This is the REAL problem with refereeing and VAR

Yes, we’re still talking about VAR. Excuse the loose, 70s synth pop cliche I've used to draw you in via the strapline and take a walk with me towards the crux of the problem facing PGMOL. 

I’m not here to talk about the Curtis Jones incident (I think it was a red, sorry), I’m not really here to talk about the Diaz offside (he was onside and Adam Clery has spoken in detail about that in the excellent video above, from which I have stolen some of the best bits to inform this article).

I’m here to talk about human beings and football culture at grassroots level, which is where this problem begins.

The Athletic’s Editor Alex Kay-Jelski said it best in his tweet earlier this week. “I hope PGMOL take the Liverpool offside incident v seriously. I also hope they don't release the audio. Because they have a duty of care to look after their employee. Bringing him more abuse in order to satisfy the mob doesn't sit right with me from a mental health POV.”

Sadly, the mob had spoken. The horse had bolted and was well onside. The noise was too loud, and the audio was officially in the public domain less than 24 hours after Alex hit send on his measured tweet.

It's a tough, tough, listen. But like violent video footage served to me unsolicited by Elon Musk’s terrifying algorithm I couldn’t help but ingest. But it tells us everything we need to know about the problems with VAR. 

It’s a distracted and tired human (VAR Darren England) trying to do things at speed. When you do things quicker, it’s hard. I feel incredibly sorry for him, imagine the week he’s had. 

He has completely missed that the on-field decision was offside and not onside. He believes he’s completed a check to confirm the goal should stand, not that it should be disallowed.

Just 40 seconds transpired between Diaz’ shot hitting the back of the net and play being restarted. The VAR team were looking at it for less than 10 seconds. Play restarted within two seconds of "check complete".

Why so quick? Well, when VAR was introduced the major complaint was how long it was taking and that it was ruining football. Everything that has been done with VAR since is about speed. And guess what, the knock-on effect of all this will be longer VAR delays as terrified officials painstakingly check they are not making a glaring error like England.

The LED board shows the decision to award Curtis Jones of Liverpool (not pictured) a red card during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool FC at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on September 30, 2023 in London, England

The board shows the decision to award Curtis Jones of Liverpool a red card (Image credit: Getty Images)

‘Get rid of VAR’ might be the consensus on the terraces. But a) that is clearly not an option given the amount of money already invested in the technology, and b) doing so would only be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

No, the problem for referee chief Howard Webb is he can’t get the staff. He basically said so himself at the start of the season when he publicly spoke about standards being "allowed to decline".

He wasn’t talking about refereeing standards, he was addressing behaviour towards officials. But the knock-on effect is that fewer people want to be referees in the first place and consequently, poorer quality rising to the top. Webb pointed to a worldwide decline in referees entering the game, saying a collective effort was required from everyone involved in football to address poor behaviour. He’s spot on.

"I think over a period of time we've seen a decline in some behaviours, both on the field of play and in the technical areas. It's not exclusive to the English game, we've seen it around the world," he told PGMOL's YouTube channel.

"This has had knock-on effects. We've seen copycat behaviour at grassroots levels, and that's resulted in people either quitting as referees or not choosing to take up the whistle.

"We're trying to change behaviours that are exhibited in our sport that have been allowed to decline over the years, for many years, that have now seen a situation where we have a lot of referees who are facing really difficult experiences at grassroots level.”

He spoke of numbers declining and endorsed a series of measures designed to combat bad behaviour. At grassroots level, teams now face points deductions when players or staff abuse officials. It’s a start. 

Salah, Klopp, Van Dijk, Matip all protest during Liverpool's 2-1 defeat at Tottenham

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The entire Diaz goal incident is down to inept communication between the VAR and the referee. Liverpool have been denied a goal in a Premier League game. Sadly, that happens. It has probably happened to your team. VAR was supposed to reduce this happening, and I believe it has, but I don’t even think robots officiating games will alleviate the situation. 

The presence of VAR has given this false narrative: mistakes should be impossible. Clearly, the reality is… they aren’t. They will continue because incidents that happen in football are not always conclusive, a section of fans will always feel aggrieved.

There’s no agenda against Liverpool fans, it’s just not conclusive. The Curtis Jones red card is a case in point. It could be a red, it could be a yellow. Whatever decision Simon Hooper or a robot made on the Jones tackle would be debated. Most decisions in football can be interpreted differently. 

But the point is that until we have a larger pool of people wanting to be referees we are going to encounter low quality. This is a people issue, rather than technology. The level of scrutiny, abuse and attention is strangling the flow of new, talented officials progressing to the top level. 

What youngster is going to look at the events of last weekend and want to pick up a whistle when they see the abuse Darren England and the rest of the VAR team have been subjected to? For what, a human error? Those officials haven’t found themselves in the VAR room at Stockley Park by mistake, they have made it there because they are in the elite pool. It’s just the elite pool isn’t very elite.

If VAR didn’t exist that Liverpool goal still wouldn’t have stood. It was incorrectly flagged then replays confirmed an error on the part of the Assistant Referee, and fans moan like they did pre-VAR.

Society, and culture in football circles that makes it seem okay to abuse humans who make mistakes, are the issue here. To quote Darren England on VAR, we "can't do anything" really until football unites and obeys measures set out to promote responsible behaviour from players and coaches at matches.

More on the Tottenham vs Liverpool VAR controversy

'Just accept referees’ decisions' - Gareth Southgate on VAR after Spurs-Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp calls for Tottenham-Liverpool REPLAY in the wake of VAR mistake

Liverpool's new 'siege mentality' after VAR chaos will help title push

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