I’ve never really been in favour of the intrusion of modern technology into professional football. I was generally supportive of the view that the game needs its bits of controversy, things to talk about and argue over in the pub or, as years went on, via social media. And that, ideally, the game at its elite level should stay as close as possible in its essential character to the thud and blunder affairs fought out on parks pitches every Sunday morning.
But the old maxim of “the referee’s decision is final” has started to wear a bit thin, as with that other cliche “these things tend to even themselves out”. We were always asked to believe that, yes, referees made mistakes alright, but that they were honest mistakes, human errors. We were told that, over time, all clubs would get roughly the same amount of good and bad decisions, and that, ultimately, ability and fitness would be the decisive factors. And for a long time, many of us would believe these fables, we’d even repeat them to each other, wanting our beloved game to be straight.
The worm of doubt for Leeds United fans crawled out of the bad apples among the refereeing fraternity as far back as the sixties. I’ve written an article on this blog about the very worst decisions my club has been on the wrong end of – even limiting myself to the truly appalling travesties of justice, it it could have been a much longer list, space permitting. Leeds fans started giving wry smiles when referees were defended as honest Joes who were bound to make the odd mistake. We knew better, out of bitter experience. We knew exactly who would get the breaks and the dodgy calls, and we knew just as well that it wouldn’t be us.
The situation has never really improved for Leeds as far as getting a fair go from referees and the game in general is concerned. As I write, it’s 58 games since we last got a penalty kick awarded, during which time ten have been given against us, including some proper howlers. You get used to it, you come to expect it, but naturally, you never really accept it as your lot. I well remember Thomas Christiansen‘s ashen face after one match early last season; he was unable to credit what he’d seen with his own eyes, and I just thought, welcome to Leeds, mate – welcome to our world.
Things are different for other teams, of course, and it goes without saying that life at the non-crappy end of the stick is best exemplified by Manchester United, or the Pride of Devon, as I fondly refer to them. Their long penalty runs are matches without conceding one; it’s frequently said that nothing short of the cynical murder of an opposition player in their own penalty box will lead to a spot kick being awarded against them. One referee from the nineties, Graham Poll, frankly admitted that the best a ref could hope for when taking a Man U game during the tyrannic reign of Alex Ferguson, was to get the thing over, with as little controversy as possible, and ideally with Man U having won. That’s a mindset which must have yielded many victories in a game of fine margins; Man U were the beneficiaries of intimidated referees who wanted to avoid the Fergie treatment in the press, with a subsequent blacklisting from big matches.
This was a situation that applied throughout the Ferguson reign at Old Trafford, a period in which there was really no excuse for Man U failing to win the league in any one year. With everything in their failure, and the media vicariously lapping up the glory, Man U went from strength to strength. The learning curve their players were on under Ferguson was more than simply curved – it was totally bent.
But now, Fergie is long gone, and the major silverware eludes Manchester’s second-best football club. And yet still the “controversial” decisions accrue in their favour. Last night’s home game against Arsenal demonstrated both manifestations of the modern game; the old fashioned “lino’s call” for offside which resulted in Man U’s first goal, and the beginnings of modern technology ensuring that a goal stood which you would never see given against Man U in the days when eyesight alone judged whether the ball was over the line. Goal line technology, for a side that have seen so many narrow decisions go in their favour, is bad news for Man U. How much worse for them will it get when the video assistant referee (VAR) comes in for the Premier League next season, presumably taking away from the hapless Red Devils the marginal decisions they invariably get now?
It’ll be interesting to see what actually happens. My theory is that a club which has always suffered under the naked eye method of making decisions will be bound to do better when such a fallible system is superseded by state of the art cameras. And, equally, clubs that have always tended to get the rub of the green under “human error” will find themselves suffering disproportionately as those errors start to vanish from the game.
Could such a revolution actually result in the previously favoured club losing their exalted status, while the erstwhile pariahs come to the fore? Well, that’s probably just my over-active tendency towards wishful thinking. Still, it would be vastly entertaining and deeply satisfactory, if it ever came to pass. But the whole culture of the game and its supporting media is ranged against anything so unthinkable. During the Man U v Arsenal game last night, BT Sport‘s resident ex-referee “expert” Phil Dowd acknowledged that Man U’s first goal was narrowly offside. “But it was so close,” he demurred, “it would have been very harsh to give it. So, good goal.” That type of Man U-centric thinking still takes my breath away, even after decades of hearing stuff just like it. And it makes me think that, technology notwithstanding, the Old Trafford team will probably still be getting that annoying rub of the green for some time to come.
That’s not really any of my concern, though I’d like to think it vexes a few of you out there just as it does me. But my priority is Leeds United, and – eventually – we’re going to be playing our games under the electronic eye of VAR. And maybe then, if not before, we might actually get the odd penalty, or at least not have so many utterly crap ones given against us. And, if that proves to be the case, then I’ll happily declare myself a convert to this new technological approach. After all – who can afford to go down to the pub for an argument these days?