Alan Gunn, the referee of the 1990 FA Cup final, once said that game’s law enforcers “are stage managers, not performers”.
Following the release of audio between Premier League referees on the pitch and those assisted by video, fans have been given a direct line to the crackling dialogue on the walkie-talkies behind the scenes.
For the first time since the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) ahead of the 2019/20 season, Howard Webb, the chief refereeing officer of the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited), ran through the discussion behind decisions made in five Premier League matches on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football.
But why has it taken the best part of four years for the curtain to be tentatively pulled back? Here’s everything you need to know about the release of the stage managers’ instructions.
During his time as general manager of the Professional Referee Organisation (PRO) in MLS, Webb oversaw the release of VAR audio every weekend – a practice that is still continued.
As long ago as March 2021 – before Webb joined the PGMOL at the end of 2022 – FA chief executive Mark Bellingham expressed a willingness to release audio between match officials. “I think it’s absolutely worth exploring,” Bullingham told Sky Sports News. “Our starting point has to be that anything which adds value to the fan, and demystifies any part of the decision-making by referees, has got to be something that we’d consider, of course.”
Yet, it wasn’t until Monday 16 May 2023 that the mist behind VAR decisions began to dissipate.
“We made a commitment to be more transparent,” Webb explained on Sky. “I think we know and recognise that people want more information about refereeing processes, particularly since the advent of VAR. We want to draw the curtain back.”
Webb added: “We’re looking to do this as much as we possibly can and obviously tonight is something new, we’re making a small step forward. Going into next season, we’ll be looking to do more of the same.”
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The general response to this unveiling was positive, with fans granted a new layer of insight. However, it was quickly put to Webb why television viewers could not hear this dialogue during a match – as is the case in rugby union when a decision is tossed up to the TMO.
“We can’t play it live in-game,” Webb revealed. “That’s not allowed within the laws of the game. FIFA don’t allow us to play this out during the game.”
Webb continued: “Who knows where that might go in the future. But there’s nothing to stop us doing what we’re doing tonight and showing that information later.”
Chelsea 0-0 Liverpool – Kai Havertz goal disallowed (4 April)
Webb opened up with a softball example to illustrate an extremely streamlined use of VAR. Chelsea were awarded a goal against Liverpool in April but the officials back at Stockley Park quickly spotted that the ball had ricochetted directly off Kai Havertz’s hand and into the net.
With more than a hint of satisfaction, Webb described the footage as “an example of VAR working correctly”.
Newcastle 0-2 Arsenal – Magpies penalty overturned (7 May)
Jakub Kiwior was initially deemed to have handled the ball while blocking Bruno Guimaraes’ shot in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Newcastle in May. The on-pitch official pointed to the spot but numerous reviews of the replay revealed that the ball struck Kiwior’s thigh first.
Chris Kavanagh was informed of the possible error and directed over to the pitch-side monitor by VAR Michael Salisbury, eventually overturning his original decision.
West Ham 1-5 Newcastle – Joelinton goal given (5 April)
Newcastle were the beneficiaries of the next incident analysed. Joelinton scored the second goal in a 5-1 rout of West Ham but had his celebrations cut short by the assistant referee’s offside flag.
Webb walked viewers through a straightforward offside check which showed that Newcastle’s Brazilian was behind the deepest defender and revealed that the on-pitch assistant actually apologised to his fellow officials for not making the correct decision in real time.
This clip was held up as “a really good one to show why we delay the flag” according to Webb.
Leicester 0-1 Arsenal – Leandro Trossard goal disallowed (25 February)
Michael Salisbury, the VAR during Arsenal’s 1-0 victory away to Leicester in February, rapidly identified that the visiting defender Ben White had a hold of goalkeeper Danny Ward’s glove at a corner. Ward was thereby impeded when punching clear before Leandro Trossard stuffed a stunning strike into the net.
Webb explained that VAR had the benefit of an “angle the referee could never get” and exploited this advantage to rightly disallow Trossard’s goal.
Brentford 2-0 Bournemouth – Bees penalty wrongly awarded (14 January)
The unprecedented analysis concluded with a VAR decision which did not follow the correct procedure according to Webb.
Ivan Toney won Brentford a penalty against Bournemouth in January after the on-pitch official Jarred Gillett deemed that Marcos Senesi tugged the striker to the turf. While Webb described that particular act as “a credible penalty award”, the referees’ chief pointed out at the attacking possession phase (APP) was not thoroughly scrutinised.
VAR officials are also tasked with combing through the build-up to a game-changing incident. Webb revealed that the VAR official Andre Marriner did not spot Toney fouling Senesi before appealing for the spot kick.
“It was checked by the VAR but actually, this was an issue around process where the sequence the VAR looked at didn’t start earlier enough.”
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