That rings rather hollow now fans are back and the impact of video refereeing is arguably more infuriating than ever.
If Monday night at Old Trafford wasn’t the lowest point yet then it was surely the most tedious, with on-field official Michael Oliver and video assistant Darren England taking nearly four minutes before ruling out Danny Ings’ goal.
Then again, in terms of pure head-scratching absurdity the failure to overturn the penalty awarded to Manchester City last month for Joao Moutinho’s ‘handball’ takes some beating. There are other examples but far too many to fit into an 800-word column.
Regular readers of this space will know it has always pushed a firm anti-VAR agenda. You’ll find no apologies for that. From this writer’s perspective the problems have always been clear and insurmountable – subjective decisions will always be subjective, no matter who is making them. No amount of technology can overcome that core issue. Removing responsibility from the on-field referee to one sat in an office in west London only adds unnecessary delay.
Others will argue differently, insist the correction of a few clear-cut howlers is worth the dithering over those many decisions open to interpretation. A common argument is those using the technology, rather than the equipment itself, are at fault. Yet if that were true then surely, now two-and-a-half years since it was first implemented, we should expect them to have it working better?
No, the plain fact is VAR by its very design can never be utilised in a manner which satisfies everyone, not least those match-going supporters for whom it has become another glaring example of why, despite all the claims of clubs and the Premier League to the contrary, their opinions really do not matter.
If fans were listened to, VAR would already have been scrapped. A survey last year of more than 33,000 by the Footballer Supporters’ Association found 95 per cent felt VAR had made the sport less enjoyable, with four out of 10 admitting they were likely to attend fewer matches because of it.
Those are the kind of statistics which should make the Premier League sit up and take note. But while playing to empty stands during the pandemic undoubtedly hit clubs hard in the pocket, in normal times gate receipts have long been surpassed by broadcasting fees as a primary source of income. Clubs will bank on the fact the dedication of supporters will outweigh any annoyance caused by VAR and – at least in the short-term – they’ll almost certainly be right.
Yet it might not take too long for things to turn, particularly if they continue to keep fans inside grounds largely in the dark as to what is actually happening. The treatment of those at Old Trafford during Monday night’s extensive deliberations bordered on contemptible. A garbled public address message was the only attempt at an explanation and with network coverage which might be termed iffy at best, many supporters departed at full-time with no idea why Ings’ goal had been chalked off. At £30 a ticket, it simply isn’t good enough.
Old Trafford, in fairness, is one of the few top-flight grounds remaining without a giant video screen but even those with them do not utilise them, based on the fear screening controversial decisions might incite the crowd. In an age when clubs treat fans as customers, such thinking needs to change.
Allowing supporters to hear the conversation between on-field referee and video assistant would also help the problem of transparency and combat the accusation the technology favours the bigger clubs.
No-one really believes Oliver and England were searching for a reason to disallow Villa’s goal. But the length of the check meant it felt that way and perception does matter.
Any referee who reaches the top level has done so through years of dedication and hard work. Their professionalism should not be questioned.
But they are ultimately human and there is some logic in the theory that, at least subconsciously, there is less pressure in deciding to award a penalty to Liverpool in front of the Kop than the visitors. The introduction of VAR has only increased the stress levels and as we are currently not privy to their discussion, so too the ill-founded suspicion.
The biggest issue on Monday night concerned the use of VAR in a competition where it is not universal. Of 32 third round fixtures, only nine had the technology. Heaven knows how long a check on Morgan Amari-Smith’s scrappy winner for Kidderminster Harriers? Then comes the added insult of Chesterfield, a non-league club, being required to split the £18,000 VAR facilities fee with hosts Chelsea.
Having matches in the same competition officiated to different degrees of scrutiny is wrong. If the FA are serious about restoring the Cup to its former glory, barring VAR from next season would be a good way to get fans on side.