One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is The Fish-Slapping Dance and it always makes me think of Arbroath and their world-record win. How did the Red Lichties supporters celebrate beating Bon Accord 36-0 back in 1885? Would they have had rattles to birl? Would they even have had scarves to wave? Or did they simply grab the nearest things to hand – smokies – and playfully hit each other on the cheek, like John Cleese and Michael Palin in the comedy classic?
1885 is so long ago now. It will seem even more distant to this generation of ultra-demanding, attention-deficit fans who devour the high-speed global obsession that football has become – all the goals, all the big moments, all at once. How quaint the game must have been back then. Were there crossbars? (Yes, introduced a full 22 years before). Were there even referees? (Yes, and they were pretty rigorous if Dave Stormont was typical. He disallowed a further seven Arbroath goals for offside).
Just think. It could have been 43-0. That might have kept the infidels at bay. Stopped some of those false claims and thrown games submitted to the Guinness Book of Records in efforts to steal the Angus club’s crown. Football doesn’t want for new-fangledness these days but 133 years ago Mr Stormont might well have been unmoved by the motorcycle, the skyscraper, evaporated milk and all the other 1885 inventions, feeling the need to declare: “Could I please have VAR?”
It arrives tomorrow. Well, it’s already here, in trial form in 15 leagues, but at a meeting in Zurich of the International Football Association Board there’s expected to be a recommendation that video replays should be used at this summer’s World Cup and, as of next season, everywhere.
Has to happen, doesn’t it? I mean, look at the recent controversies. Fans of Hibernian flocking to Tynecastle for today’s Scottish Cup tie are still harbouring deep resentment over the “ghost goal” – the failure of the officials to spot that the ball had crossed the line in the league derby at the same venue just three weeks ago.
If VAR had been in operation that night then there would have been a brief moment when time, and the game, stood still while the entire Hibs team gathered round to sing Big Fish, Little Fish, Cardboard Box at the referee, hoping that he’d then blast out the chorus complete with decisive rectangle skywriting to confirm the score as legitimate.
In England the pilot scheme has just begun with the first VAR goal having been awarded to Leicester City last week. What a pity for posterity that the corrected strike hasn’t gone into the record books as having been scored by Jamie VARdy.
The following night at Stamford Bridge, VAR was trained on the divers in the Chelsea ranks. This made for unsettling viewing, just as real diving on TV can be when the guys are lounging in the jacuzzi after competition. But this was valuable work and those stern critics of Chelsea’s simulation, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, must have been pleased.
This is where you hope VAR will be a boon: exposing cheats who in the full glare of the replays might think twice about pulling the same stunt next time. But so far they’ve not been named and shamed in the grounds; the replays have yet to go up on the big screens in the corners.
Should this happen? It does in tennis and rugby, involving the crowd in the incidents. Did that foot stray into touch just before the ball was touched down? Let’s slow it down and find out …
There’s no doubt that in rugby the replays add drama. Those who favour the sphere over the egg would argue that rugby needs drama, that there are too many stoppages, too many longueurs when the ball is stuck under a mass of grunting bodies. This is obviously a simplistic, biased view but there’s more consistent flow to a football match which shouldn’t be disrupted overmuch or unnecessarily.
We’ve already seen Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, pictured inset, draw frantic oblongs to call for replays; the gesture could soon replace the flourishing of an imaginary card.
Referees will have to resist this pressure and only request VAR assistance during the most crucial moments. Penalty-box incidents and that’s all.
So far the officials have been too quick to use it. They haven’t wanted to be proved wrong by TV later while VAR stood idly by. Presumably such teething troubles will eventually disappear and the reviewing process will get slicker because some of the pauses have been lengthy, causing confusion in the stands because the supporters haven’t had access to the replays like the armchair audience.
But those big screens in the corner aren’t in every stadium. Does that mean VAR won’t be in every stadium? If in Scotland Celtic have the system, will it also be at Cowdenbeath or whichever club are propping up the fourth tier, desperate for a break?
In England there was no VAR in the first leg of Manchester City’s Carabao Cup semi-final against Bristol City because replays won’t be available in the Ashton Gate rematch. Surely unless VAR is universal there’s a risk of competition integrity being compromised. A club not exposed to replays could progress further in a tournament because an offside goal goes undetected. How will the team tripped up by VAR for an identical incident in their game feel about that?
Tennis now totally depends on its version of VAR – Hawkeye. The umpires have handed over their power on the legality of shots to the machine. This cannot happen in football. VAR would basically become RAV – referee-assisted videoing. You cannot imagine the men in the middle allowing their profession to slide into impotency – not when they’ve worked so hard at the cult of refereeing and are now enjoying the fruits of fast cars and tattoos, just like the players. In tennis there is no equivalent cult of umpiring.
Referees becoming even bigger stars? There’s a serious VAR concern right there. It seems unstoppable. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, or the fish back in the box.
Let’s hope Charles Dickens was right when he almost said: “It is a VAR, VAR better thing that I do.”