Pitchforks were brandished, torches were lit and tinfoil was licked late into a Saturday night, when the air hung heavy with conspiracy. The Premier League was having its latest – perhaps greatest – crisis of confidence in officialdom. It turns out that “video evidence”, as it was quaintly called before the launch of VAR as a fated initialism, is no cure-all solution for refereeing elite football matches.
“We need the VAR, now. I think we need the VAR,” was Rafael Benítez’s reaction to Mike Dean sending off DeAndre Yedlin after his Newcastle team lost against Wolves in December 2018. Five years on, Dean is a television personality and Stockley Park, VAR headquarters, has gained the notoriety that might be attached to a house of ill repute. It is difficult to imagine any manager – including Benítez himself – being so evangelical about a system that, in England at least, seems incapable of learning from its many mistakes.
Despite attempts to personalise and professionalise the referees’ body, Professional Game Match Officials Ltd (PGMOL), its chief refereeing officer, Howard Webb, has become an increasingly embattled figure. The price of incompetence is public ridicule and doubt over probity. “Significant human error”, the explanation given for the disallowing of Luis Díaz’s visibly onside goal for Liverpool at Tottenham, and “clear and obvious factual error”, are epithets that now epitomise his organisation.
Since the start of last season, PGMOL has admitted mistakes on 14 occasions. The good news is that the goofs have been liberally spread, though Arsenal twice received a mea culpa last season. Both were highly damaging errors. An errant foul awarded against Martin Ødegaard cost an early goal in September’s loss at Manchester United, while a missed offside erased a vital two points against Brentford in their chase for the Premier League title.
Similarly, the Brighton manager, Roberto De Zerbi, received a visit from Webb in February to smooth over a disallowed goal at Crystal Palace only for a public apology to follow after a missed penalty claim at Tottenham in April.
Webb, all open-necked-shirt smooth and rational in his television appearances on Monday Night Football and the two-hander he performs with Michael Owen in Match Officials: Mic’d Up, is a former official of standing, a World Cup final referee no less, even if 2010’s showpiece was an all-in brawl short of being remembered as the Battle of Johannesburg. His Stockley Park colleague Mike Riley, previous leading man among the refereeing community, is a far less public figure, criticised for not speaking more openly, but an outbreak of celebrity referees is an awkward, not necessarily welcome development.
The news that both Darren England and Dan Cook, the VAR and assistant VAR now stood down after the loss of concentration that led to Díaz’s goal being disallowed on Saturday, were part of a match officiating team in charge of a league game in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday asks further discomfiting questions of Webb. Is it really necessary for his team to go on flesh-pressing foreign exchange trips?
Where previous generations knew the likes of Lester Shapter and Roger Milford only for their gait, shocks of grey hair and the vague notion they were Corinthian types, the ex-referee can now sit in the pundit’s chair. Every Monday, the implacable Dermot Gallagher fields an hour or so of gentle questioning from the Sky Sports News team on the weekend’s decisions. Peter Walton, discontinued once BT Sport became TNT, became notorious for indecision and going along with whatever the officials actually working the game came up with.
Dean, meanwhile, has become a centrepiece of post-Jeff Stelling Soccer Saturday, constantly quizzed on decisions by his ex-footballer fellow panellists, the majority of whom carry the suspicion of officialdom rife in playing circles. For managers and players, refereeing is the eternal get-out, a scapegoat for poor performances and bad results. Fans, too.
While its advocates argue that the percentage of correct decisions has risen significantly, VAR’s ultra-high definition has chiefly highlighted that most calls are subjective, a matter of opinion. Before the Díaz outrage, social media was already aflame with discussions of Curtis Jones’s dismissal for a high tackle on Yves Bissouma. To get the Liverpool midfielder sent off, it was argued, slow motion had converted a yellow card offence to a red. To the dossiers on the Greater Manchester origins of Webb’s merry band of refs could be added the speed of cameras as an explanation for decisions going against Liverpool.
English football has never suffered the refereeing scandals of Spain, Italy or Germany. Beyond the bellyaching, the acceptance that a referee’s decision is final was once almost sacrosanct. The greatest damage the repeated failings of PGMOL and its mismanagement of VAR can wreak is to fuel the conspiracies that dark forces may be at large.