Joel Sked: VAR's introduction changes Scottish football forever tonight - but at what cost?
That shift happens on Friday night when Callum Davidson's Perth Saints travel to Easter Road. It will be the first ever Premiership clash to use VAR, or Video Assistant Referee to give it its Sunday name. Therefore the Dons’ 2-0 win over Hearts last weekend was the final instance of a Scottish top-flight game to not be influenced by the technology which has been in use across European leagues and in international and continental tournaments for a few years now. These two matches will act as answers to pub quiz questions in the not-too-distant future.
It shouldn't be underestimated how important a change this is. A technological version of the pass-back rule.
Since Don Robertson blew the full-time whistle in the Granite City at 16.58 on Sunday, October 17, the intrigue, apprehension, frustration and even excitement has ramped up over the introduction of a technology which was inevitable and at it is unalterable. We, as Scottish football fans, have watched from afar as VAR weaved its way around world football, attaching itself insidiously in a manner which would make Skynet blush. We knew it was coming but now it is here and it is still yet to sink in.
The Home of Var
The first televised match involving VAR will come on Saturday afternoon when Hearts host Celtic at Tynecastle Park. But you do wonder, if Sky Sports have missed a trick not pushing to broadcast Hibs v St Johnstone. A momentous occasion with the accompanying hubbub. Easter Road is a sell-out and will have the biggest home attendance in 33 years, with Hibs retaining seats in the Dunbar End which houses the away support. But for those keen to witness history the game can be streamed for a bargain price of £10. Like it or not, there is going to be a fascination around the match and, of course, there was only going to be one man in Willie Collum charged with overseeing the game – with Kevin Clancy as match referee – from the nerve centre at Clydesdale House in Baillieston. The Glasgow suburb has produced Scotland internationals Malky Mackay, Billy McKinaly, Lawrence Shankland and Willie Henderson, as well as Michelle McManus. Glasgow City Council may be wise to change the welcoming signs ‘Baillieston – The home of VAR’.
The propaganda has been dialled up since it was confirmed in April that clubs had voted in favour of the technology. In an excellent BBC Scotland documentary introducing VAR, they heard from officials, pundits, fans and managers. All stakeholders, as well as journalists, who have played their part in the arrival of VAR. Discussion, debate and discourse within Scottish football has focused far too much on referees and the standard of officiating. This unhealthy obsession, not just a Scottish problem, has resulted in one of the worst phrases to attach itself to the game in recent years ‘Trial by Sportscene' and why we find ourselves in such a situation.
Crawford Allan, Scottish FA’s head of refereeing, said VAR does help. “The stat we’ve used before around key decisions is that it goes from 92 or 93 per cent to 98 or 99 per cent success," he revealed. Putting yourself in the shoes of the referee, any sane and reasonable person will have sympathy for the officials and understand why they are so keen for its implementation. Who wouldn't want a chance to review a decision, whether in professional or personal life. But anyone hoping for a non-referee-discussion nirvana is naive. It is simply a case of moving the goalposts. Anger, frustration, boos and criticism will still be directed towards officials. For example, a second yellow card could be unfairly handed out but VAR has no power to overturn it.
The question which should be asked. Are those extra five to seven per cent of correct decisions worth changing the fabric of our game where the match-going fan will be the one most affected? Motherwell boss Steven Hammell continued his good-guy persona by querying it from a spectator point of view. By and large the clubs didn't. They simply didn’t seem to care what fans thought. Calum Beattie, the SPFL’s chief operating officer, spoke of it being driven by the clubs and SFA.
Attending European games at Ibrox and Celtic Park has had a different feel with big moments, namely Rangers’ defeat to Napoli were one incident regarding a retaken penalty prompted much confusion around the ground. And that's the biggest concern and drawback. Crawford Allan spoke of being a “massive advocate of improving the product that we’ve got on the field of play” but it has been reported that a delay of between two and three minutes was common during the test matches ahead of VAR being granted approval. The game will lose a certain flow and tempo. Decisions will be communicated over big screens in grounds or via the PA system. If you were to ask supporters how they would like important information relayed to them, ‘over a tannoy in a Scottish football ground’ would be well down the list of preferences.
It is easy to comprehend the benefits of VAR but are they such that they outweigh the spectator experience where generations of fans will have the game they grew up with altered irrevocably. Because that is what Scottish football is, a spectator sport. The fans are king but are treated as peasants. The lack of consultation over VAR the latest insult.
Come Friday night, a new era begins. It may be both fun and entertaining in the short-term. The worry is when the novelty factor wears off. Referees may be getting an extra seven per cent of decisions correct. But at what cost?
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