Former Premier League referee Bobby Madley talks exclusively to Sporting Life about the use of VAR in the top flight this season.
The Premier League returns this weekend and, inevitably, so does the ongoing VAR debate and unrest.
The international break is usually met with a roll of the eyes by most football fans, but it at least provided us with a rest from the endless disagreements surrounding the new system and controversial decisions.
We have so far seen big and brave calls made, some that have divided players, pundits and fans, creating just as many talking points in post-match analysis.
But having VAR in the English game was never going to be an overnight success.
In a brief released by the Premier League before the start of the season, they said it will work as follows:
- The final decision will always be taken by the on-field referee.
- VAR will not achieve 100 per cent accuracy, but will positively influence decision-making and lead to more correct, and fairer, judgments.
- There will be a high bar for VAR intervention on subjective decisions to maintain the pace and intensity of the matches.
- Factual decisions, such as offside or if a foul was committed inside or outside the penalty area, will not be subject to the "clear and obvious error" test.
Its introduction was not an overnight decision, though.
The system was brought in after clubs ‘voted unanimously’ for its introduction in November 2018 and officials have spent the best part of two years getting to grips with it.
It was first introduced to competitive English football in selected FA Cup games in 2018/19 and was initially met with bemusement – mainly due to the delays as the referees watched events back on a screen at the side of the pitch.
The Premier League kept it in the pipeline, watched it in action in the World Cup and Europe’s big leagues before making their own changes and implementing it here.
“It’s brand new and, for me, it’s positive,” former Premier League referee Bobby Madley exclusively told Sporting Life.
“They have been training with it for over two years now. They haven’t suddenly sat them down in August in front of a television screen and said ‘do your best’ ...they have been working with it for years, watched how it’s developed in Spain, Italy and Germany.
“I think the Premier League have been very clever with that, instead of jumping straight into it after the World Cup, they hung back and took a look at good points of VAR that we can put in, see what works, more importantly what doesn’t work, and they have also taken into account that the Premier League is the most watched league.
“People like the flow of the game, that it’s fast paced. Everyone criticised VAR when they tried it in the FA Cup because decisions were taking too long, referees were looking at screens and they didn’t want that and said to get the VAR to tell the referee to make the decision. Now that’s happening, the same people who said they didn’t want the screens are now saying it is ridiculous and that the referee should be looking at the screen.
“You can’t have it both ways – with two or three minute delays while the referee looks at the screen or you keep the product, which is as fast flowing as possible and for me, unless it’s an obvious error, keep it flowing."
And how do the officials themselves feel about it? Madley continued: “The refs are positive about it, it is not going away, it can only develop and get better now. But it needs people to buy into it as well. It’s one of those where a decision goes against the fans they always say it is wrong, when it goes for them they say it’s fantastic.”
The VARs (video assistant referee) operate from a control room in Stockley Park, London and communicate with officials on location.
They have various angles and video technology to make a decision on incidents, to overturn incidents if deemed a ‘clear and obvious’ error by the referee, whether something has been misjudged or missed.
While many feel it takes the power away from the man in the middle, the human element of the game, of 227 incidents, only six of the officials’ decisions have been overturned so far this season, according to Opta.
In comparison to this stage last season, penalties (nine) and red cards (five) are down (versus 14 and nine respectively).
The system is bound to settle down as the season goes on and maybe it has - considering there were only three incidents going to VAR in matchday four and all of them backed the referee’s decision.
“I think everyone was expecting VAR to clear up every single mistake that happens on a football pitch,” the 33-year-old continued.
“They could not have been clearer in saying it will clear up the clear and obvious errors, what people – and referees – have a difficulty in judging what you define as clear and obvious.
“If we sit in a room together and watch the same clip, I can say that’s never a red card and you could say it 100% is. Clear and obvious in that sense is I feel I’m 100% right, you think you’re 100% right so how do you find the clear and obvious middle ground?
“That’s the hard thing for VAR to do and what they have to do – and I think they have so far, so people have to understand this – is to get away from thinking ‘if I was referee I’d have given that’, the bar has got to be higher than that.
"It’s got to be where people are looking and thinking it’s an absolute howler, where everybody who sees it on Match of the Day is going to realise this is a howler and it needs to be changed. It can’t fall into the category of ‘seen it given’ because in that category it’s not clear and obvious.”
A recent example – and most notable case of the season – came before the international break in Crystal Palace’s win over Aston Villa at Selhurst Park (watch in the video, above, from 2:18).
With Palace leading 1-0 in the dying moments, the game ended in contentious fashion, Jack Grealish galloping forward with the ball before hitting the deck on the edge of the Palace box.
The Villa skipper did not appeal for a penalty and instead poked the ball to Henri Lansbury who then fired into the back of the net.
The visitors thought they had rescued a late point, only for referee Kevin Friend to controversially blow his whistle and show a yellow card for simulation to Grealish, who was incensed with the decision.
Friend’s whistle had actually been blown before the ball hit the back of the net, ruling out the use of VAR.
While this may not necessarily be the case with Friend in this instance, Madley says referees may still be adapting to letting play flow rather than instinctively putting the whistle to their mouth.
“This is brand new and referees still naturally do what you have done for the last 20 years or however long they have been refereeing,” he said.
“If suddenly the government turned around tomorrow and said, ‘by the way, we are now driving on the right-hand side, off you go’, people will still go around the roundabout the wrong way because naturally you still do it.
"You have got to get into that zone and you can practice with VAR as much as you want, but until you’re actually physically doing it [on a matchday] and that happens, you can’t practice fully for it, no matter how many training games or whatever else, you still go into natural mode so it will take time, there will be times where the referee blows the whistle too early.
“I am not sure if this was the case with Kevin, but there will be times when refs blow up and think, ‘what have I done, I should have just waited’, but again that will take time for referees to get into that mindset and develop.
“I’m not here supporting the refs, I’ve been battered on social media with people saying I am looking after the referees, but I can see it from their point of view.
"I am not going to go out and criticise them like some ex-referees have, because I know how hard the job is, but ultimately I can accept if the whistle had been held then that would have been less of a talking point and I get that.
“People have got to understand it’s new to them in terms of actively doing it. When such a big change comes in, it will always take a bit of time for everyone to get used to.”
Madley, who has officiated in top Premier League games, international matches, Champions League and Europa League qualifying, the domestic cups and Sky Bet EFL, currently resides in Norway - and still referees.
With a keen eye still on action back home, including brother Andrew Madley who is in his first full campaign as a referee in the top flight, Bobby says decisions must stick to ‘clear and obvious’ - a term we regularly hear around VAR.
"People seem to think referees have this big issue of going against their mate, it really isn’t that," he added.
"But as a ref, if I come off that game and have had a decision overturned, it has to be one where you think ‘thanks for that because I’ve made a really bad mistake’, rather than thinking ‘actually, it’s 50/50, I can’t understand why that’s been overturned’.
"That’s a really important thing fans have got to understand, that it’s not 100% exact science, there’s a lot of grey areas in football so that is the difficulty."
Bobby Madley on…
Pundits’ VAR analysis
"If the pundits sit there and watch camera angle after camera angle – and remember, they are not in the heat of the battle – and whilst the VAR is not on the middle of the pitch, they are still properly involved and invested in the game, they can’t just sit there umming and ahhing about it, they have to make a decision and if at that point they can’t look at it and say it’s 100% a fundamentally wrong decision, they are not going to overturn the referee.
"When you get the pundits who sit in studios afterwards, even they can’t agree having looked at it so many times. Then you get a former defender who will say it’s never a foul, it’s a good tackle, where a former attacker will say it’s a clear foul. So, we have to be careful of defenders and attackers considering different challenges as fouls and good tackles so it’s a difficulty VAR faces."
Comparing it to Hawkeye’s introduction
"Goal-line technology has been fantastic and VAR at the moment has pitched it right in terms of how much input there is, what we don’t want to see is referees having the game re-refereed by someone in London – you got a throw-in wrong, change that, or a goal that led from a throw-in two minutes ago – no-one wants three-hour game of football and I think we are in the right place at the moment. Of all the leagues I’ve seen, the Premier League have pitched the involvement of VAR right even if it’s pinching a bit with fans at the moment."
‘It’s been sent to VAR’
"I have sympathy with every referee to be honest, because I know how difficult it is! I also know how difficult it is to be a VAR, it’s not a matter of someone sitting with a cup of coffee, there’s a lot of pressure on the VAR.
"I keep hearing ‘it’s been sent to VAR’ – that is nonsense, the on-field referee at no stage sends anything to VAR, they are not in contact at all until the VAR contacts the referee. He does not ask them to look at something, they do not need to do that because the VAR is already looking at everything that’s going on. Every decision, the referee carries on.
"If there is an incident, say a penalty [incident] happens or it should be a penalty, it is not the referee’s job to ask them to check it, they will check it anyway, so they will look at it and if there is no penalty there will be no communication because there is no need to. If it is a penalty, the VAR will then say to the referee to not restart the game. The only time the VAR will contact the referee before an outcome is before a potential penalty kick, say the ball goes out for a throw-in and once the game is restarted you cannot go back and give the penalty kick, so the VAR at this stage would tell them to not restart play while they check. If it’s fine, they will say it’s clear and to carry on. The referee sending decisions to be checked by VAR is completely false, just something the media have created.
"They are listening in to the referee all the time, but the referee cannot hear VAR until they open the microphone, but the VAR is always listening to the conversation with the assistants. You would pick up a potential penalty decision on TV, so a VAR without even listening to the referee would tell the operator at the side of them they want to look at it from a couple of angles so they don’t need the referee to ask them because they will already check it."
Letting the game flow
"I think they will [let it flow and then go back], that’s something they have certainly worked on with offsides, we saw that in the World Cup with probably too much of an extreme where the assistant didn’t flag, then they go on and on and suddenly the flag goes up and all the fans don’t know what happened. The instruction, even when I was there, was if the assistant flags offside and there is potential for a goal to be scored, just hold your whistle. I can’t remember us ever discussing it on a potential foul.
"What the referees were, and are still, told is they want you to referee the game naturally, forget VAR is there because they want you to make a decision, not to be bailed out every time someone falls over in the area because they have the safety net of VAR and if it’s a penalty they’ll pick it up, we don’t want that. We want them making decisions and keeping football as pure as it is."
Aston Villa’s disallowed goal at Palace
"Rightly or wrongly, Kevin has blown the whistle before the ball has entered the goal. I have no issue at all with fans saying if he just waited then VAR could have looked at it. There’s two points to this – VAR cannot get involved once that whistle is blown, unless it’s a clear penalty kick. So when they are saying VAR could have overturned the dive, they can’t – that is not in its remit.
"They can’t go back and say we won’t give the dive and give the goal instead, the game stopped when he blew the whistle. The only reason VAR can get involved is by saying it is a clear and obvious penalty but looking at social media half of Villa fans say it’s a clear penalty, half say it’s not a penalty and not a dive but they should have allowed the goal. If 50% of fans cannot agree it’s a penalty then that’s not clear and obvious and to me it’s not a clear and obvious penalty.
"I accept the best course of action is to hold the whistle for a split second then say to the VAR that you think there’s an act of simulation here before the goal, because the VAR would check all of the build-up to make sure there’s no infringement."
Refereeing in Norway
"The season is April-November, they quite rightly don’t fancy running around when it’s minus 20 in December, so they make it a summer sport which is quite nice. I have refereed in the fourth up to the second division now, which is like the equivalent of League One.
"The pitches are different for a start – 4G, artificial pitches – that takes away a bit of players diving in which you tend to see on a grass pitch, technically they are very, very good. They get it down and play it, are well coached from an early age. You can see that, very rarely do you see the goalkeeper punt one up the pitch, they play out from the back and are very respectful, but also as a nation of people they are very respectful.
"But don’t get me wrong, they are happy to tell you. They are still as passionate about football as we are, I’ve really enjoyed it and their English is good which helps, it’s been good"
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