Open Mic Night: Time for Fans to Hear the Ref?
Jack Walton takes a look at whether fans hearing the officials during matches, would decrease the amount of controversy surrounding VAR in the English game?
It seems the world of football officiating is on an endless quest to find gimmicky replacements for competency.
VAR, ironically in hindsight, was billed as an answer to the subjectivity of the human eye, a computerised golden ticket to a magical kind of footballing nirvana, free of refereeing gaffs and uncertainty. Instead, it has functioned mostly as the opposite, a Pandora’s box of evils; goals ruled out as armpit hairs stray into offside positions and even more anger and confusion than ever.
Now, on the evidence of a viral clip from the Australian A-League of mic’d up referees discussing their reasoning behind a penalty decision, with the audio playing clearly for viewers, there has been a sudden clamouring for this new piece of tech. The video, originally from 2019, began to be shared widely following controversy in last week’s Chelsea vs Manchester United fixture, where a handball against Callum Hudson-Odoi was not given after a lengthy VAR check. Once again, people felt they had found the solution to the game’s injustices: more gadgets.
Perhaps we could also try having referees on roller skates or putting a tiny camera inside Mike Dean’s brain so we can watch the neurons and synapses fizzing and whirring as he dashes about excitedly with his yellow cards.
Alternatively, we could accept that these new techy solutions won’t necessarily always save the day. In some cases, like with Goal Line Technology, where a computer can quickly and easily establish a simple Yes or No – either the ball has crossed the line or it hasn’t, such advancements in the game are beneficial.
But in other cases, say what constitutes ‘excessive force’ in a tackle, or whether a handball in the box was intentional – subjectivity and split-opinion is unavoidable and we might as well accept it. Listening to a referee and his reasoning will do little to calm the vein-popping temper of the average football fan watching his favourite team – a creature with a lower disposition for reason than just about any other.
Besides, anyone who has suffered Peter Walton’s commentary booth cameos might think twice about wanting to hear more from referees.
What football should instead be striving for from its officials is consistency. An established set of laws that are common knowledge and applied across the board every week. If the powers in charge of such decisions can keep that end of the bargain, (they haven’t yet,) then we as fans should keep this end; accept that nuance is part of sport, just as it is part of life and that not everything has to be supplemented by needless gizmos in pursuit of an illusory kind of digitalised absolutism.
Let referees make tough calls, even mistakes, without picking their brains. They’re already some of the most intensely scrutinised figures in football, the subjects of enough nasty chanting, without putting them further under the microscope. Of course, referees should be held to a high standard of competency, a standard that they admittedly often fall short of, but on the same token whether or not Callum Hudson Odoi is holding his arm in an unnatural position is not a matter of black and white. It never will be either.
Just like Victorian children, referees should be seen but not heard. Better still, they should be basically unseen as well as unheard – ghostly, almost invisible entities that float across the pitch ensuring order without imposing themselves upon it, avoiding the limelight at all costs. What we desperately want to avoid is the age of the celebrity referee, Craig Pawson on Would I Lie To You trading quips with Lee Mack is not becoming of the sport.
We have enough talent in the Premier League, enough spectacle, without wasting endless hours focusing on officials. Give us good referees, sure, but not all singing, all dancing ones. And please, please, don’t unleash a new world of Peter Walton’s.