Columnist and Matthew Harding Stand season ticket holder Giles Smith reckons we gave a special Chelsea welcome to new technology last night, and he gives his own, fan’s-eye view on how it went…
VAR came to Stamford Bridge for the first time last night, and nobody could claim that our club didn’t pull out the stops. Indeed, I’m going to stick my neck out here and state that, on all its travels during its extensive testing phase these past couple of years, the on-trial remote officiating system has never known a welcome like it.
Just before kick-off, while the players were filing into the tunnel, the stadium was plunged into darkness and the PA turned up to 11. Then, amid a thunderous fanfare, the floodlights flashed and glowed in sequence while searchlights, specially stationed along the touchlines, raked the pitch and threw cartwheels of white light across the ceilings. Meanwhile, in the stands, as instructed, fans raised their phones to create a teeming night-sky of flickering flash-lights.
Quite a scene, all in all. Afterwards, at the match centre near Heathrow, Neil Swarbrick, the new go-to-man for all your off-site, video-based refereeing needs, would have had no option, one imagines, but to lean into his microphone and say, ‘Decent light show. Play on.’
Okay, some of that light-stuff might have been in honour of the Carabao Cup, at its semi-final stage, and some of it may even have been in honour of our good friends and neighbours, Arsenal. Our visitors would, no doubt, have enjoyed the carnival aspect and the up-scale effort being made on their behalf.
Nevertheless, I like to think that at least some of that fanfare and showbusiness was about VAR at this crucial, formative moment for the system, sending a signal that when the game seeks to embrace technology and move forward, Chelsea, as a club and as a set of supporters, will open our arms and be as encouraging as we possibly can be.
That said, I absolutely hated it. Not the light show: I loved the light show. But I hated VAR. Indeed, I found myself undergoing a complete about-turn on the way I had felt about the system as recently as Monday. Like you, perhaps, I turned on the telly at the start of the week for the FA Cup game between Brighton and Crystal Palace, where VAR was in operation for the first time in an official English club game. And I switched off afterwards thinking, ‘Well, that seems to work okay. Bit of enduring confusion at the end there, with the goal. But otherwise all right.’
But that was on television. As I discovered last night, for spectators in the ground, VAR is a different beast altogether – an almost entirely deadening, deflating beast. Twice last night, the referee halted the game to hear from the video official about something (we didn’t know what), only eventually to wave play on. If sport can devise a set-piece less pregnant with drama than an unseen video review at the conclusion of which nothing is altered, we would love to see it.
Television, presumably, assuming it had correctly established where the doubt lay, was filling the lull at those points with replays – conducting a VAR of its own. During these sizeable exchanges, we, on the other hand, had nothing to look at except Martin Atkinson, standing still, head slightly bowed, pressing his hand to his ear and resembling somebody on the phone in a noisy room. And how enthralled are you by watching anybody on their phone?
The second of Atkinson’s consultation periods came in the final minutes, during a period of intense and inevitably slightly frantic pressure on Arsenal’s goal, in search of a potentially vital goal. It was, accordingly, a killer. It killed momentum, it killed atmosphere (except in the sense of making the place boil with fury), and it killed, obviously, the game.
Worse, none of us in the stands had any idea, really, what Atkinson was reviewing, and had to discover it subsequently, courtesy of people who had been watching on the telly. Which is not, really, why you buy a ticket.
Nobody on the pitch appeared to appeal for a penalty. Fabregas, the potentially (but not actually) offended-against player, was so unconcerned, he was already waiting to take the corner. At one point during the deliberations, Cesar Azpilicueta, as captain, went to Atkinson and I may be wrong but it seemed to me that he was trying to find out what was being re-looked at. If this was a knife-edge moment – a moment where the destiny of the match trembled on the verdict of the remote official – then none of that drama was borne into the stadium. On the contrary, an annoyed, urgent and, while we’re mentioning it, extremely cold crowd was booing at the interruption and pleading for the resumption of play.
Contrast other sports that have adopted video reviewing systems. In rugby, even in the ground, you hear the referee. In cricket, you not only know what’s being reviewed, you see the review taking place, on the big screen – Hotspot, Snicko and all. You get put in the picture, in other words – which is perhaps not too much to ask, as someone who has bothered to pitch up to watch. But, of course, football has never trusted us with big-screen replays of controversial incidents in case we form opinions of our own and then make them known. So, last night the only place anything was happening was in Martin Atkinson’s ear.
Then, to compound the frustration, the amount of time taken to complete these discussions did not seem to figure significantly in the calculation of time added on. We got five additional minutes last night, which was only marginally longer than it had taken Jack Wilshere to make his statutory departure from the pitch after treatment. (This was before he eventually departed injured.) Lob in the substitutions, a pair of call-outs for Arsenal’s trainer, an increasingly meditative approach to goal-kicks, and Atkinson’s love-lorn conversations with air traffic control (‘You hang up…’ ‘No, you hang up…’) and surely we were looking at closer to a quarter of an hour.
But that, alas, seems to be VAR right now. Unlike our pre-match light show, it’s the opposite of entertainment. It introduces dead-spots and passages of mystification and creates a field for the cultivation of fan-alienating backroom jury-business which one associates with the decline, as a spectator sport, of Formula One motor racing.
Would I feel differently right now if, at the conclusion of his lengthy consultation with the call centre at Heathrow, Atkinson had abandoned our corner and pointed to the spot instead? And if Cesc Fabregas had then stepped up to put us 1-0 ahead going into the second leg? No doubt I would, yes. No doubt I would be hymning the long-awaited righteousness of the system, claiming that it was pre-figured in the Bible if you only knew where to look, and staging it a small, honorary light-show here on my desk, even as I write.
But here’s the point: the referee didn’t do that. And more often than not, he won’t. And it seems to me that, if the price of picking up the odd stray penalty here and there is that we’re going to be doomed to a lifetime of watching referees on the phone, and having no idea what they’re talking about, then the sacrifice ultimately isn’t worth it.
In any case, between you and me, and this isn’t something I would choose to say publicly… but aren’t shockingly missed penalty decisions part of the fun? What are we going to complain about otherwise?
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