Sunday 12 November 2023

A VAR is Born

 Arsenal’s triple-check VAR defeat at Newcastle United last Saturday (4/11/23) and manager Mikel Arteta’s “disgrace”, “embarrassing” feedback was merely the belated next act of a footballing tradition. 

Winning goalscorer Anthony Gordon played the role of Jack Allen, who in 1932 equalised for Newcastle in the FA Cup Final against the Gunners when benefitting from a cross that had come in after it had gone out of play. Joe Willock was cast in the supporting role at St James’ Park, 91 years after Jimmy Richardson had first performed it, satisfying fans who were keen that the remake stay loyal to the original, though at the same time triggered a few eye-rollers mumbling on about the “PC brigade”. 

Despite the critics, there is a growing belief that attitudes should move on, and in 2023's version there was an experimentation with comedy, the officials’ decision not to even caution United's Bruno Guimares for his elbow to the head of Jorginho bringing the house down, as well as the Italian victim.   

Not so lucky had been Arsenal’s cheeky chappie figure Ray Parlour in 2001’s December fixture at Highbury as both Arsenal and United looked to go top of the league - the home side with any kind of win and United if they won by two goals - though the Geordies hadn’t won anywhere in London for four years. Having already been booked for clipping the ear of centre half Nikos Dabizas with his forearm, Parlour was sent from the field by Graham Poll for tackling Alan Shearer, which back then was a court marshall offence. Newcastle equalised in the second half and then, late on as Arsenal looked to take a point from a game they’d utterly dominated at 1-0, centre half Sol Campbell naively committed the same playing the ball crime as Parlour but in the penalty area, Poll awarding the spot kick while the ball was still speeding along the turf. Laurent Roberts’s identity as player dispossessed meant that Campbell could at least stay on the field, conSoling himself that any emergence of the ball in Newcastle’s opponents 18 yard box automatically activated a penalty for Shearer anyway. Shearer scored, of course, Robert then added a breakaway third and Henry burst into an after-match tirade at Poll. 

Being a reasonably-minded showman, Poll did later confess to fearing he’d got the Campbell decision wrong, such was the ferocity of Arsenal’s protests, and therefore it follows too, that he must have had doubts about the Parlour red, seeing as even Shearer tried to reason with him about it. Of course, back then, the written law was that The Referee’s Decision is Final. Not so now of course, although the panel reviewing the triple VAR game expanded on the comic element by declaring their approval of the goal and the leniency of the Guimares assault. The suggestion is that having enabled the Saudi Arabian PIF headhunter Mohammed Bin Salman to pass the Fit and Proper Persons test as new owner of Newcastle United, the clarity over right and wrong is no longer black and white.

United’s Highbury win in 2001 was, manager Bobby Robson said, “the best early Christmas present I’ve had for a long, long time”. When questioned about the home side’s treatment of Santa Poll, Robson was unwilling to let Arsenal’s outrage overshadow their table-topping treat. 

“They have to learn to lose around here”, he told ITV live on air. Dignity in defeat he asked for, as he himself had shown in the Azteca Stadium press room shortly after his England team had been knocked out of the 1986 World Cup by Argentina. 

“Maradona handled the ball into the goal, didn’t he…didn’t he?!”

Handball goals, red cards, penalties for kicking the ball, elbows to the head going unpunished…football will endlessly cause pain and resentment, finding new variations of old gripes even while people judge the action behind the big screen.

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