As the snow obscured the Wembley grass and confusion reigned on and off the pitch during Tottenham Hotspur’s FA Cup replay against Rochdale on Wednesday the words of former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly sprang to mind.
It was the tough-talking Scot who once said “football is a simple game, complicated by idiots.”
Fair to say had he been at the national stadium he might have turned the air blue with his pronouncements on the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.
It should have been a night for underdogs Rochdale to enjoy their moment to shine, or for Tottenham’s Spanish striker Fernando Llorente to savour scoring a hat-trick in a 6-1 win.
Instead, the talk was of how VAR, which could be rolled out at the World Cup this year, left players, managers and fans cold.
Tottenham left-back Danny Rose called the tie “shambolic”.
Former England full-back Stuart Pearce, speaking on Sky Sports, said VAR does not work for football. “There are so many grey areas in our game. Let the guy in the middle make the decision and respect that decision.”
Ex-England striker Alan Shearer said on Twitter: “VAR you were hopeless again.”
The video assistant was called into action at Wembley after seven minutes when Tottenham had a routine Erik Lamela goal disallowed when an official watching on the video screen flagged up to match referee Paul Tierney a tiny shirt-pull by Llorente.
In the 22nd minute Tottenham’s Lucas Moura was denied a penalty after Tierney, finger in ear, again consulted VAR.
When Son Heung-min did fire Tottenham ahead a BBC Radio Five commentator said: “There can be no argument about that one.” Yet Tierney still went to the VAR to confirm the goal’s legality.
CHORUS OF BOOS
Minutes later Tottenham’s Kieran Trippier was bundled over and Tierney awarded a free kick outside the area, only for VAR to intervene and, after a long delay in which fans were left bemused, upgrade it to a penalty.
When Son stopped his run before scoring from the spot – a breach of the rules – Tierney again checked via VAR before disallowing the goal and booking Son.
A chorus of boos erupted at halftime as fans braving a freezing night witnessed a sport being complicated to death, not knowing what they were watching.
The time taken for the VAR decisions stripped all the raw excitement from what was a great match.
Celebrating a goal, whether as a player of a fan, has always been sacrosanct, yet five of the seven goals on the night were checked via VAR before Tierney awarded them.
The referee was merely doing what was asked of him by those who have authorised the trial of VAR in some FA Cup and League Cup ties, but it opened the official to heavy criticism.
Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino sympathised with Tierney, but said the first half was “embarrassing”.
“We love the game we know, football is about emotion but if we are going to kill emotion then people who love football will not be happy,” he said.
Fulham midfielder Tom Cairney said on Twitter: “We’ve got the best game in the world don’t try to fix it if it’s not broken. Just let us play. The talking points, controversy and human error is what makes it so special!!”
Video technology has worked well in tennis, while rugby also uses it.
Respected Welsh rugby referee Nigel Owens warned that football must use VAR intelligently. “The danger is that decisions can become too technical,” he told radio station TalkSport.
“Referees must referee the game as if there is no technology there. Only rely on it for clear and obvious decisions.”