “nearer” as a qualifier for those bits

If the rules say you are offside if this part of the body is nearer the goal than the second last player, are we really in a position to argue the toss when it comes to “yes, but how much nearer?” Surely if the technology shows “nearer” then that should be it?

While I’m pretty certain how I think it should be, it would appear that the rules officials don’t agree with me, because in summer 2021 they increased the thickness of the lines used to measure offside on VAR, in my view supporting the argument that a little bit offside is fine.

I’ve just got one more tiny bit of the toolkit (a spanner, I think) to lob in here. It’s all very well using the term “when the ball is kicked”, but when is the ball kicked? Is it when the boot hits the ball, or when the ball leaves the boot? Have you seen the amount of compression a player can get on these modern balls? Then we have to take into consideration the frame rate used for filming. I have read a number of articles claiming that the system used is accurate to around 3cm. Just over an inch.

The biggest problem has been, for quite a while now, that we Newcastle fans have been convinced that the entire world is against us, and for the first few VAR decisions it seemed that may indeed have been the case. However, as we became wealthier, and the danger of us actually becoming an important, revenue-generating club grew significantly, it appeared that decisions started to go our way. We started getting those “armpit hair” offside decisions and we definitely got away with more in our box than we previously had.

Of course I’m sure this is entirely coincidental, but I think we, as fans, honestly do believe that were we not now mega-rich, decisions like the Bruno goal where he tangled with Schmeichel, could have gone the other way.

I’m not saying this is all true. It is merely our perception. There are still decisions like the Murphy penalty claim against Chelsea that still can’t be explained no matter how much money you have, but all in all, fans might be forgiven for thinking that the VAR playing field appears to have been levelled out a bit since we won the ownership lottery.

It really does appear that our nouveau riches have at least altered the way we see VAR with the referee’s digital assistant now being more of a Masked Avenger, on the side of good versus evil, than the previously alleged Pantomime Villain.

As an aviation techie I’ve always been fascinated by the introduction of technology into the game, and along with VAR, goal line technology and those GPS sports bras that players wear now, it’s a very different game. GPS accuracy may be handy when it comes to measuring how long Jonjo kips during the game, or how many rows into the crowd Murphy runs while trying to get a cross in, but at the moment it’s nowhere near good enough to help in making offside decisions, but that said, other kinds of technology are now sufficiently advanced that a system could be created that accurately plots the position of players on a pitch, to say within a centimetre, so there would be none of this controversy that we still have, despite VAR.

All you have to do is add microwave transponders to the GPS bras, and four or five more around the edge of the pitch for triangulation reference and change the rules so that the only bit that matters is the player’s chest. You could even add microphones to detect the actual moment a ball is kicked, feed everything into a computer and have it checked automatically. It’s not rocket science. Oh, hang on. Actually it is rocket science.

Personally, I think the only genuine solution is to get rid of offside altogether. Both teams play by the same rules, and if a player wants to goal mooch, the other team has the option to mark him. The game would be more exciting, it would flow more, there would be more goals, and those wasted hours spent trying to explain offside to the missus could be put to much better use.

Oh, and while we’re improving the game, let’s make diving and arguing and swearing at the ref, red card offences.


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