Spurs and the VAR Debacle.

So yeah. How’ve you been?

First day of March seemed as good a day as any. It holds no special significance or power. It’s as good a day as February 28th or March 2nd, but it was a plan, so here we are. We all need targets, and like Fernando Llorente, I’ve found mine.

Spurs are doing fine without me. I say without me, I have been alongside them at Wembley all season, making the most of my half-way line Shelf equivalent, my perch for 50 years, before the new ground turns it into an exclusive debenture pay up front for three years padded seat complementary programme cheese-munching executive lounge. And prices me out.

My mid-season break was longer than that proposed for the season after next, and unlike PL clubs I didn’t whinge about tiredness then book a trip to Asia. Whether like Dembele I come back stronger or lose momentum like Harry Winks remains to be seen. But here we are, because Tottenham really is always on my mind.

Once again, Pochettino has cranked it up post-Christmas. A long unbeaten run, 6th round of the cup and a NLD derby victory mean life is sweet. More to come – Spurs don’t quite look like the finished article. There’s still a bit more growing to do. Over the seasons, Tottenham On My Mind has plaintively asked the question, what does a top-class side actually look like? We’ve had top class performances and remarkable growth under Pochettino, but maybe because I’m old, I can’t rid myself of the spectre of Newport and Rochdale scoring from every set piece. Can’t get rid of the old days and the old Spurs. Except in 80 minutes at Juventus, Spurs finally gave me an answer.

While Tottenham are in rude health, the same cannot be said for the game itself. Rochdale at home is the equivalent cost for me of about 15 minutes of Juventus, so there were economies. I had never planned to go, but Spurs’ ability to sustain a plan for 90 minutes and to pick themselves up after an average first half, features so distinct from past sides and vital to our 2018 surge, blew us gale-force into the quarter finals. And there was VAR. It’s March 1st, I’m writing, so here goes.

Last night was a debacle for VAR and the referees who administer it, their faults exposed like wiring after mice have chewed through the cable, and just as risky. VAR offers certainty where none exists. Lamela’s opening effort was disallowed after the TV ref found a Llorente foul that never was. It took the best part of four minutes to make a wrong decision. Spurs were then awarded a dodgy penalty. I’ll leave the controversy about Son’s run-up, encroachment and a possible re-take for now, chiefly because above all, Son was incredibly stupid to not know the law about run-ups.

All part of VAR’s teething problems. I get it. Except all of these problems could have been foreseen in advance, and were, by many pundits and supporters.  Once VAR is there, you can’t forget it. Offsides plus fouls where there might be a clear and obvious error are supposed to be referred, yet last night, like a folk singer with his finger in his ear, the ref seemed to be checking something through his earpiece throughout the match. It was decidedly off-key. Fans in the ground were the last to know what was going on, of course, but in this instance even those watching on television were none the wiser.

VAR placed the seed of doubt in the referee’s mind. I’m sure he felt undermined to some extent. It creates a climate of uncertainty when the intended effect is precisely the opposite. If VAR is at a game, fans and pundits will argue decisions and the decision to use it, or not. Because it’s there.

Also, if VAR runs an incident, what if something else crops up? If a foul is being reviewed, what if the TV ref spots a foul off the ball or earlier in the move? How far back will they run the tape? In rugby league and union, they seem to refer more and more tries to the video ref, just to make sure. The stop-start nature of the game lends itself more easily to swift replays – there’s a pause for the kick after a try in any case. Before Christmas, in an international the ref sought judgement for a touchdown – rugby refs ask for a specific thing to be judged and because they are miked up you can hear what is going on. The try was eventually disallowed not for the touchdown but for an infringement earlier in the move spotted by the video ref.

The fans in the ground are the last to know. Happy to stand corrected but rugby fans at the match see replays, at least in big games. We’re football fans, we can’t be trusted. It’s worth remembering that when VAR first appeared, it did not cross administrators’ minds that we should even be told VAR was being used, let alone see moving pictures, so you see why teething troubles becomes a euphemism for slack thinking from people dazzled by the power of the technology at their fingertips.

Spurs appear in the footnote of history that perhaps lies behind this. When the jumbotron was an innovation, Spurs played Newcastle, 93 maybe? Replays showed Spurs’ goal was dodgy. Kevin Keegan’s touchline jig of outrage sticks in the memory better than the incident itself, and ever since the screen cuts to a panorama of the Lane if there’s even a whiff of controversy.

And here’s the nub. VAR has a context. It exists in a football universe that prioritises the fan at home over the supporter at the match. This has been a trend for several years now, once the PL allowed Sky to dominate the football schedule. Last night could well be the tipping point, the moment where a tiny incident on the fulcrum of change shifted the balance irrevocably in favour of the sofa rather than the supporter.

VAR is fun for the TV viewer, especially the uncommitted. Last night, the commentators said exactly this. I can’t recall the precise words, but this was ‘fascinating, laden with controversy made it riveting viewing’, did a pundit actually say or tweet that it was the best game of the season?

For the hapless souls at Wembley, it was bewildering. Paying their money left them short-changed. Freezing cold, unsure if they could make the journey home, it was a stark reminder how little they mattered.

This comes on top of the new TV deal, where more matches than ever before are shown on TV and which for the regular matchgoer means investing even more money without any prospect of knowing if the match will be shifted to another date and time. Spurs again with the perfect example of the confusion this causes, lest we forget the rescheduling of the West Ham game around New Year. This was much more than the inconvenience we have sadly and unwillingly become party to. Sky changed the date and time to New Year’s Eve and the PL agreed without consulting the police, the local council or the safety authority. Sky presenters were stating the game was going ahead – I and a few others told them via twitter something their own company failed to mention. Never mind consulting with the fans, this is scandalously dangerous. Sky seriously think, we make the decisions, everybody else jumps.

The minutes of the latest meeting between the Trust and the board are essential reading for any Spurs fan. The indefatigable Kat Law, a champion of fans’ rights, asked about a link between pricing and lower attendances than expected for some games. The club replied that pricing was not a factor – what mattered was opposition, competition and match time. The day after, Spurs’ revised kick-offs due to TV were announced, which include a Saturday evening fixture versus Manchester City. In other words, we are knowingly actively taking steps to lower the attendance. And this without the implications for City fans getting home – the last train to Manchester leaves at 9pm.

 

One mercy of Tottenham On My Mind’s absence is that I avoided discussion about our away game at Liverpool. A Spurs match again becomes a touchstone in the technology debate. It showed, among other things, that at high speed refs get things right and that technology is never conclusive. My point here, though, refers to the debate that raged after the final whistle on social media, the perfect example of a trend that disturbs me as a football fan, not as a Spurs fan. The Liverpool fans who howled for retribution, a re-match, for the referee’s head, epitomised the totally unrealistic expectations of many modern football fans who have re-defined the meaning of a foul. In so doing, they seek to thwart the laws of physics. It’s not a question of Spurs or Liverpool, or about tribal loyalty, it’s about what is and is not contact, what does and does not mean a player touched by another falls over. I don’t want football to be become a non-contact sport. Editions of MOTD imply in their analysis that football is a series of incidents requiring television adjudication rather than a flowing game.

VAR plays into these sensibilities. Football does not lend itself to the micro-analysis of endless replays of so-called fouls. Yet this appears to be the expectation of a growing number of fans (and some managers who should know better). I’ll hazard a guess that the majority of these fans do not go to matches on a regular basis. I think also that the most vocal on social media at least, not necessarily a reliable cross-section of the public I’ll grant you, are younger fans who have grown up watching the majority of their football from the comfort of their living rooms.

We’re fond of talking about “the fans”. In reality, there are profound and I believe growing divisions within fandom, between the expectations of match-going supporters and those who do not, and between older fans and a younger age group. It’s a generalisation with many exceptions and of course there is a cross-over between the two, i.e. younger match-going supporters.

There are many other examples where these divisions manifest themselves and where the game is changing – all-seater stadia, the perception of the dominance of the Champions League that dmeans other forms of the game, and now the precious treasure of the English game, the FA Cup, relegated to a midweek 5th round with no replays. For what – because it gets in the way of, well, I’m really not sure what.

 

For me, as an older, match-going fan, VAR represents the latest and perhaps ultimate aspect of the changing culture of the English game, which is increasingly weighted towards the television fan. Partly it’s about the matchgoer being left in the dark, partly about how little the authorities care about the time, money and energy matchgoers put into seeing their team, partly about VAR as a symbol of how the game is perceived and what people want from it. When was football ever about getting everything right? That’s not what I expect.

Change football at your peril. Football is messy, ambiguous and thrilling. Thrilling because your expectations are constantly threatened by the fact that you have no idea what is going to happen next. From disorder comes pain and anguish, joy and fulfilment. They co-exist: can’t have one without the other.  And sometimes, from the chaos emerges beauty, a moment of inspired creativity that knocks you sideways, punches you in the gut and forces the breath from your lungs. Moments that you share with the like-minded. That you remember for evermore. Nothing else does this, only football. For now.

 

 

 

 

 

19 thoughts on “Spurs and the VAR Debacle.

  1. This is very good. Profound on many levels.

    My son left Wembley last night at half-time in utter fury. I stayed and saw the second-half thrashing.

    Key issue. Is VAR about facts/accuracy or fairness? Some things can be measured (eg offside). Other things can’t: mutual pushing and shoving as per the Lamela goal. The balance last night was all wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome back Alan
    My son and daughter were at Wembley watching the game and phoned me to ask “What was going on?” I replied ” I have been watching football for nearly 60 years and I haven’t got a clue what is happening I fear the game is becoming a joke !!”

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  3. It is, I believe, illegal whilst taking a penalty to stop your run at the end of the run up but not during the run up as feinting during the run up is allowed except when the ref thinks it’s not – so it is all at. the whim of the man with the whistle. Upset him at your peril. It’s all as clear as mud

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hurray! Good to see you again, Alan. I’ve missed your poetry and insight.

    I think VAR will come good. But it’s a pigs eye at the moment. I’ve sympathy for the refs because the public comms that the FA has put out about VAR and how its being trialled has been incredibly poor. It all needs to be more transparent. I didn’t know until last night that every goal is checked by VAR. And I look at refs in rugby and how they manage VAR. The day that footy refs get miked up and footballers have to shut up a bit will be a good one.

    I like the way that Poch doesn’t whine about ref decisions. He gets on with it. For me its a mark of his class.

    Always your fan,
    Joe

    PS. Son shouldn’t have been booked! He wasn’t on his final approach to the ball (ie he had steps to go). He got booked because everyone else moved early!

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  5. Really great article! Thanks so much for posting, glad to hear from you again!

    As a younger, American, match-going supporter I know that I have a very niche world-view about all of this, but one of the main beauties of the game, the reason that I stopped watching the NFL and moved to Tottenham many years ago, was the drama of the missed call. (I added the “many years ago” because of the insecurities that I feel about being written off as “not a real supporter”, but I also understand that I haven’t been going religiously to matches for forty years, but as I’m only 23 I think there should be some grace extended. 😛 ) “From disorder comes pain and anguish, joy and fulfillment. They co-exist: can’t have one without the other.” This quote perfectly encapsulates how I feel about the issue. Of course I hate missed calls that go against us, but isn’t that part of supporting? If we only want the good times then how are we any better than the scum? I support through the lows because they make the highs so much more glorious.

    I also agree with the fact that VAR was used horribly at the game last night. Standing in the freezing snow and having no idea what was going on after the first “goal” was frustrating. The fact that I didn’t know why the goal wasn’t given until I got home, my phone battery froze and didn’t come back to life until I was on the tube, was even worse. The fact that the supporters could be so clueless as to why a goal didn’t count for three hours could have meant so much more if we hadn’t managed to win the match. If we are going to march forward into this Brave New World of stopping every couple of minutes for “VAR” when in reality it’s just an excuse to stop for a commercial break, then at least communicate with those in the stadium about what is happening.

    I hope against hope that the game retains it’s beauty and that I can watch as uninterrupted and untainted-by-hindsight-video a match as possible, but it doesn’t look likely. I pessimistically await a future of Papa Johns commercials at every potential and insignificant fouls called that are rewatched at every opportunity, but hopefully I’m proven very very wrong.

    The game last night was so much fun and fell on my birthday so I was having a blast freezing my ass off, but I could see the mood being very different if something like the first half happens against a better team later in the tournament.

    COYS!

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  6. Welcome back Alan, great to hear from you again.

    I continue to be baffled by all those Spurs fans who really do not care less about the FA Cup and do not appear to care whether we ever win a trophy again. For them, predominantly the younger generation, but not exclusively, it’s all about the Top 4.

    The fact is, as Kyle Walker just tweeted and Harry Kane articulated recently, players want to win things. I don’t care if we qualify for the Champions League for the next 10 years in a row, if we don’t start to win the odd pot, Harry, Deli and the rest will move on.. I love Poch but really do not like his position on the FA Cup. If the domestic cups were good enough to get Fergie and Mourinho underway as serial trophy winners, it ought to be good enough for Poch.

    In 20, 30, 40 or 50 years time, it’s the amount of trophies our great club has won that people will judge us by, not the top 4 finishes.

    Where do you stand?

    Best wishes.

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  7. Hey Alan yippe out of the debarcle of last night comes a shinny bright golden light, Just like the movies. Cheers mate. One point the difference that I think needs more clarification. Is that the “not knowing” of what is gonig on with Var, has a direct influence on the game. One could see/ feel the difference both for the players and the supporters at the game when Lamela scored the Rochdale fans were stunned into silence, when after five minuets it was disallowed they were jubilant and that vibe got into their players. As for the spurs supporters there was just astonishment at what had happened no-one had a clue as to why and it was obvious that the players were in the same boat. Being like your self, a tad, over 21 I have grown up and old with the beauty of not knowing the result. Now it seems that Money dictates there must be an answer. I can only say let’s not “Let it Be”.

    PS what your thoughts on the German reaction to Monday night football and is it correct that we “british fans” are only clients of clubs and not members??

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    • Re your last comment, Anon: it feels more like being a “customer” (and, at that, not a very highly valued one) than a client – let alone member. And sad to say THFC in its business hat tends to come across in that fashion. Just look at the portal to the website – more like Amazon than a fan’s mecca.

      But I’m too old to wear replica kit… so what do I know. (PS my chicken avatar is a joke rather than a Nike promotion!)

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  8. Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should remember the clamour for VAR in the first place. The fact that those reponsible have made a mess of its implementation doesn’t make it a bad idea. Nor does it mean that those who are critical of VAR are backward facing Luddites. My view is that it has legs (& is probably inevitable anyway), PROVIDED;
    1. Key stakeholders are consulted. Graeme Le Saux pointed out earlier than no one has asked supporters or players what they want from VAR
    2. Communication is clear and transparent. Rugby fans can see what the referee sees and indeed hear what he has to say
    3. Most of all, stick to first principles. Technology is there to help the referee with clear and obvious game-changing decisions, and nothing else. It should not exist to referee the game.

    Meantime, welcome back. You have been missed…

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  9. Great article Alan – a voice of reason. Welcome back from your mid season break. I was all in favour of VAR until seeing how it affected the match on Wednesday. I would prefer a VAR lite where the 4th official is watching the game on a pitchside monitor and tells the ref if he has obviously got something wrong – straight away. Not necessarily always right just a helpful extra pair of eyes. The whole team of officials are accountable – not just one bloke, just like the football teams. Maybe unrealistic, but the current aporoach clearly isn’t working.
    Hope to hear from you through to the end of the season

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  10. Thanks Alan, we have missed your commentary.
    All sport has the human error factor and should always be the case.
    In Australia the NRL ( rugby league) is so reliant on video that the refs are scared to make a decision and hence send so much needless stuff “upstairs” .
    I hope the Premier League doesn’t follow suit .
    The fans and the players hate it!!

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  11. Really missed your column, if I may call it that. VAR was no doubt a disaster yesterday and I cannot believe the powers that be are moving full speed ahead. I was thinking mostly for the players on the one hand and supporters on the other. You can guess that I watch on satellite as I live abroad. Can you imagine the deflating effect for the players, let alone the conditions, of waiting 2 minutes that seemed like an eternity to me in the comfort of home? I really worried they would throw the match away!
    For the supporters poor men and women, how disappointing. And to get things wrong, at least the first goal, was do frustrating for me – can you imagine what it was for them ?
    Only benefit was that Alan cane out if hibernation to write on our behalf send release the anger!
    Thanks Alan, good feelings this year in spite of VAR.

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  12. “Only benefit was that Alan cane out if hibernation to write on our behalf send release the anger!”
    took the words out of my mouth 🙂 Great to hear from you Allan.
    As for the state of our great game I can only cry in my beer and think of yesteryear when glory was the result of mud, blood and sweat. Next they will have the under armour sensors hooked up to VAR.
    We don’t want it!! Leave the online gamers in their warm cosy rooms. Give us back the glory, warts n all.

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  13. Nice to see your return, Alan, wielding that old pen again like a sword.
    Hope you and your family are well.
    I was with my daughter at Wembley and i can’t remember such a dog’s dinner
    of a first half in all my time going to see Spurs (and any other top sides) over the
    past 50 to 55 years. Oh, I’ve seen dreadful first halves, and I’ve been truly exposed
    to appalling weather as a spectator, whether standing or sitting, on many occasions ..but I never
    thought I’d experience something like this. We were in the Wembley Club section, and,
    because it was almost empty, the freezing weather was even more intense than
    if we’d had bodies in proximity to one another. A lack of atmosphere and the discomfort
    of cold I can, and have, endured many times. This, though, was a totally new and
    unwelcome experience. No point in repeating said incidents, except to say the quicker we fans
    are informed via big screens and efficient loud speakers, the better. If VAR is going to succeed then
    interaction is a ‘must’. Also, VAR should only overturn refs and linesmen where their mistake is OBVIOUS, and only then when a goal or penalty.is at stake. Tackles and other incidents outside the area should not be reviewed. If mistakes ARE made by well paid experienced officials on the pitch, then we do what we do now ..post-penalise off the ball incidents, or post-punish for dangerous tackles and/or diving. The game then remains largely intact.
    Goal line technology kicks in within seconds. VAR, despite the need to look at different angles, shouldn’t be that far behind ..and we should be able to hear the referee (only at these VAR junctures) debating it with these invisible officials promptly ..alongside all of us (ref, managers and fans) seeing video angles on the big screen. We can’t afford to have our game slowed down more than this. We’re not rugby or NFL. Football should flow. Quick elimination/rectification of large mistakes are imperative, but everything about that 1st 45 minutes the other night was a farce, for many many reasons.
    Loved Llorente getting his hat trick tho.

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  14. It stuns me that you can make so many valid and thought-provoking observations in your post, Alan. Your return articulates many nagging concerns, not just about about Wednesday’s match, but about the game and its supporters in general.

    Thank you for standing as a rare sane voice in an asylum in which the inmates appear too swiftly to be taking control generally as well as football.

    It’s great to discover you posting again. Do keep sharing your thoughts even if its only from time to time as they never fail to provide interest and stimulation.

    Like

  15. What a pleasant surprise to see this in my mailbox!
    Not one of your more cheerful ones Alan, but I agree with much of what you’ve written and this should be sent to every body that has a stake in the game – from the FA to the FSA, the PFA to the Referee association, and every media outlet connected to football.

    Given the agenda driven punditry on TV over the years, they’ve now got what they wanted , and who”d have thunk it, but they’re still dissecting referee decisions during and after the game and still can’t agree! I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but after the emotion spent in watching the first half, I was almost too wrung out to care about the second half. Imagine this game had been against Chelsea! I should say that not all the VAR decisions that left me frustrated were against Spurs – the penalty ‘won’ by Trippier looked to me originally a foul, but our man kept running until getting into the box then miraculously, could keep his balance no more.

    Like you, I couldn’t believe what Son did while taking the penalty. He’s one of my favourite players but this was rash – though equally I’m sure I’ve seen the Portuguese Ronaldo take penalties like this . I also have to admit I don’t know half the rules of football that I thought I did – I assumed the penalty would be retaken.

    I don’t want VAR, but have accepted it would come in , but surely it should be trialled at under age tournaments until an acceptable and workable format is reached and agreed upon by all involved? This half cocked introduction in the FA Cup, a brilliant competition in my book (old school), is madness with so much at stake. Also, if it is to come in they’ll have to mike up the referee for it to make any sense to the fan in the ground, something ‘they’ don’t want as the sponsors & agents of the players would be horrified that the language used by players was broadcast to all and sundry, thereby possibly affecting their commercial income. Which is what its all about, after all…..

    The biggest problem and killjoy of all in my book however , is that every goal has to be checked, and every bit of raw emotion upon seeing your team score (the whole point of football surely?) will be put on hold and diluted while we await a final decision for an eye in the sky.

    Watching Spurs with almost an indifference in the second half really worried me! I’ve never felt like this and never wish to again…..

    Anyway, don’t leave it so long next time 🙂
    Cheers, DB.

    Like

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