Is it time for more technology in football?

The introduction of goal-line technology to English football has been welcomed and, in several cases since it was brought in, has enabled officials to make the correct call on the timeless ‘goal or not?’ debate within seconds. However, with the Premier League teeming with crucial refereeing decisions (if not errors) and irate managers on a weekly basis, is one element of technological support for officials really sufficient in 2015?

I am not going to join the seemingly increasing chorus of people bemoaning the standard of officiating in the English game, not when I would refuse to take charge of my mates’ indoor soccer five-a-side if asked. It is undeniable that there have been some glaringly poor refereeing decisions in the Premier League this season (springing to mind are Victor Moses’ simulation against Swansea, Wes Morgan’s ‘handball’ against Liverpool, Gabriel Agbonlahor’s red card against Man United). However, even allowing for the fact that Premier League referees are professional, how many of us would have made the correct decision in the heat of the moment?

Whether football likes it or not, it would do quite well indeed to take a leaf out of rugby union’s book. Rugby referees get it wrong, too, but on Monday morning, are we more likely to be talking about refereeing errors in the Premier League or the European Rugby Champions Cup? It’s a sport that has done everything in its power to help officials and keep controversies in the game to a minimum. The scoring of a try could swing a match, indeed maybe an entire tournament, in a different direction, so when the referee is not 100% sure if a legitimate try has been scored, the video ref is on hand to help him decide. Everyone can then see for themselves that, practically every time, the correct call has been made and the match continues apace.

There is a fear in some quarters that the introduction of video technology to football would murder the flow of the game, but I don’t think this argument holds much water. Firstly, like in rugby union, it should be at the referee’s discretion whether or not to call upon a second opinion. If a referee is adamant that a penalty should or should not be given, he can still make the decision there and then. If he is doubtful, let the play continue until there is a stoppage and then he can go back to consult the video ref. Say, for example, a player goes down in the penalty area and the referee is unsure if a foul was committed, so he doesn’t give it and, 20 seconds later, the ball goes out for a throw-in. At that point, let the referee ask the video ref to look at the penalty decision and, if he feels a penalty should be awarded, then he can go back and give the spot kick. This should apply no matter what goes on after the initial indecision, even if the ball is promptly hoofed to the other end of the pitch and a goal is scored.

Alternatively, take a situation where a seemingly rash tackle is made and the victim lies prone on the turf. Referees will often stop the game anyway when a player is lying on the ground, so this stoppage will give the official the chance to look at the tackle again and then he can make the call on whether it was a red card, yellow card or no foul at all. Again, even if play continues and a goal is scored, there is adequate window of opportunity to take 30 seconds or thereabouts to make the right decision and maintain credibility in the game.

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Another potentially decisive scenario, and the trickiest of all, is our old friend the offside rule. Even with technological aid, the qualifications of this rule (i.e. first phase/second phase, from a throw-in, who last played the ball) make it the hardest to police. If the ball is put into the net but the goal is disallowed because the assistant referee gives offside, let the video ref intervene to look at it on screen before the referee decides whether or not it was a fair goal. The situation becomes trickier when a player is flagged offside when through on goal, but in this case I would not use technology as there is no certainly that a goal will be scored. Unlikely as it may seem, the attacking player could fail to convert the chance if offside wasn’t given. At least in the case where the ball has entered the goal, that much is definitive, so the use of technology there is fair.

More than anything, managers are infuriated by poor refereeing decisions that can impact on the result of a match. If referees are given the time and the opportunity to review a potentially game-changing moment to arrive at the right decision, managers are, in turn, much more likely to empathise with the officials. They will realise that the referee will almost certainly have made the correct call, so they will have little excuse to blame a negative result on the officials.

Let’s imagine that video technology is introduced to deal with the potentially decisive scenarios that I outlined above. For those fearing that the match would become a stop-start affair if the referee pauses for the video ref, watch a full game and count how many times:

a) A genuinely debatable penalty decision arises

b) A potential red card tackle is made

c) A goal is disallowed for offside

My guess is that the game would, on average, be stopped no more than three times in 90 minutes on account of these situations. In that case, there may only be an additional two minutes required for the referee to get these major decisions correct. I can only speak for myself, but I would reckon that most football fans would settle for two minutes of delays if it meant that the officials arrived at the correct call. In order, the level of disgruntlement among fans is reduced and the officials who are so often pilloried in the papers and online for their mistakes have much greater credibility.

If football can swallow its pride and follow in the footsteps of rugby union, we could sooner rather than later have a sport that, on the field of play at least, is operated correctly and fairly, with all parties accepting that those in control of proceedings have done their job to the best of their ability. For Garry Monk, Steve Bruce and Neil Warnock, all of whom have justifiably bemoaned bad refereeing decisions on multiple occasions this season, a game with technological aid would surely be preferable to one where humans trying to do their job are left in the firing line.

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