My first, I reckon, wasn’t a game I attended, and only glimpsed in brief highlights form, presumably near the end of Sportscene which was when Archie Macpherson permitted us a digestif of English football after the Tartan Special of the old Scottish First Division.
It was 1970, Chelea vs Ipswich Town at Stamford Bridge and Alan Hudson, the King’s Road playboy, struck a right-foot shot from just outside the box. The ball hit one of the stanchions holding up the posts and bounced straight back onto the pitch, the referee immediately awarding a goal. Only the shot had gone the wrong side of the post. It was a terrible error – a terrible human error – but that wasn’t much consolation to Ipswich who lost the match.
You’ll see something similar – although with the reverse outcome – on Thursday night in a BBC Scotland documentary. I don’t actually remember this incident but the intervening 29 years have not dulled the shock and awe and unintentional comedy of Les Mottram declining to acknowledge Paddy Connolly’s perfectly good goal for Dundee United against Partick Thistle at Firhill.
Maybe poor Les had Hudson in mind and thought the ball had made contact with the stanchion from outwith the goal-frame. But Connolly was virtually standing on the line so that would have been impossible. When the ball bounced back out it was caught by a Thistle defender in a resigned manner - he knew it was a goal. But if it wasn’t a goal why didn’t Mottram award a penalty? As Sportscene’s ex-United man Steven Thompson puts it in the programme: “The worst refereeing decision of all time, not just in Scotland but probably the world.”
The title of the show tells us that a technological solution is now here – VAR: Friend or Foe? – although bets would seem to be being hedged on whether it’s the correct one. We might have a better idea 24 hours later when video assisted refereeing comes to the SPFL for the Hibernian-St Johnstone match at Easter Road, although it’s not going to be like a magic sponge and provide an instant remedy.
So should we brace ourselves for teething troubles, glitches, groans, lulls in the action, moments of ecstasy hit by coitus interruptus, a new kind of injury caused by half-completed somersaults, frustration after frustration, confusion heaped upon confusion? Maybe some of that, hopefully not all of it. But what can be said for sure is that this is not a test. This is not a Kwasi Kwarteng Chancellorship. VAR is here to stay.
Another certainty: every fan of every club is right now spooling back over old games where they were done down by a lousy decision. Maybe it was that free-kick which thumped off the bar and bounced two feet over the line. But just as Hibs supporters will remember the pain of Leigh Griffiths’ “ghost goal” in an Edinburgh derby a few years ago so they must accept they’ve benefited from lousy decisions, such as the one which enabled them to beat St Johnstone in the first game of this season despite a handball which a man in a darkened room full of monitors would surely have overturned.
That old chestnut about the good and bad evening themselves out over the course of a campaign has never been believed by fans – by their nature myopic. But maybe VAR will encourage this. Perhaps, after a few checks for and against, fans will turn into fair, equable and even-handed people in all aspects of their lives, willing to hear the other point of view and able to repeat what their wives have just said to them. Well, we can but hope.
Learning from England and ironing out the kinks of their experience of the system, we seem to have decided against football’s final arbiter being housed in a van. This is a good thing as it removes any connotations with sneak surveillance units, telly licence detectors, the Child Catcher and Breaking Bad’s Walter White cooking up his meth brew, which admittedly sounds like a decent half-time rejuvenator. And we certainly don’t want any connotations with yellow vans.
I presume the nerve centre of the operations will be sited exactly halfway between Ibrox and Celtic Park for even an inch closer to one stadium over the other will be inviting conspiracy theories and whataboutery on an unprecedented scale. There appears to be a big red button close at hand which is a bit alarming as this invites connotations with the end of the world. Still, I suppose such a deterrent could prove useful if disputes can’t be settled.
Football, as they say, is all about opinions, and wildly divergent opinions about VAR are aired in Thursday’s programme. An elderly woman, clearly feeling sorry for referees, says: “Help’s always good.” Meanwhile, outside another ground, a young lad is Canute-like: “Keep Scottish fitba the way it is. You dinnae want to be a caveman stuck away, but it’s going to be a laugh. A really bad laugh!”
The moment has arrived when we’ll find out if VAR is going to be a good help or a really bad laugh. “It’s a VAR, VAR better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” Who (almost) said that again? Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, when he was waiting for the guillotine to fall on him.