“What we have to do is find a way to help referees out.” This is Tony Pulis – then the manager of West Brom – speaking in 2015. “I would definitely call now for managers to have two calls each and every game, where there are 30 seconds and they can have a video link-up with people upstairs who can watch it on video. It will eradicate the major decisions referees are getting wrong that actually affect games of football. We have to work hard to do that in what is the greatest league in the world. The sooner that comes in the better.”
It was after a defeat at Manchester City. Gareth McAuley had been sent off for a professional foul early on. Wilfried Bony was clean through. It was the right decision in every aspect except one. It wasn’t Gareth McAuley. It was Craig Dawson. The referee who made the mistake was Neil Swarbrick.
“I thought they were twin brothers,” Swarbrick jokes. “I sent Gareth off and a few weeks later I saw him and he said not to worry – he and Craig got mistaken all the time. I asked him why he didn’t complain at the time, and he said it was first minute of the game, they were playing City. He was glad to go off!”
The video footage doesn’t quite tally – McAuley seems to be saying “it wasn’t me” – but to be fair to Swarbrick it takes Peter Drury and Jim Beglin a good minute in the commentary box to realise McAuley is walking off the pitch. “I would have liked VAR 100%,” Swarbrick says. “It can only benefit you. There’s nothing worse than driving home from a game knowing you’ve made an error. A key one.”
We are at the home of VAR – Stockley Park. Swarbrick is now VAR Hub Command, which makes it sound as if he should be dressed as a Stormtrooper. Sadly he isn’t. He isn’t even in full referee’s kit. Unlike during the World Cup in Russia, the Premier League VARs wear polo shirts and tracksuit trousers.
The room is full of TVs, much like a Bond villain’s lair, but with more life-size posters of Paul Tierney and Craig Pawson. It is wallpapered in referees. Swarbrick runs the whole thing on a matchday – overseeing all the games. Each one has a VAR, an assistant and a Hawk-Eye operator who presses the buttons.
And Swarbrick is happy with VAR’s start to the season. “I think it’s been really positive. It shows that the work we’ve put in over the past two and a half years has been really beneficial. We’re not getting overly involved. There’s always going to be criticism because there are people who just don’t really like VAR, so it’s our role going forward to try and convert them and show that we’re not trying to interrupt the game.”
The Premier League and Professional Game Match Officials Limited have put on sessions for reporters and journalists to help explain how VAR will be used. Simon Morgan, head of football relations at the Premier League, kicks off by saying he’s heard some people in the industry refer to this course as a “brainwashing exercise” – which is exactly what we’ve been calling it on the Football Weekly podcast. And here I am, ready to have what little is in my mind wiped completely.
Like all football fans I have been brought up to be irrationally suspicious of referees. They occupy this strange space in our consciousness – on our screens every week, yet we never hear them speak. So it’s with great disappointment when Swarbrick and the head of the PGMOL, Mike Riley, reveal themselves to be thoroughly pleasant and reasonable – even when one of the journalists suggests robot linesman as the solution to offsides.
The explanation of VAR is split into two parts: factual (fouls inside or outside the box, offsides, mistaken identity); and subjective, (possible fouls, such as Érik Lamela on Rodri last weekend).
“The ref will make the decision,” Swarbrick says. “He will explain why he’s given a penalty or not. He’ll put the meat on the bones for the VAR so then when the VAR looks it, if what the referee is saying is replicated on the screen then it doesn’t matter what the VAR’s opinion is – whether he thinks its a penalty or not is irrelevant. So if everything matches up, then the referee’s opinion sticks.”
It’s a bit like umpire’s call in cricket – it’s easy to argue that the decision is wrong, but it’s debatable and you can make a case that it’s correct, so it stays as it is. As Swarbrick explains of a Vincent Kompany lunge on Mo Salah in a City-Liverpool game last season: “[It’s] down to the explanation of the referee. Anthony [Taylor] gave a yellow card and he gave his reasons for giving it. If he’d given a red card, then once again the VAR would look at it and support that. So you can have two different instances in different games with different outcomes, but that is just the subjective nature of football.”
For fans in the stadium, it isn’t good enough. Only overturned decisions will be shown on big screens in the Premier League. In cricket DRS decisions are replayed on the big screen as they happen and you can hear the decisions with those commentary earpieces. There isn’t that agonising wait. In fact the third umpire explains things with such clarity that it soothes my whole existence. Hearing Marais Erasmus say “just rock and roll it there please”, helps me reach a heightened state.
In the classroom, we get to hear a conversation between the referee and the VAR. It’s an FA Cup game between Crystal Palace and Grimsby last season. Grimsby’s Andrew Fox goes over the top on Andros Townsend. It looks bad. The on-field ref, Martin Atkinson, gives Palace the advantage and says he’s going to book the player when play stops. Jon Moss is back at base. He tells Atkinson to hold off and ultimately tells him to send off the player – which Atkinson does. It’s not as calming as Marais Erasmus (nothing is) but when will football fans get to see and hear what’s going on?
“It’s taken cricket six or seven years to be in a comfortable position where they are,” Swarbrick says. “That could happen with football. I don’t want them [the VARs] to be worrying about how they’re saying things. Down the line we might get to that. Ultimately it’s down to Ifab [the International Football Association Board].”
The emotion of the celebration is the biggest problem. And it is hard to see how to rectify it. Cricket fans have learned to deal with an overturned decision, and perhaps football fans will too. It is imperfect, but the PGMOL is desperate to make everything as quick as possible. When everyone can check on their phone whether a goal was offside or not in a few seconds, VAR probably has to be there – or perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by Neil Swarbrick.