VAR is killing the joy of our game

In Summary

• City were denied against West Ham before VAR cancelled a winner vs Spurs.

• Calls are being made against the finest of margins and altering the experience.

Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus remonstrates with referee Michael Oliver after their 2-2 draw with Tottenham.
Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus remonstrates with referee Michael Oliver after their 2-2 draw with Tottenham.
Image: / REUTERS

Football is becoming obsessed with the pursuit of perfection through VAR. It’s unattainable and, in the meantime, they are killing the joy of our game by relying on gadgets, freeze frames and fractions of centimetres to decipher every close decision.

Saturday’s game when Gabriel Jesus’ late goal for Manchester City was ruled out for an accidental handball by Aymeric Laporte in the build-up underlines the point.

I was in a room full of people at Match of the Day and nobody saw the unintentional contact in live time by Laporte — it was that inconspicuous. Without VAR, it would have stayed as a dramatic winner but instead, we’ve just spoiled the end of a great game. Again.

There was a feeling of deflation and confusion, not excitement. To add to my frustration, this handball rule is a joke anyway. If the ball accidentally hits someone on the arm in the centre circle, we play on. But not in the goalmouth, apparently.

While I know Spurs fans will be happy with the outcome, there will be another occasion when they lose out. It’s only strengthened my position against VAR.

I went to the VAR briefings given to media commentators before this season and what stood out for me was the fact that referees and linesman get the huge majority of decisions right already. The difference in checking everything is a few per cent at most – and the cost is huge. It’s always said we want to see more goals but this is doing the opposite. All this checking with technology might add to the suspense for some people but I find it tedious and hard work.

So do the players and supporters in the stadium. The way the City team and fans failed to celebrate some of their goals against West Ham last weekend because they feared they would be chalked off by VAR was a huge warning. If there is no euphoria after scoring a goal, you lose the greatest excitement in the game. Now we learn that VAR is not only bad for the spirit, but you also can’t even rely on science.

Goal-line technology, where you are judging just one moving object — the ball — is credible in getting to the right outcome. Tight offside decisions where you have to judge the movement of the ball, the speed of players and the precise moment the ball was struck, happens too fast for VAR to be infallible.

It is entirely possible that Raheem Sterling was onside between freeze frames when the pass was struck to him in the build-up to Jesus’s ‘goal’ against West Ham — yet he was judged offside by three centimetres because that happens to be when the frame was taken. That can’t be right.

To be honest, my preference would be for VAR to be scrapped in all instances except goal-line technology. I just don’t believe that offsides are the clear and definitive ‘yes or no’ that the referees’ association (PGMOL) claim they are.

Realistically, the authorities will not quickly ditch something in which they have invested so much time, money and public relations. They will give it the full season before deciding the best way forward. But the way it operates has to be amended to avoid this Premier League season being spoiled.

Firstly, offside decisions should only be overturned if the referee’s decision is clearly and obviously wrong. That means introducing the so-called ‘daylight rule’ – there has to be enough space between players so both teams will accept the decision and that it’s not dependent on when the freeze frame was taken.

Anything marginal, stick with the decision of the officials on the pitch, as they do in cricket with the umpires’ rule because they accept the technology is not perfect. Secondly, restrict the time of checking VAR to 30 seconds. If something has to be slowed down, made quicker, looked at from all different angles, it can’t be a clear and obvious error. In a perfect world, every single decision would be awarded correctly. But that’s impossible and this quest is not worth the hassle or the cost to our sport, which is the best in the world because it’s exciting and fast-moving.

I was against VAR from the outset, although the World Cup in 2018 lured us into a false sense of security because it went well in that particular one-off tournament. The women’s World Cup gave a different picture and, after England’s game against Cameroon, there was no discussion on the tactical aspects of the match itself because everything was about VAR.

I went on radio at the time and said I could see nothing but trouble and drama from using it so comprehensively in the Premier League this season and that it would become farcical. I said then I dreaded spending half of my time on Match of the Day talking about it.

People say VAR will punish divers and players crunching into really bad tackles but whatever happened to all the talk of retrospective action for that kind of things?

I loved playing football and now I love watching goals, assists, saves, blocks and tackles. What I don’t love is spending time gawping at a big screen to check every marginal decision. And in situations where the science doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, why bother?