Last week, on the morning after the defeat at Blackburn the Roker Report writers were given a quick question from the RR roundtable; “Last night felt like a tipping point, is it finally time for VAR to be brought into the Championship?”
This was the first morning after a game the night before which, from a refereeing point of view was one of the clearest cases of ‘we were robbed’ you are ever likely to witness.
The game was televised, so the fans watching at home had immediate access to all the slow-motion replays during and after the match, and the commentary of the watching pundits.
It was absolutely clear that if VAR had been used AND the system worked properly, Blackburn’s first goal - which came 20 seconds after Sunderland had a strong penalty appeal at the other end - would have been chalked off if the decision had been overturned. Furthermore, their second goal would have been disallowed for offside after a VAR check.
Despite this, and despite the ‘we were robbed’ emotion still being strong in my own and I presume every other fan's mind, my answer was no and, being first in the Roker Report community to respond, fully expected to be the only one to say so. To be honest, I expected some kind of backlash when the article came to be posted.
Much to my surprise, my Roker Report colleagues Tom, Mitch and Ian all felt the same; they all replied “no to VAR”. Nobody had mixed feelings, every single one replied with an emphatic thumbs down. And like me, they could have said an awful lot more on the matter... so I will expand.
What strikes me about this is that, if there is such a strong feeling about the introduction of VAR in the Championship amongst a small group of contributors to the site, even in the immediate aftermath of a game where it would have turned the result on its head in our favour, then what is feeling like amongst the wider fan base?
As Sunderland fans, we have yet to experience VAR directly. It wasn’t around the last time we were in the Premier League, but it awaits us when we finally return there. And from the small straw poll for our own Roker Report writers last week there could be a feeling of disdain for what is coming.
Why? Well, most fans no matter which division your team is in, follow what is happening in the Premier League. Many of us will watch the live games on TV, and just about everyone has access to watch Match of the Day.
And what we see of VAR is a deeply flawed system, introduced in the 2018 World Cup and in the Premier League ever since. A system which was chaotic when it was introduced, but one in which exponents promised the flaws would be ironed out.
Except they haven’t and, if anything, it seems to be getting worse and the standard of decisions dropping. For me, it never got off to a good start anyway when it was introduced in Russia, with players using the availability of the technology as just another means of protesting to the referee.
It ended up disrupting games so much that it largely ruined the tournament as a spectacle to the fans.
We are now over four years down the line but, in the Premier League week in and week out, we see the referee on the pitch referring many key moments to VAR and the wrong decision still being taken, despite the so-called video technology.
Why does this happen? Well, in the first place VAR is exactly what it says it is on the tin. Video Assisted Referee. It is just another referee - the same referees that on another week would be out on the pitch. Just another human being, just as capable of mistakes as the man on the grass except that he has a bunch of cameras to help him out.
Any cricket fan will tell you that that game has its own version of VAR governed by the third umpire. They will also tell you that in cricket many decisions are challenged by either side and sent to the third umpire on a regular basis throughout a match.
And in that just about every case the outcome is a correct decision. Not only that, the comments of the third umpire are broadcast to the crowd and watching viewers so they can understand the process that has been undertaken to reach the final decision.
But the decisions that the third umpire has to make are much more straightforward. What was the trajectory of the ball, would it have hit the stumps, if there is the sound of the ball clipping the bat?
Furthermore, there are no fouls between players in cricket, not to mention the relationship between the umpires and players is usually friendly and cordial. Many umpires are ex-players and maybe football could learn something from that.
In football, the only decisions the technology can really decide are clear-cut with consistency are the ones where you can see if the ball has crossed the line, or if a player is offside, which is the assistant referee’s job. Those are the no-dispute kind of decisions you can take with a better view that the technology offers.
The rest of the time it is really one referee asking another referee's opinion, with the majority of the time the referee on the pitch deferring to the opinion of the man in the studio because he thinks he has a better view.
If an attacking player blasts a ball at a defender's hand is it a penalty? With VAR there is no consistency from one week to the next; the same as the lack of consistency was before VAR came along. The rule may be clear-cut, but the interpretation of any referee viewing isn’t.
Take Callum Wilson’s goal for Newcastle at Tottenham on Sunday, for example. Having watched the replay a few times, in my opinion, Wilson slightly changed his direction into the keeper at the last moment and led with his shoulder into the keeper's chest rather than challenging for the ball. Yes, Hugo Lloris went down looking for the foul, but who doesn’t these days?
Wilson’s own comments after the game were also that Newcastle had “done their homework” on Lloris and rather than being an accident in the course of the match, it was a tactic they had planned before the game.
Fair play (maybe not the right words) if they had, I doubt we would grumble if Sunderland did it and got away with it, but the point is you could fully expect VAR to rule out a similar goal a week later.
Yes, with VAR in operation the decisions at Blackburn may well have been turned in our favour, but would Elliott Embleton have still been on the pitch at half time after his challenge on Charlie Wyke against Wigan the weekend before?
VAR will come our way one day, it is an inevitability that awaits Sunderland fans when we return to the Premier League. So what is the feeling about it in the wider fan base? Leave your comments below and have your say!