For the grand arrival of VAR in English domestic football there ought to have been a fanfare of whistles, a cheerleading display of referee’s assistants waving flags and the two groups of players drawing rectangles instead of the pre-match handshake. As it turned out the handy monitor on the touchline waited, tucked on its stand, quietly inactive, like an unplugged robot, a few yards to the left of the managers’ technical areas. But if that is the glitzy side of VAR, the drama for all to see if and when a referee chooses to use the monitor to look again for himself at something he has doubts about, then the nitty gritty is the quick line of communication back to base camp and the additional officials studying the angles.
The weird twist in this tale came late and in that manner. Just as it seemed the match was set to finish without controversy, with VAR uneeded and unused, Glenn Murray popped up with a matchwinner that was accompanied by enough questions to justify another look from the new backup technology. The word from the referee, Andre Marriner, was quick and to the point: “Check it.”
Neil Swarbrick and his assistant, Peter Kirkup, who spent the match installed in front of a selection of monitors relaying more than a dozen angles and specialist goal cameras at the Premier League TV headquarters at Stockley Park, referred to the replays to check for two things. Was it offside? No. Did the ball skim his arm as it deflected in off his knee? That was the more complicated area. The angles Swarbrick and Kirkup studied were inconclusive so there was no clear reason to disallow the goal.
On we went, Brighton 2-1 up. That was not much consolation for Crystal Palace’s following, who raged with the urge to appeal when the goal was plastered across the big screens at the Amex Stadium. It was maybe not the smartest move under the circumstances. Roy Hodgson had no problem with the goal, though, which helped the cause of VAR moving forwards. The upshot is that VAR was used and generally adjudged to come to the right decision, but just as notable was the speed with which the intervention took place. The exchange between Marriner and his assistants in front of the screens was barely discernible, so the concerns about how much it might delay the flow of the game were not an issue in this case.
The nature of VAR is to attempt to deal with controversy, so it will not be surprising to have some minor issues. Teething problems will come with the territory as the game adjusts to this innovation. For all parties with a vested interest – managers, players, officials, supporters, media – it will take some time to settle.
This looked like being the gentlest of introductions. The majority of the game was so devoid of the dubious the mind wandered to a wacky encounter between these two teams in 1989 for a game marked by the award of five penalties in less than half an hour. The footage includes the sight of Kelvin Morton, the referee that day, enacting a speedy version of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly walks as he races away from players’ complaints. Stick that in your VAR monitor and watch it smoke.
The Amex was far from heaving on a night when the post-Christmas chill and pinch was evidently felt. There were plenty of unused blue seats – not only the entire corner blocks on either side of the Palace fans which were completely empty, with their section behind the goal hemmed in by a row of orange-coated stewards. For all the antipathy between these clubs – and the two sets of fans amused themselves by exchanging unpleasantries – nothing seemed out of the ordinary, which was a relief after the last meeting of these local-ish rivals, which had been a fiercer affair.
Brighton took the lead midway through the first half, Wayne Hennessey offering only a startled half save at his near post which was not enough to keep out Dale Stephens’s shot. Marriner fiddled with his earpiece but to no discernible effect. Some wags in the Brighton support wondered if they might check the VAR for a case of mistaken identity as the sight of Stephens scoring was unusual enough to require confirmation. There was absolutely nothing contentious about that goal or Bakary Sako’s scorching equaliser. He controlled the ball, spun and walloped a shot that fizzed past Tim Krul.
In terms of the laws of the game the VAR monitor remained dormant, in its self-spooning position. It remains to be seen how that goes down when a referee needs to consult it.
The fact that the VAR referee Swarbrick was consulted, and gave his opinion with the mininum of fuss, is already a form of progress.