Scotland’s John Fleming at the heart of video ref experiment

The SFA's head of referee operations John Fleming, right, with category 1 referee Steven McLean. Picture: SNS
The SFA's head of referee operations John Fleming, right, with category 1 referee Steven McLean. Picture: SNS
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Scottish referees’ chief John Fleming will have a front-row seat this month when the curtain is raised on what is potentially one of the most radical developments in football history.

In his role as a member of the International Football Association Board’s technical advisory committee, Fleming will travel to the United States where Major League Soccer is hosting the first experiments with video assistant referees (VARs).

During the two-year trial period, which was approved by world football’s law-making body IFAB at their agm in Cardiff earlier this year, VARs will go on to be tested in a host of other countries including Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal and Australia.

With backing from new Fifa president Gianni Infantino, football has finally opened the door to the introduction of video technology for key decisions during matches.

Fleming, the SFA head of refereeing operations, believes match officials will welcome any innovation which helps them do their jobs more efficiently. But he also warns that the parameters for VARs must be clearly set in order to ensure the flow and immediacy of football is not adversely affected. The use of video technology in other sports, such as American football and rugby union, can significantly extend the time taken to complete matches.

“I would say this has more ramifications than any other development in the game in recent years,” said Fleming.

“There are so many possibilities and avenues. It depends how much you develop or curtail it. We need to determine if it is going to enhance the game or not. It could well be that it takes the game down a different road altogether, but as long as football wants that, then that is where we will need to be.

“We’ll learn from cricket, we’ll learn from rugby, we’ll learn from ice hockey – these sports have all been investigated by IFAB.

“American football is quite interesting with the way they operate it, and we have to consider the impact of how long the games might last.

“All of this will come out in the experiment. People in football are used to kicking off at three o’clock and going home at quarter to five, that’s normal.

“Is it going to be acceptable if you have to extend that by an hour? In the last Rugby World Cup you had a game overrunning by 20 minutes, and they were reliant on the television match official more than ever before.

“I will go to America on 18 July and stay for three days for the first experiments. There will be some role playing there, with a live game and a vehicle outside with the equipment and a video assistant referee inside the stadium.

“It would be very difficult to cover a game without the role playing because you could end up with no contentious incidents or you could have five.

“So we need the role playing so that we can determine how the system would work – how long it takes for information to be relayed from the VAR to the match referee, for instance.

“How long is that delay? Is it an acceptable delay? What happens if there is a breakdown in communication? What kind of infrastructure do we need? How much is it going to cost?

“Will there be a minimum of four cameras or will six be required? We need to take the live feed from the broadcasters because what the VAR is looking at must be the same as what the viewing public sees.

“There can’t be a camera angle which only we can see because that defeats the purpose. The spectators would be puzzled because they wouldn’t have seen anything wrong.

“There are five elements where video assistant referees should be implemented – mistaken identity, penalty area decisions, red cards, goals and offsides.

“Anything that’s factual in a game will be welcomed by referees. Goal-line technology was welcomed with open arms because a ball crossing a line isn’t a matter of opinion.

“If you can confirm that a player is offside, then referees will want that tool. You can see the fine margins at the moment, where players can be ruled offside by a heel or a toe or a knee.

“Where you need to be careful is when it comes down to interpretation – for example, whether a tackle is careless, reckless or serious foul play.

“The referee’s opinion may differ from that of the VAR. If the VAR is the sole judge then we could have a situation where the referee says at the end of the game ‘I would have given a yellow card instead of a red for that offence’ or vice versa.

“At the end of the day, though, the introduction of the VAR is intended to eliminate clear errors and not really for anything else.”

Fleming has recently been briefing Scottish managers and coaches on changes to the laws of the game approved by IFAB which were introduced at the start of the Euro 2016 finals and will be seen in the domestic game this season.

They include the change to kick-off, which allows the ball to be kicked in any direction, and the removal of a red card as additional punishment for players who concede a penalty kick while making a genuine attempt to play the ball.