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VAR Seems as Far Away as Ever in Scotland Despite Rangers Weighing In

VAR Seems as Far Away as Ever in Scotland Despite Rangers Weighing In

Monday, 13 January, 2020 - 06:15
Nikola Katic celebrates scoring the winner at Celtic last month – but Rangers were still unhappy and issued a call for VAR after the game. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA
London - Ewan Murray

The Scottish Professional Football League does an impressive job in creating a perception of wanting discussion over VAR to disappear. Speaking in September 2018, its chief executive, Neil Doncaster, essentially spelled out every reason why this use of technology may not be valid in Scotland. When approached regarding an update this week, the league issued a similarly icy reply.

“Any discussion around the potential introduction of VAR technology in Scotland is at an embryonic stage,” a spokesman said. “There will be continued dialogue with the Scottish FA on the topic as both organisations monitor how VAR is implemented in various countries across Europe.” The implication is not difficult to read: that SPFL administrators punch the air with each passing VAR controversy on Match of the Day.

That Doncaster was addressing the topic publicly 16 months ago raises questions as to the league’s definition of “embryonic”. Last January, following a meeting between under-pressure match officials and top-flight managers, the Scottish FA’s chief executive, Ian Maxwell, admitted: “There is a real appetite to fully investigate VAR; the managers see the benefits of it. This is something that between ourselves and the SPFL we will investigate further. I think Scottish football can afford it and ultimately it will come down to a club decision.”

Twelve months on, matters remain “embryonic”. The league will not even confirm which of its 42 member clubs would vote for implementation, or what percentage of them must agree. It would seem farcical, after all, should Elgin City and Albion Rovers have a say in – or financial contribution towards – what would be only top-flight implementation.

Rightly or wrongly, this topic flew back into Scottish football’s vernacular after various controversies during Rangers’ success in 29 December’s Old Firm fixture. The Ibrox club issued a plea. “Scottish referees need additional help if match officials are to get more of the big decisions correct and the club is convinced VAR would provide that extra assistance,” said a Rangers statement. Hearts and Aberdeen launched a joint call for VAR in December 2018; whereas Rangers were silent then, intriguingly, we are now in a position where three of Scotland’s biggest clubs support its roll-out. And still, the league is curiously intransigent.

The elephant in this room relates to Celtic, whose refusal to supply a formal position on VAR endorses the suspicion they are against it. Comments this week by Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, did the same. “It’s killing the game,” the midfielder said. In their post-Old Firm missive, Celtic called for a “fair, consistent and fit-for-purpose” disciplinary system. Wouldn’t it be incongruous to simultaneously battle against VAR, which by very definition raises standards of fairness and consistency?

Perhaps Rangers genuinely believe VAR would benefit the Scottish game. Maybe Celtic’s silent, subtle opposition is well‑founded on the basis of farce upon farce in England. Yet very little of the Old Firm’s general behaviour over decades implies the greater good is of prime concern. The biggest clubs benefit from marginal calls, especially at home, so why would the Glasgow giants – now jousting again for trophies – want an alteration to the status quo?

Further subplots to this debate, should the SPFL let it take place, are fascinating. Maxwell has come under pressure from referees, who feel they could be left behind in respect of European appointments should Scotland – which still does not utilise goalline technology – rebuff VAR. This exists in, among other places, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Israel and Poland. Although the argument of those officials is slightly spurious – Uefa provides its own VAR training – it is reasonable for them to fear backwards movement in years to come. The level of vitriol and conspiracy chucked at Scottish referees, and especially when the Old Firm are in close competition, renders it perfectly correct for them to seek assistance.

So much of Scotland’s football decision making, even for clubs at the upper echelon, revolves around finance. It remains a stretch to suggest Hamilton, Livingston or even Motherwell will gladly remove tens of thousands of pounds from their annual bottom line for VAR. For context, even £50,000 could instead be invested in a first-team player at that level. A new and enhanced television deal with Sky Sports, which kicks in next season, provides upcoming commercial leeway but there is little indication of clubs having an appetite to divert money towards a system routinely derided in England.

There would be infrastructure challenges, again finance-linked. Screens would need to be erected at umpteen Premiership grounds if the in-game experience is to be properly modified for VAR. Although bases exist for a potential Stockley Park equivalent, provision of suitable connectivity – Scotland’s Premiership is played in places as remote as Dingwall – would be a challenge. VAR can be implemented from as few as four live broadcast cameras per match, the number deployed at smaller Premiership games in Scotland, but should a lack of angles lead to ambiguity, would this “cheap” form of VAR be lambasted?

There is a growing acceptance that England’s application of VAR, rather than the concept, has proved problematic. Still, events there will be a key reference point as the SPFL’s clubs finally get round to a VAR decision which has been even more protracted than offside calls for goals in the Premier League. The odds remain against Scotland taking fresh technology on board. You get the distinct impression the SPFL is not at all perturbed by that.

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