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It's getting VARsical

A couple of weeks before Christmas, my long awaited return to play football finally came to an end. Three weeks on from that game, I’m still sore now.

It’s been three years since I’ve played regularly, with bit part cameos in between. During that time a lot has changed at the top level of the game, but how much at the bottom?

Goal line technology was met with suspicion when first introduced, VAR has since made it look like the splitting of the atom. It’s easy to understand why, goal line technology usually being less ambiguous or controversial when relied on by referees, and much faster than VAR too.

Four years ago, the biggest attraction at Stockley Park was its gardens and multi-purpose arena, fitted out with Greggs and Costa Coffee. Since the VAR team set up camp there, those staple British food outlets will have done a roaring trade, with the VAR team based in the business park; part hiding from public wrath, part living there. That’s how long a VAR decision can take.

Former referee David Elleray is now charged with fending off press pressure due to the flaws of VAR. Thankfully for Elleray, there are slightly more pressing issues in the world right now, the UK no exception. Like, why does Matt Hancock not use his last name in his signature, and if I have the vaccine does it really come with free 5G?

Elleray belies VAR is working, but when you consider the points used to defend its failings, is it?

“It’s clear that football is fairer but it’s also clear that VAR has had an impact on the flow of the game,” he said.

In my recent outing, deployed as an experienced, instructive and organisational centre back (which translates as old, stiff, slow and shouty) I witnessed a referee struggle not just with the lack of VAR, but also a lack of assistants. Where are the resources at the grass roots level?

As a Manchester City fan, let’s just say Fernando Llorente’s late goal in the 2019 Champions League quarter final was a dagger to the heart. Watching back, it was a legitimate goal.

As the ball hit one of our defender’s arms in a Llorente like fashion and the ref pointed to the spot, we pined for him to put the square in the air and defer to Stockley Park (or at least Andy Townsend in the tactics truck).

Imagine, if you will, Bobby Moore’s stepping out of the crease tackle to muller Pele at Mexico ‘70. The multiply it by any one of Vincent Kompany‘s challenges. You’d never expect something like that to happen at Gardener Reserve in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, but believe me it did.

I know, because I did it. Textbook. The result of these two decisions, a penalty and a free kick, and two goals.

I’ll be fair here; later in the game the opposition centre forward, a little too cheeky with his elbows, levitated at one point. I had something to do with this too. As last man on the half way line, it was a definite yellow and possible red. I was ready to shell out the eight quid or whatever it is in Australia for my caution, but the ref waved play on.

I’m not criticising here. I know how hard refereeing is, I’ve done it. But the lack of resources given at the grass roots level both leaves officials (who you have to believe do officiate matches for their pure love of the game) open to abuse, and doesn’t make the game fairer, as Elleray contests.

The difference, between our game and that of the top level? Money, of course. A wrong decision below the top levels of the game has limited, virtually no financial impact whatsoever.

Technology in sport isn’t a bad thing. Look at tennis and cricket for example. VAR in football is slowing the game down too much, as Elleray himself concedes, but also creating further divide between grassroots and elite levels of the game.

That’s one thing, but for a former referee who surely did his apprenticeship on the muddy cow fields of Dover, to insist almost cart Blanche VAR is working, is to forget the roots of the game entirely. Here’s hoping my legs have recovered as pre-season resumes.

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