Ground-breaking piece of TV takes us behind curtain of VAR

IAN HERBERT: The first public broadcast in this country of the conversations between mic’d-up officials was a GIANT step… Howard Webb’s insight on Sky blew away the mystique around refereeing and will help deal with conspiracy theories

  • Webb joined Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville on Monday Night Football
  • He attempted to explain several processes followed by officials with VAR calls
  • Real-time audio was heard for the first time in brilliant, ground-breaking footage

The only missing part of the picture presented in a quite brilliant and ground-breaking piece of television about refereeing on Monday was the full, unadulterated audio. It was before the 9pm watershed, after all.

There were no prizes for guessing the kind of abuse that was coming referee Jarred Gillett’s way after he awarded Brentford’s Ivan Toney a penalty against Bournemouth. ‘Take your players away from me. Take your players away,’ we heard him repeatedly ask Bournemouth’s then captain Lloyd Kelly.

‘Get your players away from me or they’ll go in.’ For the full unexpurgated story of what referees and their assistants face, you really needed to hear what they got from the managers at pitch-side. There was none of that.

But the first public broadcast in this country of the conversations between mic’d-up referees, their assistants and VAR officials in the heat of penalty decisions was still a giant step for the understanding of the game and its officiating.

With refereeing chief Howard Webb on Sky Sports Monday Night Football to explain, we went behind the curtain into the white heat experience of officials working under extraordinary pressure, in real time.

Howard Webb appeared on Monday Night Football to explain the VAR process to viewers

The head of referees joined Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville with viewers glued to the screen 

The audio showed conversations between various officials during Premier League games 

The footage and audio dispelled the notion of referee bias, which has always seemed ridiculous.

Though the incidents were by no means among the most contentious — they included none of those Webb has apologised for this season — it was the first transparent view of the methodology and rationale being applied from Stockley Park and on the pitch. The audio revealed so much about the process. The riot of noise in a referee’s ears as he makes a decision.

‘Bit of help, Longy?’ Gillett asks assistant referee Simon Long, as Toney powers into the box with defenders all around him. ‘No, no, no, no,’ Long proceeds to shout, without any immediate explanation as to why he’s feeling this negativity. We now know that when referees approach pitch-side monitors, VAR officials are telling them exactly why they think a particular decision should be made.

But above all, this insight blew away the mystique around refereeing, taking us into the world of ‘cross hairs’ and ‘APP’ — ‘attacking phase of play’, and revealing the logic behind each decision. The overturning of a penalty awarded against Arsenal defender Jakub Kiwior handling inside the area was entirely valid, though contentious at the time.

Webb is delivering to a British audience what he had brought to US soccer during his time working there and held out the promise that there would be more of this on a regular basis here next season. ‘Going forward, we are looking to do more of the same,’ he said. The process was helped by Webb’s own impressive delivery and the quality of the questioning of him by Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville.

A fascinating insight was given into the processes followed and discussions held by officials 

One such monitor use came when ruling out a handball against Arsenal up at Newcastle

What football really needs is the live broadcast of what is caught on their mics and supported by bodycam footage. FIFA and IFAB are currently blocking that but it would shame those who give refs dogs’ abuse.

But in the meantime, why not an explanation of the weekend’s contentious decisions each Monday, with clips like this and Webb or someone equally effective to explain them? It’s what Mark Clattenburg introduced when heading refereeing in Greece, where he saw to it that contentious deliberations were released on YouTube 48 hours after the weekend’s games.

At 5pm on a Tuesday, every team’s fans got an explanation for the decisions their players have been dealt. Something similar in Britain would help, Clattenburg says. ‘And even if that decision were not the correct one, it would help deal with the conspiracy theories that continue to take hold about referees favouring certain teams.’ Last night’s broadcast more than proved that.

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