Sheffield United: I had my reservations over VAR... but after going through its finer points, why I think it'll be a success in the Premier League

It's probably the most contentious issue to hit the volatile world of football for some time - and it's heading for a collision course with the Premier League, and Sheffield United.

By Danny Hall
Wednesday, 24 July, 2019, 13:29
Bramall Lane (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

VAR. What is it good for? Well, based on its usage in the Women's World Cup in France this summer, 'absolutely nothing' wasn't far off.

We saw absolutely over-pedantic use of the Video Assistant Referee technology with goalkeepers and penalties - eliminating Scotland in the cruellest of circumstances - and a host of other controversial decisions.

Including, it must be said, a penalty eventually awarded to England, after an age, in their semi-final against USA which was generous, at best.

After two years of fine-tuning, VAR will finally be unleashed on the Premier League this coming season, which of course coincides with United's return to the top-flight after 12 years.

So much has changed since they were cruelly relegated, on the final day of the 2007 season. The Premier League has become one of the best leagues in the world, and undoubtedly the richest. Its global appeal has never been higher, and neither have the stakes.

Ahead of the top-flight roll-out, the Premier League invited journalists to a VAR education session, at BBC Media City, recently, to hear from Simon Morgan, the PL's head of football relations, and former top-flight referee Neil Swarbrick, described by Morgan in the briefing as 'Mr VAR'.

Full disclosure; I travelled across the Pennines to Manchester still in two minds about VAR. Using technology to aid decision-making has, despite initial reluctance, improved sports like cricket, rugby and tennis immensely, but football's own attempt seemed rather more ham-fisted.

We had a go at being VARs for the afternoon

VAR was, for me, used for the wrong things and, when decisions were made, they seemed to take an age. I'm still not convinced a goalkeeper being half an inch off their line when they face a penalty gives them any discernible advantage that warrants a retake, and no-one wants to see a referee re-view a decision 300 times on their screen until they decide they have made an error.

Within half an hour of the PL presentation, I was sold. The exact science and statistics behind VAR were fascinating, as so was the revelation that the Premier League has its own interpretation of it; with the aim of preserving the pace and tempo of games.

It was surprising to hear, to me, that the average VAR check took only marginally longer than the average goal celebration, so fears of still playing at 5.30pm on a Saturday afternoon with dozens of minutes of injury time appear to be unfounded.

Referees will also be encouraged to limit their use of the touchline screen where possible, and will trust the word of their VARs on tight decisions where possible. Communication between officials will be key; on-pitch officials will relay what they have seen and how they perceive an incident to have taken place.

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Argentine referee Nestor Pitana consults the VAR before disallowing a goal by Chile's Arturo Vidal (Photo EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

If they feel a player got the ball in a tackle, and that is the case, VARs will not intervene. If they look back and the player missed the ball, catching a player on the knee, they will advise a red card is issued.

"I wasn't a lover of VAR," United manager Chris Wilder admitted. "I was old school, let the game flow - referees make mistakes as much as managers and players.

"But I've changed my tune and think it will be a benefit to everyone. It'll take out the old scenario of a dodgy pen for the home side with five minutes to go if you're away at Manchester United, and it will help teams like us."

Certainly it would have been interesting to have seen the final Premier League table in 2006/07, when United were relegated, had VAR been in operation and ruled out referee Rob Styles’ remarkable decision to award Liverpool a penalty on the opening day.

United were leading 1-0 at the time and on course for a famous victory, before Steven Gerrard went down under the 'challenge' of United's Chris Morgan. Absolutely no contact was made but Halsey pointed to the spot, Robbie Fowler equalised and, some months later, United went down on goal difference.

In 2019/20, VAR will concentrate only on 'match-changing' circumstances; penalties, goals and direct red cards, as well as instances of mistaken identity. Each goal will be checked and when a review is underway, the big screen at grounds - including Bramall Lane - will be used to keep fans involved, with the onus on protecting fans' matchday experience as well as getting the decisions right.

Up to a point, anyway.

"For black and white decisions, such as whether a player was offside or if a foul was committed inside or outside the area, a VAR can step in and provide guidance fairly quickly," Swarbrick said.

"But for subjective decisions, such as a red card, you will still get incidents that split the room and the VAR will only engage with the referee if a clear and obvious error has been made.

"Some people have suggested that fans won’t be able to enjoy the initial jubilation of a goal being scored, but based on our trials, for most goals, the VAR won’t intervene. On the occasions that the VAR does get involved, it will be to correct an error.

"To me, that seems fair."