It flew in somewhat under the radar but Brighton’s FA Cup third round victory at home to Crystal Palace on Monday was the first game in English football that the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was available.
As if it wasn’t enough for us to already spend a million hours a day looking at screens – including to watch the game we love – those screens have now infiltrated the very anatomy of football. Now, any contentious decision could result in a break in play while we watch, on our TV screens, the referee watching replays pitchside on his screen-ception.
The VAR will come into play for any big calls like goals, penalty decisions, straight reds, or cases of mistaken identity. The VAR, having seen the incident from multiple different angles, can identify a dubious decision and signal it to the ref, who can then review it himself on his little pitchside screen. Simples.
As debuts go, it was a pretty quiet day for the VAR at Brighton. Dale Stephens had put the home side ahead in the first half with a strike from close range that he absolutely bloody mullered past Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey. Past is maybe the wrong word. Through is better. It was one of those where, were it a five-a-side game between beer-gutted pub goers, Hennessey would’ve given Stephens a real bollocking for taking it way too seriously.
Half time came and went before Bakary Sako struck back for Palace. VAR Neil Swarbrick would’ve been watching his every move through his monitors at the Premier League’s west London studio like Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies or the guy that says “Jesus Christ, it’s Jason Bourne.”
As it happens, Mr Swarbrick probably watched the goal back a couple of times too. It was a powerful driven hit from far out that pinged in off the post like a dream.
It wasn’t until late in the game that the VAR had to spring into action. A floated Brighton cross was headed back across goal by centre-back Uwe Hunemeier and onto an onrushing Glenn Murray. He fumbled the ball across the line with all the poise and class of a goat trying to ride a bike. The VAR looked, and looked again, but decided there was no need for referee Andre Marriner to consult his pitchside screen, and the goal stood.
Duly following the trusty script of any footballers on the wrong end of a semi-contentious decision, the Palace players totally pointlessly complained to the referee at the full time whistle. Obviously, they didn’t realise that those scripts are now very much outdated. Even Roy Hodgson was forced to U-turn on his minor complaints after the game, saying it “would have been very harsh” to disallow it.
Football has finally become the full-proof, sterilised sport of perfect decision-making and institutionalized discipline that the overlords first imagined it to be, where dissenting players are quietly taken aside in the dressing room after the game and never seen of again. At last, the drama and contention we all grew to hate has become a thing of the past.
I mean, to be fair, the VAR probably provided us with the highlight of a pretty awful match between Chelsea and Arsenal last night. Antonio Conte’s wild gesticulations, drawing rectangles in the air after Cesc Fabregas went down in the box, meant we all got to watch a perfectly legal tackle over and over and over and over again. From the front, from the back, from the side. Thanks Antonio!
But hey. Being paid to watch football on a gazillion different TV screens all day: where do we sign up?