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.