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Scrapping VAR cannot happen while TV coverage is so good

A VAR check for possible offside on the goal of Nottingham Forest's Willy Boly during the Premier League match at City Ground, Nottingham
VAR has not delievered – but removing it would cause even more problems - PA/Mike Egerton

Wolverhampton Wanderers’ solo Premier League rebellion against the forces of VAR came without warning, and it remains to be seen whether it will attract the 13 other clubs required to form a super-majority and force change.

There is no great love among the clubs for VAR, the introduction of technology into football’s laws that was launched in the Premier League in 2019. Equally most of them realise that simply to ditch it now would be absurd. Too much has been invested in this brave new world: too much time and resource spent at refining a system that – if removed overnight – would simply put them back where they were previously.

The problem has never been with referees’ mistakes – throughout the history of football, referees have always made mistakes. Rather, the issue at play is that the all-encompassing television coverage, with its super slow-motion HD replaying every contentious incident means that all those mistakes can be watched in seconds by a global audience in pin-sharp detail. Pre-VAR, the only man not privy to them was the referee.

It would be the same in a post-VAR world. The games would still be re-refereed on television – but by pundits with no recourse to correct mistakes.

There is huge appetite among clubs to improve VAR after another season that has brought its share of catastrophe, although as things stand there is nothing like the quorum of fellow 13 travellers Wolves would need to get rid of it.

These are discussions that Premier League clubs like to have in private, although on this occasion many were only informed as the story broke. There is a general move towards outward dissent now, as per Nottingham Forest’s infamous half-time post on X this season. While managers’ rants are usually tolerated, disagreements between owners and executives are generally kept behind closed doors.

The 20 clubs, naturally conservative, recognise that much of what they hold most dear – the multi-billion pound rights deals, and the smaller commercial considerations – are damaged when they criticise from the outside.

There will also be a resentment among Wolves’ peers at the possibility of being seen to oppose a measure that has gathered popular support while being considered unworkable in reality. It is by no means certain that Wolves’ proposal will even make it to a vote. Many issues on the agenda for Premier League meetings never make it that far if the opposition to them in preliminary discussions is simply overwhelming.

There are already those who point out that this has been something of a swift conversion by Wolves. One month ago, they were part of an unanimous vote to add more technology to the Premier League next season – the approval of semi-automated offside.

There is no doubt that Wolves, and their supporters in particular have an antipathy for VAR unmatched elsewhere in the league. When VAR intervened on Saturday to rule Matheus Cunha’s second half goal against Crystal Palace was legitimate, the Wolves fans broke into their customary chant of “F--- V-A-R”. Proving the old notion that all foreign policy is, in essence, domestic policy, Wolves’ attack on VAR will certainly play well with the fanbase.

Where it will lead is not quite so clear. Five years in and VAR has not delivered the solution to all football’s recriminations that was promised upon its introduction. It was in a very hopeful mood that it was introduced and its most implacable opponents, such as former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, before he changed his position, were seen as obstructive and backward-looking.

The imperfections of VAR were only too clear in a protocol that was consistently rewritten to deal with the many unforeseen consequences of such a huge change. The high bar of “clear and obvious” meant that VAR sought not to correct every decision, just those that reached a certain threshold of inaccuracy. No-one truly considered what the match-going experience of VAR might be like, or the effect of delays, or the hollowing out of goal celebrations.

Yet the reasons for VAR’s introduction remain as pertinent today as they were five years ago. The world consumes football differently now, with a technological sophistication that means they see the action in a level of detail never previously possible. Be that a subtle trip of a striker in the penalty area, or the very obvious case of Andre Marriner dismissing the wrong Arsenal player at Stamford Bridge ten years ago, television catches it all.

It cannot be the case that the man tasked with controlling the game has less information about the action than the casual viewer sitting on a bar stool thousands of miles away.

Wayne Rooney, one of the greats of the era, responded to Wolves’ proposal on Wednesday night with support. As a Sky Sports pundit he said that he would rather scrap VAR, accept the quantum of human error from referees and “understand they will make mistakes.”

Except the VAR experiment has shown that mistakes are never accepted, be they made by the referee, fulfilling the traditional function on the field, or the official on the screen advising them. Football clubs and football fans view the world through the lens of the injustices, real or imagined, that have been dealt to them. Most are not interested in accepting mistakes.

VAR was one way in which football convinced itself that it could eliminate human error, and now having failed to do that, at least one club simply wants to eliminate VAR. But - as many clubs seemed to be saying last night – that would only put them back where they were five years ago. That is to say, with all the usual mistakes there to be seen in detail around the world, and no way of addressing them.

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