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OPINION: Has VAR & goal-line tech improved football? (Sunderland could’ve used it in the past!)

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With the advent of goal line technology the pace and proficiency of the game is often brought into question. For all the bells and whistles, does the modern game suffer in the quest for the correct decision?

Reading v Sunderland - Premier League
Stephen Hunt’s controversial goal
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Refereeing is a difficult art. Did it cross the line? Did he use his hand? Was that a penalty? These are questions that have troubled officials for as long as the game has existed. Even the best, most observant referee, flanked by the sharpest, hawk-eyed linesman cannot be expected to have the answer to these questions at every time of asking.

As a result in recent years we have seen the growth of technological officiating aids to assist the referee in answering these questions.

Let’s cast our minds back to the Christmas time of 2007. We were playing Reading, and with the score level at 1-1 and only a short while left on the clock, Big Kenwyne really should have put us ahead but the big lovable lug fluffed his lines, and the game was perilously balanced - that is until Stephen Hunt connected with Shane Long’s cross.

Craig Gordon scooped the goal-bound effort out with a strong paw, but the officials made the decision that the ball had crossed the line, awarding Reading the winning goal.

Today, because of the implementation of goal line technology (GLT) we would know very quickly and with great certainty whether that ball had crossed the line or not.

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Goal line technology being tested at the Stadium of Light.
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Prior to the 2013/14 season, Premier League clubs voted in favour of the use of a GLT system known as “hawk-eye”. The system would be phased in, with the FA announcing its usage first in cup competitions and then the league itself.

An interesting side note is that one of the first games in which hawk-eye was in use was our League Cup game against Chelsea back in December of 2013. The system was used to determine whether Frank Lampard’s goal should stand; replays showed that the ball did indeed cross the line, and also revealed that it was in fact a Lee Cattermole own goal.

An early success for GLT, you could say, even if it was at our expense.

However what is key about GLT is its ability to instantly inform the referee of whether the goal should stand or not. The FIFA Quality Programme for GLT Testing Manual published in 2014 states that “the system must indicate the scoring of a goal immediately, confirming this within one second”. As such, the delay to the game is minimal.

So let’s bring all of this back to our game against Reading and Stephen Hunt’s late controversial goal. With hindsight, we know that lost point was not vital, but for teams who find themselves in positions like Sunderland were in back in the 2007/08 season, that point could have made all the difference.

So in answer to our original question of ‘has the introduction of goal line technology benefitted the game?’ I would say yes, it absolutely has.

As mentioned, referees can’t be expected to see everything because it’s simply not physically possible, but the technology we now have in place - which analyses the footage and instantly informs the officials of the correct decision - is a big, positive step forward for the game, and almost certainly would have saved the tactics board from a Keano kicking.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League
Under pressure Referee Kevin Friend awards the controversial penalty.
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It’s not all about GLT, however.

Skip forward a few years to March of 2011 and we find ourselves playing Liverpool at the Stadium of Light. With the deadlock unbroken, our old defensive rock John Mensah failed to control the ball with his chest near the edge of the penalty area, giving Jay Spearing the opportunity to race onto the loose ball. A desperate Mensah attempted a last-ditch challenge, and in doing so brought down Spearing right on the edge of the area. Referee Kevin Friend was quick to award a free-kick, but after a consultation with his assistant, the decision was revoked and instead a penalty was awarded, and converted by Dirk Kuyt.

These incidents, of course, have been and still are fairly common. Just last year, in a game against Southampton, David Moyes bemoaned that Manolo Gabbiadini’s opening goal went in off his arm. That goal, Moyes would also claim, led to Sunderland’s downfall that day, with the side eventually losing by four goals to none.

Now, whilst I shall politely disagree with Mr. Moyes on the grounds that we were god-awful for the entirety of that season, he does raise a valid point - even the smallest of incidents can have an enormous effect on the game. As such, for incidents of the highest importance like goals, red cards, and the awarding of penalties, there is obviously a far greater need for correct decision-making on the part of the officials. It is for that reason that we have recently witnessed the introduction of VAR.

Thrust under the spotlight in this year’s World Cup, VAR (video assistant referee) is a system which involves a bank of monitors presided over by the video assistant referee and his assistant, somewhat amusingly known as the “assistant video assistant referee”.=

The four types of decisions that can be reviewed are:

  1. Goals
  2. Penalty decisions
  3. Direct red cards,
  4. Cases of mistaken identity involving the awarding of a yellow or red card.
France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It goes without saying that the incidents in both the Liverpool game of 2011 and the Southampton game of 2017 could have been reviewed, and the correct decision subsequently made if there existed the facility to do so.

In the case of the Liverpool game, Kevin Friend’s obvious uncertainty suggests he would have requested the use of VAR to assist in his decision-making which, following the rules, he is completely entitled and encouraged to do. He would have found that the foul was initiated outside of the area despite both players ending up in a heap inside the penalty area.

In the case of the Southampton game the ruling official, Paul Tierney, clearly did not see the use of the arm. However, VAR has the power to notify a referee if they believe a wrong decision has been made, advising the referee to either review the decision themselves via an on-field review or to trust the advice of VAR.

One would expect that this would have been the case for the incident in question.

Theoretically then with the use of VAR major decisions should be correct almost every time.

The criticisms levelled at VAR and indeed GLT, i.e. the negative impact some deem it to have on the pace of the game are, in my opinion, without substance.

As specified above - there are only four instances in which VAR can be used: goals, penalties, red cards (direct only) and cases of mistaken identity involving the awarding of a card. Given the fact that these occurrences are not exceptionally frequent, it’s hardly the case that it greatly interrupts play, and the small amount of time that it does take is surely worth it in order to ensure the correct decisions are made.

On top of this, VAR is only necessary for controversial incidents so it’s not the case that VAR will be deployed for ever goal, penalty or card, which again makes a mockery of the idea that it will slow the game down to an unplayable pace.

Furthermore, GLT notifies the referee within one second as to whether a goal has been scored, and I for one don’t mind waiting for a fraction of a second for the right decision.

When it comes to the future of technology in the modern industry let’s wait and see what tangible problems arise, but it is my belief that GLT and VAR, when used correctly and effectively, will only improve and enforce the quality of the beautiful game.