James Shield's Sheffield United Column: This is the real problem with technology - and how we can solve it
To paraphrase countless managers during the golden era of matchday programmes, I’m writing these notes before last night’s game against Tottenham Hotspur and so don’t know what happened.
Well, given how many managers actually used to dictate their own columns in the club’s official magazines, I’m actually rescripting the words of 90 or so media officers. Or in one famous case, which I promised faithfully to keep to myself, the musings of the head coach’s wife.
“She’s got a really nice way with words you see,” the guy responsible for this subterfuge told me. “And she knows what I’m thinking because she hears me sounding off at home. So I might as well let her just get on with it.”
I would invite you to try and guess their identity on a postcard. But it’s probably not a good idea to splash my address across the newspaper and, in any case, I’m convinced - absolutely certain in fact - that you’d never unmask the culprit.
Still, deceiving both casual readers and avid collectors is not the greatest crime football has seen in recent years. That actually happened at the beginning of the campaign when some not-so-bright sparks and pompous fools who were convinced they new best decided to impose technology on football - a game which, for all its problems, ills and imperfections, has captured the imagination of billions across the globe because it is - or used to be - so wonderfully simple.
Sheffield United, as manager Chris Wilder has not been shy to point out, have suffered more than any other club at the hands of Hawkeye and VAR officials this season. From the farce of November’s first meeting with Spurs - when after nearly 10 minutes of rewinding, fastforwarding and freeze-framing to find a way of disallowing a goal - to last month’s shambles at Aston Villa - when a system designed to detect that balls have crossed the line failed to realise that had actually just happened - United have been the victims of numerous injustices. The type of injustices that, supposedly, the computer geeks and technoluvvies told us embracing change would help iron out.
“We’ll win that particular table,” Wilder recently predicted. “And then we might go on an open top bus parade. Or actually, let’s not.”
Unfortunately, too much money and too much pride, particularly from those in positions of power, for technology to be ditched altogether now. That particular battle, I’m saddened to admit, has now been lost. Those who lectured traditionalists like myself about the foolishness of trying to block its introduction, who accused us of being Luddites rather than folk who actually understood why football appeals more than any other sport, have got their way.
What we have now is a situation whereby officials who were always afraid of dropping a clanger are now so petrified - a process I suspect has been accelerated not by money but by the (apparently) all-seeing eye of technology - that they no longer feel able to admit their own fallibility.
“I don’t bother questioning or querying anything anymore,” Wilder continued. “Because all you ever get back, even when it clearly wasn’t, is ‘right decision, best practice’. That’s why I’m not really interested in doing it now. Because you don’t actually get anywhere. So like I say, there’s no point in trying to establish a dialogue or get any feedback. I’m not telling others what to do. Just how I feel about it and why I don't get involved in stuff like that."
Events during Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, when the officials awarded a goal-kick when the visitors goalkeeper had clearly tipped the ball over his own crossbar, will only strengthen their sense of being right. Clearly, the very same cameras which didn’t notice Nyland’s slip would, had they been tasked with monitoring decisions such as that one, would have got things spot on.
But there is another theatre of conflict where it is worth taking up arms. It concerns how technology is being applied, as the Villa Park omnishambles highlights.
Within seconds it became clear to all and sundry that Oliver Notwood’s free-kick had reached the back of Orjan Nyland’s net. But rather than intervene, maybe because he was as confused about the guidelines governing ‘passages of play’ as the rest of us idiots, the VAR official Paul Tierney, who also happened to be on duty last weekend, refused to right the wrong.
“Clearly they’d decided not to use what they had at their disposal then,” Wilder lamented during his media briefing on Monday, gratefully seizing the invitation to talk about something other than results following United’s run - prior to Spurs’ visit - of a draw and three defeats. “And the guy at Stockley Park, he didn’t seem to be watching either. Maybe he’d gone for a cup of tea?”
The trouble is, so strong is the belief of the modernists, so convinced are they of their systems’ accuracy, that they struggle to comprehend what should be a pretty basic principle: That technology is there to help referees and their assistants. Not make up their minds for them.
Better still, to simply accept that mistakes are part and parcel of a game played and governed by humans. But, like I said, that argument has been lost.