Kevin Gage's Sheffield United: Why I'm backing VAR to be a big hit once the Blades get to grips with the technology in the Premier League

It’s the subject that’s currently dividing the nation, with differences of opinion causing arguments and rifts in homes, pubs and clubs all over the country.

Thursday, 27th June 2019, 12:27 pm
Updated Thursday, 27th June 2019, 3:15 pm

I’ve been prompted into action after speaking to a couple of highly-regarded and respected media colleagues this week, and found they have polar opposite views to me on the subject! With social media erupting into meltdown the moment it’s mentioned it seems it’s not going away any time soon, either.

So whether you love it or loathe it get used to it cos it’s here to stay! No, it’s not Brexit on the nation’s lips anymore. We’ve moved on…It’s now VAR!

Now, please excuse me for two minutes while I put on my virtual tin hat in readiness for the abuse that this column will no doubt generate. Despite all the negativity and controversy that the recent live Women’s World Cup games have brought, I actually welcome VAR and think it will eventually be a roaring success in the UK. Let me attempt to explain the reasons why.

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It may be a sweeping generalisation but in all jobs, in all walks of life, technology has vastly transformed (and hopefully improved) our lives. The area of sport is no exception. Just about every mainstream sport has introduced technology to aid referees’ decision making, with tennis, cricket and rugby the most obvious examples.

To think we used to rely on a line judge to decide whether a John McEnroe 120mph serve had clipped a 5cm service line, or that an umpire could detect the faintest nick off Geoff Boycott’s bat from an Aussie fast bowler is now frankly bonkers!

Rugby is probably the nearest team game to football for a comparison to be made and I’m sure most football fans have watched games where the video ref has been used to determine close tries. The tension grips fans and players alike as we await the verdict and I’ve always found that it brings a whole new dimension to the celebration process in that you go through TWO stages of celebrating when a try has been scored. Here’s how I see it panning out in football…

There’s the instinctive, instant reaction of sheer joy when the whole ground jumps and roars in unison as the goal is scored. Limbs everywhere. That ALWAYS happens, and always will. But occasionally, (and here’s where our viewing experience as Premier League Blades football fans will now change) our joy will turn to anxiety for a minute or two as the VAR people have told the referee that he needs to check his decision as (in their opinion) someone may have been offside.

Kevin Gage Column

The ref checks his monitor by the tunnel. Cue another 30 seconds as he decides what to do. He decides… GOAL! Billy Sharp’s header was fine! David McGoldrick WAS slightly offside, but NOT interfering. The linesman (I’m still old-school here by the way!) couldn’t see from his perspective that McGoldrick was 10 yards away from Billy and not the two yards that he initially thought.

The referee agrees and can see this on his screen. His decision is STILL final. Cue more joy (tinged with huge relief!) from 30,000 Blades as we celebrate again. Can any Blade see any problem with that scenario? I can’t.

In fact I can see a positive not a negative, as I see TWO separate opportunities to celebrate, rather than just the one! Of course, goals are only referred to VAR when there’s potentially an issue. When John Fleck buries a 25-yarder into the top bin we all go as mental as normal!

Now, there is the flipside, of course. I’ve absolutely no doubt that we’ll be on the receiving end of a few of these VAR reviews this season as well, but to quote a well-known phrase “the camera never lies” and the umpteen cameras dotted around the Premier League grounds this season won’t either.

The LED screen shows the VAR penalty review in progress during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

The decisions made now by referees, if they have time and assistance from the technology available, will be informed, rational, controlled, correct ones. No more reliance on a linesman probably a yard or two behind play and having to look at two things at once (the player and when ball is kicked) – which is actually physically impossible by the way!

Yes, I agree 100 per cent with those who say it will slow the game up. So what? A few extra minutes of added-on time is not going to massively disrupt anyone’s match day experience, is it?

The last few minutes of added time are usually the most agonising and exciting, and hundreds of fans leave a few minutes early from games anyway, so at least they might now get to watch a full 90 minutes if a ‘normal’ game will now last about 97!

We may have two or three extra stoppages while the referee is asked to check on a some incidents but if they arrive at the correct decision in the long-run, then it’s a small price to pay. We’ve seen and heard hundreds of managers down the years on radio and TV ask for ‘consistency’ in their decision-making and this new VAR system can ONLY help to achieve that.

The Blades are preparing for life in the Premier League (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

As an ex-player, I can also say that I’d rather use VAR to get a tight decision right than be on the receiving end of a non-VAR human one that gets it wrong. The problems that have arisen in the Women’s World Cup is the time taken for the VAR officials to decide to notify the referee! This needs massively speeding up as it’s currently unacceptable and takes far too long.

It’s unfortunate that FIFA have chosen the stage of an event with the whole world watching to show people how incompetent as a governing organisation they can be. I’ve been told by sources at United that the Premier League will NOT be making the same mistakes.

I’ve also seen the VAR system in action live in the USA’s MLS on many occasions and it works perfectly, as it also does in the Bundesliga and other European leagues apparently.

And here’s the final argument to my case. Once the technology has arrived, are we actually going to make a conscious decision NOT to use it?

Sky TV were the first to use lines across the pitch for offside and close-up freeze-frame replays of incidents and goals and now every TV channel and media outlet in the world have access to the tech wizardry out there.

I’m at an age where I should be one of the “game’s gone” or “it’s killing the game” brigade as I grew up in the Betamax/VHS video era with its pause button that made everything on screen look like a snowstorm with flickering images.

Bramall Lane will host Premier League football for the first time since 2007. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

With Dave Bassett’s teams, we thought a ‘flip-chart’ was high-tech! I should hate all this new-fangled stuff, but I don’t. I’ve got absolutely no idea how to use it, but I’m glad others have. The tech genie is out of the bottle and we can’t put him back, I’m afraid.

Life, and football, moves on and we have to accept it and move with it. And anyway, let’s face it Blades fans - it’s only being used in the Premier League at the moment, so let’s not get too uptight about it and just rejoice that we have it! With Sergio Aguero, Mo Salah, Raheem Sterling, David Silva and the like bearing down on us next season, VAR is the least of our worries!

It’ll be reyt….as will we. Up the Blades!

Kevin Gage owns The Manor House, High St, Dronfield S18 1PY. @ManorHouse_S18. Follow him on Twitter: @gageykev