Spurs v Leicester this season. Leicester have just pulled a goal back with ten minutes to go and, suitably reinvigorated, they tear into the home side straight from the restart. Robbie Savage clatters into Les Ferdinand, Ferdinand eyeballs Savage and a predictable midfield melee erupts.
Amid the rumpus, referee Andy D’Urso has the thankless task of separating warring players, consulting his assistants and making sense of the whole mess, against the backdrop of a crowd baying for blood. Eventually, D’Urso books one player and normal hostilities resume, a full three minutes after the initial incident. And they say that video replays would slow the game down.
Enough is enough. It is high time that a professional sport, which gloats about how wonderful it is, should address ways of helping officials to officiate. The introduction of instant TV replays for referees is an unfortunate, but necessary, means to a better end. A referee’s job is hard enough, but controlling 22 highly committed players in front of a demanding audience both in the stadium and via the media is another matter altogether.
This role is made that much harder by the financial priorities that dominate modern football. When a referee makes a controversial decision, it is often seen not in the context of a side winning or losing, but how it will affect the balance sheet. The undue pressure placed on referees is made manifestly worse by endless TV replays showing an incident in slow motion from different perspectives that the ref had no chance of sharing.
It should be noted that television replays are already used to judge incidents in hindsight. Monday mornings are now dominated by news of various players being referred to the FA arbitration panel, with the consequence that key decisions are being made weeks after an incident has taken place, based on video evidence. Players are suspended and dismissals are overruled, resulting in important judgements that have a significant impact on a team’s season.
It has to be preferable that such decisions are made at the time the game is played. Virtually every professional match is now covered by video cameras. There is surely no harm in allowing referees to make crucial choices with the aid of a second look courtesy of a monitor placed pitchside or in the tunnel, or in consultation with a second ref watching on TV. Would it really matter that much if a ref took an extra 30 seconds to take a quick peek at an important incident? Better to wait one minute for the right decision rather than ten seconds for the wrong one.
In any case, to those who say such a practice would spoil the flow of the game, it might be worth considering how long it is taking refs to resume play as it is. Andy D’Urso’s experience described above is typical, not the exception, and a few replays would not prolong the game significantly further.
This is the key point: use of replays in football need not be applied to every decision. As it is, playbacks work in other sports. While cricket is a wholly different game, the limited model applied by umpires works well. Viewing replays in football should be at the discretion of the officials – just as an umpire may need visual assistance to judge a run out, so too should referees have help in working out if the ball crossed the line or not. Similarly, if a ref has missed a real howler, then his colleague in the stands can quickly bring it to his attention.
It has to be worth an experiment. While its application might not be comprehensive throughout the divisions, is that any worse than the current system whereby teams appearing on television the most invariably see their players brought before the video panel the most?
“If the referee has a look at that again, I’m sure he’ll realise he made a mistake” is the usual managerial bleat. It’s a fair point – so why not let refs see things again at the time when it really matters? Luke Chapman
The day that the highlight of a Premiership game is Uriah Rennie fiddling with a remote control like a 14-year-old boy slavering over a Hills Angels dance routine is the day that football finally loses its soul.
Like all pointlessly fatuous sporting innovations, the use of video evidence comes from America, where any excuse to hold up a game in order for its audience to lumber over to the fridge for another beer and fistful of fried corn snack is embraced wholeheartedly. It has also become a mainstay of cricket, is utilised in tennis and may be introduced to baseball soon. Actually, I’m being a bit harsh – it definitely has a place in sports like these.
You may be noticing a pattern here. All those sports are games of percentages and inches, have the luxury of taking as much time as they like (bad light and TV schedules notwithstanding) and – particularly in the case of American football – involve endless faffing about.
The whole point of football, on the other hand, is that it’s supposed to be an uninterrupted flow of skill and endeavour (no, really) which has already been bogged down with diving, ref-baiting, extended goal celebrations and pitch invasions. The pro-video lobby claim that it would only be used a couple of times a season, to determine dodgy-looking goals. Oh, really? Turn to the papers on a Monday morning, and you’ll find managers whining about refs missing stray elbows and offsides. Do you really believe that Alex Ferguson isn’t going to be dragging refs over to a bank of screens every time a Neville brother stubs his toe on a divot and goes arse over tit?
Video replays won’t force players to clean up their act – it’ll just make them sneakier. France has already tested a prototype system – with an extra official manning a bank of screens from various angles – and it failed because both teams spent the entire game playing to the cameras. When there actually were grounds for video replays, more often than not the cameras didn’t catch the incident because there wasn’t a wide-angle view, or the line of sight was obscured. Just as every serious Boy Racer knows the location of the speed cameras in his area, players will just suss out what they can get away with. Robbie Savage will probably employ Jackie Chan’s stunt co-ordinator.
It may have escaped the FA’s and Sky’s notice, but the whole appeal of football is that it is played and adjudicated by human beings, where all the greatness and foibles of said species are magnified to the fullest. The games we used to play at dinnertime were made all the more enjoyable by arguments over whether the ball passed over the crumpled blazer/goalpost, and similarly the rows in the pub after the game about dodgy goals and bad offside decisions only add to the majesty of football. And it’s much more comforting to feel you’ve been robbed by a balding ex-headmaster, rather than the cold eye of the camera.
Certainly, if there had been video replays ever since the technology was available, the history of world football would have been different, but so what? England might not have won the World Cup in 1966, but then again we wouldn’t have had to put up with a 36-year hangover. The Hand of God would have been disallowed – but anyone who genuinely thinks England would gone on to beat Argentina that day is chronically deluding themselves.
In any case, the real atrocities – such as Toni Schumacher’s attempted decapitation of Patrick Battiston in the 1982 World Cup semi-final – occurred when the ref saw the incident as clear as day and still did nothing about it. Which is what makes moments like that so special and makes our game better than theirs, you know.
If football decides to take this route and completely pimp itself out to television, why doesn’t it go the whole way? Perhaps the ref can Phone A Friend or Ask The Audience on certain calls. And if you think that’s bad, just wait until your local school has a game interrupted by a Competitive Dad brandishing a camcorder at a referee. And anyway, as Rodney King and a couple of footballers in the north know only too well, video evidence isn’t always the easy route to justice. Al Needham
From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month