Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Kenneth Ward

Kenneth Ward: Is VAR turning our officials into tech-crazed automatons?

Testing Santa Claus is always a dangerous game, one that you are bound to lose. Leaving something off your Christmas wish-list in the vain hope that old St Nick knows you well enough to plop it under the tree anyway will in almost all cases produce the same outcome: severe, agonising, mystifying, faith-shattering disappointment. Either he forgot, or Mr Grinch got his grubby hands on that select item.

Just ask my eldest: the Nintendo Switch that was supposedly symbiotically agreed upon never materialised. In fairness, had it been flagged on the official document, I may have had a quiet word in the ear of the jolly arbiter of presents that would have left him scratching his great white beard. I, for one, am not yet ready to give up the one person in the world who will laugh at my jokes to the contagion of gaming zombification just yet.

For the second year running I, too, however, failed to let on that my sock drawer was running so dangerously low on ammunition that a fold-inside-out manoeuvre is becoming almost as likely as having your bloods taken in the canteen at an A&E department this winter.

Far from an isolated case, the percentage of deflated 30-plus men making up for lost gifting who inhabit the throng of January sales bargain-hunters on British high streets would roughly match the portion of pudding they gobbled at the Christmas dinner table: a sizeable chunk.

On my recent pilgrimage to the sock shop, or M&S, I felt I had stepped onto the set of I-Robot, where dozens of automatons just like me were grabbing size 8-11 black socks and thrusting them into otherwise empty shopping baskets in unison. What ever happened to this staple of the Christmas gift diet? Surely everyone knows the comforting feel of stretchy, unadulterated, half-polyester, half-cotton on the crusty soles of a man’s foot is the default springboard required to kick-off a new year.

My New Year’s resolution? To take a leaf out of those tiny little books Scottish referees keep in their top pocket to remember which players they’ve placed on the naughty list and make my pedestrian desires consistently well-known.

Less socks (which the SFA, to their immense credit, have always provided officials with in plentiful supply), more latest flashing gadget: since the introduction of VAR at international and continental tournaments, it’s been “Get me a VAR” this and “All my friends are getting one” that for the grandfather of Scottish refs, Crawford Allan.

Video technology has been the must-have item for referees everywhere. The Scottish FA’s own band of black-clad whistlers like Willie Collum and John Beaton have not been quiet in letting us know how much they wanted one. Besides the basics in terms of yellow and red cards held in the aforementioned pocket diary (complete with tiny pencil), officials already have walkie-talkie systems to chat to one another during matches, assistant referees can prank the match official using a button on their flag which sends a vibration down the arm; referees have a watch to make sure they have the right time, but it can also tell them definitively if someone has done a goal. Throw in a hip-slung can of spray foam, and it’s all state-of-the-art, super-cool fun.

But like most kids today, if it’s not hooked up to a video thread, if they can’t chat to a pal in some other town at the same time as handling all the gizmos and gadgets at their disposal, then it’s not worthwhile.

Without a Mexican stand-off with the sports editor in which a chunk of their budget to match my Christmas pudding portions is placed in my bank account, I like most parents would struggle to keep up with the financial demands of this tech-savvy, screen hogging, web-linked generation of children. It’s the same for the vast majority of cinch Premiership clubs. When VAR was being introduced, David Martindale of Livingston spoke of how the financial outlay would eat into his playing budget. It’s the equivalent of dropping to meat and one veg on the dinner table for the average family. And for what? Reduced concentration, instructions unheeded, festivities lost to hours on the console and uncertainty as to whether they will ever vacate their bedroom. The product football supporters pay all year to see is the age-old performance of players on the park, not endless delays, interrupted celebrations, and the nauseating what-if spectacle surrounding dubious decisions which are sent to the VAR trailer for a second, third, and sometimes, it seems, 900th look.

Now it’s not to say officials are infallible, far from it. There can still be a desire for more. The stench, like turned-inside-out socks, of poor officiating has not left the Scottish game since the introduction of VAR, however. But the problem there is in getting the fundamentals right: improve standards of refereeing, not the appliances they have at their disposal. That desire has been near the top of most supporters’ lists for many seasons now. The debate around the Connor Goldson handball incident in Monday’s Old Firm match demonstrates this. Did John Beaton get the decision wrong in the heat of the moment? When it went to VAR Willie Collum at Clydesdale House, did the experienced whistler get it wrong in his warm quietude as well – after 900 viewings on his live stream? Even with VAR, that debate rumbles on. But what did the man in charge do? He stood with the same glum expression of a child poring into the abyss of Minecraft, seemingly unaware that 50,000 around him and millions more watching at home were hanging on his every hand gesture.

The question that hangs over Scottish football since VAR arrived in October remains this: Do we really need our officials gazing at screens and chatting to one another from several miles away? Or can we focus on the real spectacle on the pitch?

Like many parents who will have experienced their children being lost to gaming devices in the past week or so, I’m wishing this year that Mr Grinch will take this latest toy away from Scottish refs. It will hurt some feelings, I’m sure they’ll feel left behind by their peers, but my god will it be more enjoyable. If it’s between Santa and The Grinch,

I know who I’ll be writing my Christmas letter to next year.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.