James Shield: This is what Sheffield United and the rest of football really needs

Three seasons ago, after seeing a Hawkeye malfunction deny them a goal during a match at Aston Villa, Sheffield United were told they had been the victims of a ‘once in a lifetime event’.
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The kind, as their rivals from Huddersfield Town discovered last weekend, that happens once every couple of years. With VAR officials also making some dubious calls during the latest round of Premier League fixtures, the sight of Yuta Nakayama’s equaliser failing to be awarded as Danny Schofield’s side slipped to defeat against Blackpool “frustrated” officials at the EFL. But not half as much as those behind the scenes of the West Yorkshire club. Or folk like me, who argued long and hard against the introduction of technology and video referees when both were first mooted and subsequently implemented. I still maintain, for all sorts of different reasons you might agree or not, that it was a sad day for football.

Still, those of us who wanted making on-field decisions to remain the sole preserve of the men and women in the middle of a particular game have lost that particular argument. Too much money and far too much face has been invested into these systems for them to be rolled back now. Believing that might happen would be a bit like expecting government ministers, many of whom hanker after cushy consultancies with big business and energy firms, to put consumers first during the cost of energy crisis.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is an advocate of technology: Nigel French/PA Wire.Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is an advocate of technology: Nigel French/PA Wire.
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is an advocate of technology: Nigel French/PA Wire.
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So the only thing folk can do now, even the naysayers, is to try and make these computer driven systems function better. Which brings me, not so succinctly, to the point of this column.

One of the ideas being mooted, included by those who felt they would be a panacea for all controversy, is to either ask former professionals to advise VAR’s or take over the whole process.

It sounds like a nice proposal. Until you remember that they don’t always agree with one another either. Graeme Souness, a pundit I personally have the utmost respect for, used his slot on national radio to explain why Andrew Madley and Jarred Gillett, his colleague Stockley Park, were right to disallow Maxwel Cornet’s effort for West Ham at Chelsea. Earlier, Match of the Day analyst Alan Shearer had labelled their interpretation of the Ivorian’s challenge on Edouard Mendy “a disgrace”.

I’m glad we cleared that one up then.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

The other trouble with this drive to rely on the experience of ex-pro’s is that half of them don’t actually know the laws of the game. Or “the rules” as these fonts of all knowledge like to call them whenever they cry foul. We can all remember times when we’ve been screaming at the television screen after hearing one of them dissect a particular passage of play and explain why this or that should or shouldn’t have happened when, clearly, the referee or their assistant had no choice but to arrive at the conclusion they did.

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That, the fact that so many of those who play our national sport haven’t bothered to memorise its statute book, always baffles me. You wouldn’t allow a DCI to call Professor Plum in for questioning during a Cluedo session simply because ‘that’s the way it works’ in ‘the real world.’ And before the board even gets opened up, it’s a good thing to check that everyone understands the rules, right?

VAR continues to prove controversial, both in the Premier League and the EFL: Steve Bardens/Getty ImagesVAR continues to prove controversial, both in the Premier League and the EFL: Steve Bardens/Getty Images
VAR continues to prove controversial, both in the Premier League and the EFL: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Midway through William McIvanney’s classic crime novel Laidlaw, the eponymous character has an exchange with a junior copper about the nature of detective work.

“I mean,” he says, “If everyone could waken up tomorrow and have the courage of their doubts, not their convictions, the millennium would be here. I think false certainties are what destroy us.”

The impossible pursuit of perfection has got us into this mess.

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Paul Heckingbottom, the United manager, is an advocate of goal line technology and VAR. He might also support Stuart Pearce’s campaign to get “someone with a footballing background” to sit alongside the likes of Gillett and co in their bunker in London’s western suburbs.

“If anything else, it would appease managers and coaches,” Pearce said. “And the players as well, This is all about helping the referees come to better decisions.”

“Now the LMA (League Managers’ Association) could supply someone that has been out of work and they have probably played the game, coached the game and whatever,” he added.

But what good is that if they don’t understand how their chosen profession is actually governed?

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Which brings me, again not so swiftly, to my next point: Why is a referee’s course not obligatory on academy programmes? Every aspiring young footballer, at United and elsewhere, must surely be encouraged to study the laws. It would make them more complete players, maybe even more respectful to those doing the job now. And, given the hand-wringing clubs are doing about releasing youngsters from their youth teams, potentially offer some of those cast aside a route back into the game.

It probably won’t happen because, when it comes to football, footballers past and present always know best. Or they think they do.

The very same folk who baulk at this suggestion are probably the same ones who would have failed Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and probably even Sir Alex Ferguson on the ‘Put Your Medals on the Table’ test before they entered the dugout.

Greater understanding. Open minds. That’s what football really needs.