Picture the scene. It’s a rainy, boxing day afternoon at the Vitality Stadium. West Ham lead Bournemouth 3-2 deep into added time when Callum Wilson of Bournemouth appears to divert the ball into the goal with his arm from a borderline offside position.
The linesman rightly raises his flag to indicate the goal be disallowed for offside. Referee Bobby Madley runs over the discuss the incident with his linesman for about a minute.
Whilst this conversation is ongoing, Football pundits Leon Osman and Jon Hartson cry out that the goal should be disallowed for either offside or handball as they watch numerous video replays in the comfort of their BBC Television studio.
Eventually Bobby Madley convinces his assistant to wrongly overturn his original decision and allow the goal to stand to the bemusement of the West Ham fans, players and manager, and those watching elsewhere.
Although it’s easy to blame the officials for eventually getting it wrong, in reality it was practically impossible to judge in real time whether Wilson was offside or if the ball hit his head, shoulder or arm (or all three). The officials were crying out for the help of a video assistant referee.
The use of a video assistant referee was trialled for the first time in the UK during England’s friendly with Germany in November 2017 and will be trialled for the first time in the FA Cup on 8th January when Brighton face Palace. Video assistant trials have been ongoing in different leagues and competitions around the world for 18 months. But these trials weren’t much use to Bobby Madley and his assistants yesterday, which begs the question ‘what’s taking so long?’
Video replays were first trialled in NFL preseason games in 1978 where it was eventually ditched as the technology wasn’t mature enough. NFL officials concluded that they needed a minimum of 12 camera angles to implement an effective system.
A video replay system was eventually approved in 1986 when the technology was available to adopt an effective system. Although the system had evolved and was more useful, it still had its faults. Fans and coaches questioned the system’s value as the video referee only overturned 12% of the on-field referees’ decisions.
The system was ditched again in 1991 before being revamped and reintroduced in 1999 with changes to limit the delay to the game such as a limited number of challenges for each team.
Since 1999 the percentage of referee decisions reversed by the video referee has been growing. 43% of the decisions referred to the video referee were overturned in the 2016 season.
Of course the NFL video official system wasn’t perfect at its conception in 1986 or 1999 (and still isn’t) but the process and technology has been refined over the decades to improve its effectiveness and reduce the delay to the game.
Delay to the Game
Most opponents of the proposed video assistant system state the resulting delay to the game as one of their main objections. There are a number of decisions that a video official could review without any disruption to the game.
Offside goals that are inadvertently allowed to stand could be reviewed by a video assistant in the time it takes to return the ball to the centre circle and restart the game. Typically there is a delay of around a minute after a goal, and viewers at home have the benefit of four or five replays to determine whether a goal is offside or not before the game is restarted. Why shouldn’t a goal be ruled out if a video assistant can clearly see it’s offside immediately afterwards?
There is potential for longer delays when it comes to reviewing subjective decisions where there is room for interpretation such as red card incidents and penalty decisions, both of which are included in FIFA’s current trial system.
Inevitably any system that reviews subjective decisions such as these is never going to be 100% perfect. However, the suggestion that a new system shouldn’t be implemented because it isn’t going to be 100% successful is ridiculous. The evolution of the NFL’s video replay system from the eighties to the current day is a living demonstration that a video referral system takes time to refine and improve.
Leap of Faith
Season after season we see key decisions made incorrectly by match officials that affect the result of big games. Look, for example, at Gabbiadini’s disallowed goal in the 16/17 season League Cup final. The goal was wrongly ruled out for offside when the score was 0-0. This decision would have been corrected with the benefit of one or two video replays and would have changed the shape of the game that Man Utd eventually won 3-2.
Football is a massive industry in which there is an enormous amount of money at stake in competitions all over the world. Video replays need to be embraced to give match officials the support they need to reduce the number of costly incorrect key decisions.
However, it must be recognised that the system we will see deployed in 15-20 years time is likely to look nothing like the current system proposed by FIFA. The video assistant system will need to be refined and reshaped over time to minimise disruption to the game and ensure the right decisions are being reviewed with the highest possible success rate.