Talk to any football fan and chances are, they can painfully recall a weekend ruined by a bad refereeing decision. And for supporters of Premier League sides, the pain is that much greater.
Thanks to the TV cameras present at every EPL game, fans get to relive the nightmare decision through slow-motion action replays which reveal just how badly the ref got it wrong. Yet in an age when fans and pundits alike can judge refereeing decisions in high definition from several different angles, our match officials continue to have to rely on their own eyesight to get it right first time.
As ESPN commentator and former Arsenal player Stewart Robson, defending a contentious decision in the recent Serie A match between Inter Milan and Juventus, pointed out: “The referee only gets one look at it, whereas we get three or four.” The television camera has become the referee’s enemy, when it could be their friend. Isn’t it time we used instant replay to help them out?
Video-review systems already work well in other sports. In rugby union, the on-field referee can call on the video referee to confirm whether a try should be awarded, while in American football, coaches can challenge a decision if they think the referee has made a mistake.
If ever a match highlighted how video referees could benefit the Premier League, it was Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 2-1 home defeat to Newcastle United last month. Wolves fans won’t need reminding that their team was denied a goal and a penalty by two refereeing decisions confirmed as errors by TV replays.
The first bad decision was made by referee Mark Halsey, who ruled that Steven Taylor’s foul on Jamie O’Hara had been made outside the area, when replays showed it had been committed inside the area. Wolves manager Mick McCarthy said of the referee’s decision to award the penalty: “I spoke to Mark and he said he didn’t want to guess.”
If a video-review system had been in operation, Halsey wouldn’t have had to guess – he simply could have simply referred the decision to the video referee, who would have clearly seen that the foul happened inside the area and instructed Halsey to award a penalty.
The second mistake was made by the assistant referee who ruled that Wolves midfielder Adam Hammill’s cross had gone behind for a goal-kick before it was headed back for Kevin Doyle to score. With a challenge system in place, McCarthy could have signalled to the fourth official that he wished to contest the decision. The video referee would have then reviewed the incident, seen that the ball was still in play and instructed Halsey to reverse his original decision and award the goal.
The video evidence for both incidents was conclusive; the reviews could have been completed in a matter of minutes. And two terrible decisions which almost certainly cost Wolves the game would have been averted.
Admittedly, there are doubts over whether video review would work as well in football as it does in more stop-start sports. A game of American football stops after every play, while a rugby union match is punctuated by scrums, lineouts and penalty kicks. Would video reviews ruin football’s unique flow?
There’s a danger they would. Officials might have to add on umpteen minutes of stoppage time to allow for video reviews or pause the game clock while reviews take place. Sky Sports and ESPN might welcome the opportunity for extra ad breaks and sponsorship (I can hear it now: “Video Referee Review, in association with Vision Express and Lasik Eye Surgery”), but I’m not sure players and supporters would.
Yet provided they’re introduced in the right way, video referees could help football rather than hinder it. Bear in mind that contentious decisions disrupt matches anyway, with incensed players surrounding the referee to protest, further delaying the game.
I see video reviews being restricted to game-changing incidents such as goals, penalties and red cards. I would also limit the number of challenges a team can make to one or two per game to prevent managers (yes, that’s you, Neil Warnock) stopping the game every five minutes to challenge even single contentious decision. If a challenge system proves too disruptive, video reviews could be restricted to use by referees only, like in rugby union.
Of course, video replays aren’t always conclusive. Sometimes, the view from TV cameras is obscured or a decision is open to interpretation. But whenever that’s the case then, as they say in the NFL, “the ruling on the field stands.”
Whatever the potential pitfalls, surely a trial of a video-review system is long overdue, perhaps at an under-21 tournament or in some senior international friendlies.
I wouldn’t, however, expect a trial to happen any time soon. Although we’re likely to see goal-line technology introduced in the Premier League in the next few years, football’s global governing body seems as reluctant as ever to introduce video referees.
In June last year, in response to renewed calls for video referees to be introduced following Thierry Henry’s infamous handball against the Republic of Ireland in a crucial World Cup qualifying match in November 2009, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said: “The basis of our game is one referee – whether you play in youth competition, amateur competition or at the highest level.”
Yet FIFA contradicted its “one referee fits all” argument when it gave its blessing to UEFA’s trial of an extra official behind each goal in last season’s Europa League matches. UEFA extended the trial to Champions League games this season, even though doubts have been raised over whether the extra officials have made much of a difference. Why deploy two extra pairs of human eyes when video cameras are already pitch-side, waiting to be used?
Here’s hoping FIFA has a change of heart over the use of instant replay soon. Because trying to convince ourselves that refereeing decisions even themselves out over the course of the season never, ever works.