Wednesday 15 August 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Scourge of 'contact' will make video ref's job near impossible

Referee Robert Madley awards a penalty to Liverpool after Everton's Mason Holgate is deemed to have brought down Adam Lallana in the area. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Referee Robert Madley awards a penalty to Liverpool after Everton's Mason Holgate is deemed to have brought down Adam Lallana in the area. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In life it's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when something changes from being new and annoying to acceptable and widely used. But still very annoying.

Phrases like 'it's not ideal' or 'it is what it is' are now so commonplace that the desire to punch the person saying it has probably dissipated over the years due to over-exposure, so the rage must be channelled with an internal head-shake of disapproval.

Similarly, cars using their hazard warning lights used to mean that they were warning another driver about a potential hazard, with the clue being in the name. Now it could mean the driver is pulling in to pick somebody up, doing a U-turn or maybe nipping into the shop for a minute.

Football isn't immune from irritating phraseology and practices - a 'big miss' has moved from not scoring an open goal to being weakened due to a player's absence - and the one word that is now causing problems is 'contact'.

It's a catch-all phrase that can be used to justify a dive, cheating or a foul, depending on the context, and, with a Video Assistant Referee entering English football for the first time tonight, it's a scourge that isn't going to go away.

As befits a man who has been managing in football since three years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of Britain, Roy Hodgson is wary of change ahead of Crystal Palace's trip to Brighton tonight concerning the VAR's debut.

"If it stops gross injustices, then on our side of the fence we'd be all for it," said Hodgson. "The rider then is what is a gross injustice? A lot of things that I see flagged up on TV - 'Was it a penalty? Was it not? Was it offside? Was it not?' - after watching it for a long period of time and with other people alongside, we can't come to a conclusion because one person will say 'definitely yes', one will say 'definitely no'. How are we going to get to a stage where we only use it for the gross injustices? That's my fear."

There has been such an avalanche of football in the past fortnight that, other than Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, December 29 was the only day between December 21 and January 4 in which there wasn't a live Premier League game on TV and, it seemed, every incident had to be discussed in the context of the arrival of VARs.

Sky Sports brought it up with the frequency of a computer expert being paid to discuss the Y2K virus back in 1999 and while there are plenty of people who believe that video technology will finally bring football into the 21st century, VARs are likely to promote even more debate, particularly when contact comes into the equation. The only difference is that the number of replays will make the process even more tedious.

On Wednesday Arsenal play Chelsea in the semi-finals of the League Cup, which will be the first English game on Sky in which a VAR will be used and will probably give their commentators a child-on-Christmas Eve sense of excitement. However, if last week's match between the two is anything to go by, we could be in for a very long night.

In the first-half of that game Ainsley Maitland-Niles cut in from the wing into the box and had his stride impeded by the foot of Chelsea defender Victor Moses, but referee Anthony Taylor chose not to award the penalty.

Justified

Had he done so, it would have been justified to argue that the contact from Moses had caused Maitland-Niles to fall and, even though Moses wasn't trying to make a challenge, Chelsea still benefited by one of their players causing an opponent to trip.

One of the words listed under 'basic requirements of a foul' in the official rules of the game is 'careless' and it's arguable that Moses hadn't taken enough care to ensure that he didn't trip his opponent, even accidentally. The consensus, even after several replays, was that the referee had been correct, even though 'contact' had 100pc been the reason for the player to fall.

Fast-forward to the second half and Hector Bellerin's foolish attempt to get to the ball before Eden Hazard, which saw him kick the bottom of Hazard's foot before the Chelsea player fell down holding his shin.

It was stupid from Bellerin and, under the heading of 'careless', probably justified a penalty, yet unlike the Maitland-Niles incident, it was far more difficult to believe that the actions of Hazard's opponent had been the reason for his fall. And yet, because of 'contact', this was generally deemed to be a penalty.

It was a similarly farcical fall from Adam Lallana on Friday night to win a penalty for Liverpool against Everton, but, because of 'contact' from Mason Holgate's hands on the Liverpool player it would have been extremely difficult for a VAR to rule that this wasn't the reason for Lallana's tumble, even if such contact in a supermarket would barely merit an apology.

Along with goals, direct red cards and mistaken identity, penalty decisions are in the remit of the VAR, but because 'line decisions' like offside will only be made in the context of a goal, it will probably mean assistant referees not making the call in the first place for fear of being wrong, in much the same way as cricket umpires now rarely bother to call a 'no ball' and only check it when a wicket falls.

The VAR system, while trying to draw a line in the sand so the game isn't repeatedly stopped, appears an attempt to only let the genie a little bit out of the bottle, but it's difficult to envisage it staying that way for long.

Simulation, for example, can only be adjudicated on in the 18-yard box, meaning an incident like Jack Wilshere's dive against Chelsea will carry on as before without Wilshere receiving the second yellow card that he deserved. In theory, it's not the type of 'game-changing decision' which VARs will be adjudicating on, but, certainly for Chelsea last week, it became pretty game-changing when Wilshere popped up to score 10 minutes later.

Wilshere will argue there was contact, as will Lallana and Hazard, but until referees can work out the difference between a player falling because of contact and a player falling after contact and punish them accordingly, the word is unlikely to leave the game.

Like VARs, we'll all just have to get used to it, whether we like it or not.

Irish Independent

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