VAR in Scotland: Ground Zero nerve centre revealed, 'more limited system' but still fully functional, education required

Ian Maxwell celebrated his fourth anniversary as chief executive of the Scottish Football Association on May 21.

While it might have passed unnoticed by many, the achievement deserved recognition. The former Queen’s Park centre-half has had his work cut out.

The 47-year-old could be forgiven for thinking he was coming in at a good time when he pulled on a blazer handed down by Stewart Regan. Maxwell’s predecessor had the misfortune to preside over Rangers’ financial implosion.

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Though it’s unlikely anyone will have to deal with anything quite as extreme, Maxwell’s time in situ to date has been far from straightforward. There was, after all, near civil war two summers ago.

VAR is coming to Scottish football at the end of the year.VAR is coming to Scottish football at the end of the year.
VAR is coming to Scottish football at the end of the year.

“It was Covid so two years I don’t count as properly doing the job because nobody has done their job properly because of Covid,” he said earlier this week while reflecting on the last four years. “That’s not just me, that’s just … life (as well all knew it).

“But (then) you get to the Euros,” he added. “I was one of two or three in the delegation that was in the stadium itself in Serbia so to be at that was amazing. And to be part of the team that appoints a Scotland manager is just an incredible thing for a football guy.”

Maxwell was the first chief executive since Jim Farry to see Scotland qualify for a major finals on their watch. But he is also the latest after David Taylor, Gordon Smith and Regan to lament a World Cup qualifying failure in what has been a string of them.

Whether Maxwell is still around when Scotland try to qualify for Mexico, United States and Canada in 2026 remains to be seen. His president, Rod Petrie, won’t be. He must step down next year.

SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell, pictured right.SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell, pictured right.
SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell, pictured right.

Maxwell, however, still has plenty left on his plate and will oversee what could perhaps prove the single most significant change in the Scottish game since the implementation of the passback rule in 1992. His reign might well be defined by the success or otherwise of the VAR roll-out, which is due to happen after the World Cup finals in December, midway through the coming season.

Maxwell has confirmed that the base of operations will be similar to the centralised hub the Premier League makes use of at Stockley Park, outside London, rather than rooms at the grounds, which is the more cost-efficient arrangement.

Ground Zero will be in an industrial estate just off the M8. It might sound charmless but what goes on there will be revolutionary for everyone associated with the game.

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Whether deliberating over incidents considered worthy of review will improve the sport we love remains to be seen. Scottish football might be flawed in many ways, but its frenetic nature has often been viewed as a positive even if it does impact on the quality of fare.

The VAR nerve centre will be based off the M8.The VAR nerve centre will be based off the M8.
The VAR nerve centre will be based off the M8.

Can we afford to lose one of the Scottish game’s redeeming features in favour of a slightly enhanced percentage of correct decisions?

Although clearly unable to invest the millions of pounds spent on VAR in England, Maxwell insists the Scottish top-flight version, boasting six cameras, will still be fit for purpose.

"It's obviously a more limited system and that's just down to circumstance and resources but we have a system that we are confident is going to give us enough camera angles,” he said. “We wouldn't do this if it was half-baked because the worst thing we could have is the first couple of weeks of VAR and there's a camera angle that nobody can see or a decision we can't make, you imagine the reaction to that.

“We are part of IFAB and Fifa are looking at a video support system which is effectively three iPhones stuck on a pylon around a pitch, now that's basic and primitive and my view on that is you either have something worthwhile or you have the match official – something in between just causes problems.

“We have a six-camera system that's been used in a lot of other countries and there are very few incidents that you can't get a good camera angle on. It just comes down to resources. We would love to have 16, 24 or whatever the Sky cameras set-up is, but unfortunately we don't have the finance for that.”

Maxwell believes the success of the development hinges on making sure the process is understood. There are limits to how much VAR can get involved.

“We have got a real job to do in terms of education of the Press, supporters, managers, players,” he said. “As in when do we use it, why do we use it, what do we use it for?

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“People are kind of used to it because they have seen it, but it doesn’t solve anything. If there is a corner that shouldn’t have been a corner, it’s not going to change that. Then someone scores from the corner and it’s all ‘why did VAR not fix it?’.

“It doesn’t do those things so there is a real educational piece that we need to get through so everybody understands how we use it. It won’t fix every problem. It takes officials from 94 per cent of decisions being right to 99 per cent.

“So it will get the big decisions right and it should get the big decisions right, but there will still be plenty for you guys to get your teeth into and plenty for supporters to argue about over a pint – because on one hand, you don’t want to take that away. It’s part of the game.”