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Premier League Faces Major VAR Vote: Will It Survive?

Premier League Faces Major VAR Vote: Will It Survive?
Premier League Faces Major VAR Vote: Will It Survive?

The VAR Vote: Premier League’s Defining Moment

There was a fortnight in June 2019 when an anonymous building in a west London business park was visited by a who’s who of the English football commentariat. Turn one corner and you were met by a famous player-turned-pundit asking about the intricacies of frame rates. Turn another and you’d eavesdrop on a commentator asking for details of sending audio from the decision chamber to an AV truck. Enter the main meeting room and you would witness a forensic PowerPoint presentation from officials being queried by journalists seeking the nitty-gritty on just how slow a slow-mo replay is.

Call it a charm offensive or a necessary education, this was the Premier League’s attempt to explain how the brave new world of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was going to change football for the better. This was the entrance of ‘Stockley Park’ into English football’s vernacular.

Explaining VAR to the Media

The league body was determined to ensure that the media and the broadcasters were fully briefed on what types of incidents VAR could rule on and how the decision-making process would work. They cautioned that there would be teething issues, but they knew the media set the narrative and, by proxy, any misconceptions would duly filter into fanbases and dictate the perception of VAR as a force for good or evil.

The Evolution of VAR

Five seasons later, this careful cultivating of the message has left us with a situation where the Premier League is still trying to win over fans and is now facing a vote on VAR’s very existence from their own member clubs, who had unanimously backed its introduction. Last month, Wolves made the bold move to call for the removal of VAR this summer. This week, all 20 clubs will be present at the Premier League’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Harrogate to vote on the resolution.

The Debate on VAR’s Future

The essence of their argument, outlined in last month’s statement calling for change, was that “the price we are paying for a small increase in accuracy is at odds with the spirit of our game”. It is thought unlikely that the vote will pass as any proposed rule change requires a two-thirds majority (14 out of 20), but its inclusion on the agenda means it will open up a wider conversation around VAR and give clubs an open platform to discuss the issues in detail and propose changes.

The Premier League’s Commitment

Despite the challenge, the Premier League remains steadfastly committed to VAR. While accepting it is not perfect, the Premier League’s chief football officer, Tony Scholes, last month pointed to the increase in accurate big decisions, from 82 per cent to 96 per cent, as proof of its value to the game. Several measures are being introduced next season that they believe will improve the product: semi-automated offside will be introduced and is expected to cut decision-making by over 30 seconds; there will also be in-stadium announcements to explain the VAR decision; and the ‘clear and obvious’ threshold before intervention will be strengthened.

Fan Reactions and Controversies

The mood music around VAR has been turning increasingly vitriolic. Last June, the Football Supporters Association conducted a survey of 9,645 fans across the country, with 63.3 per cent of fans opposing the use of VAR in English football and 79.1 per cent of match-goers rating their experience of VAR as poor or very poor. Prior to its introduction, the FSA had found 74.6 per cent of fans in favour of VAR, which shows how — for many — the reality has been decidedly different to what was expected.

It should be remembered that it was fans, managers and clubs not being prepared to accept human error that created the clamour for VAR in the first place, but there have been problems from the very start. In October 2019, there was a meeting among clubs to discuss their belief that referees were avoiding going to the pitch-side monitor, with the then VAR chief Neil Swarbrick grading the success of the implementation a “seven out of 10”.

The Impact on Referees

A purported benefit of VAR was that it would dial down the heat around referees and reduce the focus on them in post-match analysis. After Anthony Taylor was attacked at the Europa League final between Sevilla and Roma last May, the Premier League brought in a Participant Behaviour Charter to try to protect their officials. But 2023-24 only witnessed a ratcheting up of the toxicity.

High-Profile Incidents and Calls for Change

When a VAR miscommunication saw a Luis Diaz goal wrongly disallowed for offside against Tottenham in September, VAR chose not to rectify their mistake as play had resumed, which led to Jurgen Klopp calling for the game to be replayed. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta went on a tirade calling the officiating of three VAR calls in the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United in November a ‘disgrace’. Nottingham Forest wrote letters of complaint to PGMOL, while also taking to social media to question the integrity of Stuart Attwell operating as a VAR official due to him supporting relegation rivals Luton Town.

The Role of the Independent Panel

The Independent Key Match Incidents Panel was set up two years ago and is run by former players and coaches to provide separation from PGMOL. ESPN revealed the official list of the 31 incorrect VAR decisions last season, which showed that Liverpool had been the most hard done by with a net loss of four key decisions, with Wolves on the wrong end of three penalties and Nottingham Forest denied three of their own.

Educating the Public

Managing the noise has proven difficult, but at the start of every season, there are manager and captain meetings with every club to brief them on rule changes and VAR protocol, while media and broadcasters from around the world receive the same as well as a VAR handbook. Regular meetings happen with clubs throughout the season and if clubs are unhappy with a decision, they can seek an explanation from PGMOL’s chief refereeing officer Howard Webb, who will often share the audio from the incident in question.

Misconceptions and Frustrations

When it comes to educating fans, there are still plenty of misconceptions which cause further frustration: not understanding that every decision is checked, even if there is no stoppage in the game; that the offside flag on tight calls is delayed until the end of the attack so as not to prevent a legitimate goal; that the thick lines shown on the screen at offsides are not the ones that VAR use to pinpoint; and that the camera not being parallel to play is not a barrier to accuracy.

The Future of VAR

Whether you are fundamentally for or against VAR, or would like a reconfigured version, the technology has proven to be extremely controversial. After five years of complaints and drama, there is hope that whatever the outcome of this week’s vote, it will be a line in the sand one way or the other.