‘Scotland’s a democracy. If VAR can’t be installed at Montrose, ditch it’

To Celtic’s Ryan Christie falls the honour of being the first from a Scottish team to be fingered by VAR. We’ve watched English sides and players be done by their armpits, their big toes and the hair of their chinny chin chins. We’ve seen referees down south wimp out of decisions and refer them to a truck full of TV monitors in an industrial estate in west London. This isn’t VAR, it’s VAN. It’s football officialdom abrogating responsibility. It’s the whistlers saying: “Bring on AI, robots, driverless cars and a music streaming service choosing Coldplay and Mumford & Sons on repeat until the end of time.”

Referee Sergei Karasev checks the VAR monitor during Celtic’s match against FC Copenhagen. Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/AFP/Getty
Referee Sergei Karasev checks the VAR monitor during Celtic’s match against FC Copenhagen. Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/AFP/Getty

Well, on Thursday’s evidence from the Europa League, England can keep VAN. At least the Russian referee, whose first instinct was not to award FC Copenhagen a penalty, watched a replay of the incident at the side of the pitch, something England’s refs are reluctant to do. BT Sport summariser Chris Sutton claimed: “Christie’s arm was in an unnatural position.” But come on, man – who jumps with their arms rigidly by their sides, launching themselves like a rocket? I don’t remember Sutty ever doing that.

Neil Lennon was remarkably magnanimous about the award, and remarkably enthusiastic about VAR, but maybe his view would have been different – understandably so – if Fraser Forster hadn’t saved the spot-kick. “The Copenhagen manager was watching the replay on the monitor and cheerleading the crowd,” the Celtic manager said. “We were watching it as well and your heart sinks. [But] VAR is for the good of the game and the good of the referee. I have no complaints. It was unfortunate for us, but if [the alleged hand-ball] had been for my team I’d have been screaming for a penalty.”

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Lennon is acknowledging the drama and theatre that VAR can provide, which are by-products of a system primarily designed to right wrongs. Fair enough, but looked at from here the English experience has been one of confusion and more frustration than ever existed when poor Lamps – Frank Lampard, whiteshirted hero, except when those fine, upstanding fans would boo his name – had a perfectly good goal disallowed against the infernal Germans.

I’m also uncomfortable with one sector of football – the richer end – getting the benefits of VAR while others don’t. A Montrose centre-half could strike one from even further out than Lampard, the storm-assisted shot could scud off the Stranraer crossbar, cross the line by two feet before bouncing back into play, such is the cunning backspin the big lump has applied, and the ref would deny the Gable Endies the goal because it all happened so fast, sand blown up from the beach had got in his eye and basically he’d been a clown from the start of the match.

Football, on the pitch at least, in the playing at least, should be democratic and the same for all. A national cup competition, which has no VAR in the early, non-league rounds but VAR when the big boys enter, will sit uneasily in the record books if some “clear and obvious errors” are corrected but not others. Those VAR benefits may seem dubious right now as the system copes with its teething troubles, but forgive those of us who’re video-unassisted if we smirk. As I might have mentioned before, not all progress is good.