For a couple of weeks, it looked as if they’d nailed it. A fortnight into the new season and there had been barely a murmur of complaint about referees or their video assistants. Urged to let the game flow, all available evidence from the Premier League suggested referees were doing exactly that.
Even the lines used to determine offsides had been revolutionised (translation: made slightly thicker) in order to put an end to ridiculous decisions determined by rogue toenails and armpits. “Effectively we have given back 20 goals to the game that were deemed offside last season,” said Mike Riley, the referees chief, who was unwilling to specify how many of them the perennially offside Chelsea striker Timo Werner would be getting.
Manchester United were early beneficiaries of Professional Game Match Officials Limited’s largesse, Bruno Fernandes scoring a goal against Leeds that would almost certainly have been chalked off last season. Elsewhere on an opening Premier League weekend where VAR intervention was noticeably absent, only Brighton and Newcastle had serious grounds for complaint.
At Turf Moor, a blatant James Tarkowski shove on Neal Maupay moments before the Burnley defender headed his side into an early lead should have been ruled out by VAR but wasn’t. Meanwhile at St James’ Park, Newcastle’s Jacob Murphy was understandably aggrieved not to have had a penalty awarded against him by Martin Atkinson overturned by David Coote in the Stockley Park video bunker.
Atkinson again found himself the unwanted centre of attention when he chose not to penalise – that man again – Tarkowski for a scything challenge on Everton’s Richarlison that should have prompted the Burnley defender’s marching orders on Merseyside. On this occasion it was Tim Wood who elected not to overturn one of the most clear and obvious errors in the opening four rounds of fixtures in this season’s top flight.
Neal Maupay (on the ground) appeals unsuccessfully as Burnley celebrate James Tarkowski’s goal, which came after a shove on the Brighton player. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Nevertheless, after 40 matches punctuated with little more than a handful of outrageously egregious decisions from officialdom, the consensus among managers, players, the punditocracy and 95% of fans polled by the Football Supporters’ Association who claimed VAR made their football experience less enjoyable in 2021, was that we might have been a little hasty in our condemnation of a technological wheeze that was always going to take time to find its feet.
While Euro 2020 was not without its minor refereeing controversies, there were no game-defining mistakes and the 19 sets of Uefa-appointed match officials were praised for a collective lack of pedantry that allowed games to flow. In the first month of the new Premier League season the PGMOL’s concerted effort to embrace this “lighter touch” policy appeared to be yielding great dividends.
Then Manchester United travelled to London to take on West Ham. The penultimate game in a weekend during which Stuart Attwell was pilloried for his baffling decision to award Brighton a penalty against Leicester when it was quite obvious to everyone but him and his video assistant Graham Scott that a free-kick should have gone the other way, United’s win at the London Stadium provided the first real opportunity for assorted retired referees who ply their trade undermining former colleagues to really stick the boot in. Not for the first or second time this season, it was Atkinson who was the subject of their mournful disapproval. In a match won by Manchester United due in no small part to Mark Noble’s penalty miss moments after being summoned from the bench, Atkinson made a series of clear, obvious and borderline comical blunders, only one of which was rectified by his VAR, Darren England.
Brighton appeal to Stuart Attwell, ultimately successfully, to award a penalty against Leicester, a VAR decision for which the referee was pilloried. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters
“What was Martin Atkinson thinking?” wrote Richard Keys, now a presenter with beIn Sports, in a pompous polemic calling for the referee’s instant dismissal. “What didn’t he see when Ronaldo was twice fouled in the box. Not once – twice. We’ll never know, of course, because the PGMOL will ensure that their apologists – Mssrs (sic) Walton/Foy/Gallagher & co are all on message when they send them out today – ‘be sure you defend Martin’ they’ll have been told.”
Keys has been in Qatar too long if he thinks that’s how things work, given the bitching and backstabbing that is apparently so prevalent among England’s body of match officials past and present. “It is a strange game, refereeing,” mused Mark Clattenburg to the Athletic. “We are largely unpopular to the outside world and plagued by in-fighting and bitching on the inside.” Apparently oblivious to any irony, the former top-flight official went on to cut loose at numerous former colleagues, reserving the brunt of his considerable ire for Atkinson, a man who has had a torrid few weeks and currently can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.
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Here to stay but very much a slowly improving work in progress, video refereeing will be a source of continuing controversy and occasional fury, with the weekly Twitter thread in which the dedicated VAR expert and ESPN editor Dale Johnson scrutinises the decisions du jour now essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in accidental handballs, attacking phases and why Leeds didn’t get a penalty for Watford centre-back William Troost-Ekong’s decidedly agricultural challenge on Daniel James last weekend.
In a world where the TV discussions before, during and after Premier League games invariably focus more on refereeing decisions than actual football, fan anger at real or perceived injustices by on-field officials and their screen-watching assistants will naturally fester. The inevitable consequence will be even more scrutiny: rinse, recycle, repeat.