This time listen to your fans – we must scrap VAR

Gary O'Neil (right) – This time listen to your fans – we must scrap VAR
Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Gary O'Neil (right) has been left aggrieved by a number of VAR decisions this season - Reuters/Molly Darlington

This week we formally submitted a resolution to the Premier League to trigger a vote on the future of VAR at the league’s AGM in June. The reason we have done this has nothing to do with decisions that have gone against Wolves this season, but it is an honest attempt to safeguard the excitement, the reputation, and the future, of the game that we all fell in love with.

The Premier League’s match attending fans are becoming increasingly disengaged due to the negative impact of VAR on our match experience, which is also leading to apathy and hostility in the stands and on social media, negative and damaging rhetoric from pundits, players and managers and a destructive erosion of trust in football’s authorities and officials.

All of this is detrimental to the Premier League’s brand and reputation, and if we don’t halt it now, the damage may become irrevocable.

Fans hold signs protesting against VAR
Few fans would disagree against the points made by Jeff Shi – many have protested against VAR this season - Getty Images/Michael Regan

It has become abundantly clear that our current version of VAR simply isn’t compatible with a sport of highly subjective laws, and its continued use will worsen the current situation, risking the league’s standing as the best in the world. We should act now to remove it and regain the essence of what makes the Premier League and English football such a captivating phenomenon.

In November 2018, Premier League clubs voted unanimously to introduce VAR in the 2019-20 season – a decision made in good faith and with the best interests of football and the Premier League at its heart. We truly believed that VAR would benefit the product with an overwhelming increase in accuracy, which would lead to more respect for officials, wide approval from clubs and fans, and generally we were hopeful that there would be little or no negative consequences.

Unfortunately, five years have passed since then and we are still being told that we need to ‘give it more time to improve’. How long will we be waiting? And isn’t it time we have a proper conversation about whether it will be worth waiting for?

Sometimes VAR is referred to ‘technology’, however it is really just added cameras, replays and communication between additional match officials. If we can find genuine technology that can help make totally accurate decisions for non-subjective calls, similar to goal-line technology, or perhaps as we are told semi-automated offside technology should work, then that can add something to our game.

Unfortunately though, IFAB will not allow the Premier League to use a hybrid version of VAR, and it is an all or nothing situation, which I believe to be a frustration for the Premier League and PGMOL, but ultimately makes the argument to remove VAR a simpler one.

Today, when we discuss the new independent regulator for football, we talk about the “unintended consequences” that its introduction might have on the Premier League. We can use the same logic to evaluate VAR, and its first five seasons, we can now summarise the following unintended consequences that it has brought to the Premier League.

  • Impact on celebrations and atmosphere – The widespread reluctance to celebrate goals due to fear of VAR intervention reflects a loss of passion and spontaneity in the game, alienating match-going fans and threatening the essence of football and atmosphere that makes the English game special.

  • Frustration and confusion in stadiums –  VAR checks during matches, particularly in stadiums, cause frustration and confusion due to lengthy delays and lack of communication. Referees often seem unsure of the reasons behind checks, further undermining confidence in the system, officials, and the league.

  • Hostile and negative atmosphere inside stadiums – We are now seeing the Premier League anthem booed, chants of ‘F--- VAR’ and ‘It’s not football anymore’ and organised protests from fan groups regularly occurring at games up and down the country. This creates a new challenge for stadium operations teams and damages the Premier League’s image worldwide.

  • Overreach of VAR’s original purpose – VAR’s original purpose was to correct clear and obvious mistakes, yet its application has extended to subjective decisions and minutiae irrelevant to the outcome. This overreach compromises the fluidity and integrity of the game.

  • Damaging the authority of officials – Reliance on VAR has diminished the authority of our top on-field officials. Referees no longer make decisions with conviction in the knowledge that their decision is final, and assistant referees are becoming obsolete with most offside decisions delayed and then checked by VAR.

  • Continued errors despite VAR – Regardless of VAR’s implementation, errors still occur regularly, which is to be expected as the technology is operated by human beings. However, after a lengthy break in play and a chance to watch incidents again in slow motion and from multiple angles, it is infinitely harder for supporters to accept inaccuracy and that is eroding confidence in the league’s officiating standards.

  • Incompatibility with Premier League’s pace – The fast-paced nature of the Premier League, which our league is famous for, is incompatible with lengthy breaks in play that VAR brings. VAR checks upset the flow of matches and alter momentum, to the detriment of the competition’s entertainment value.

  • Extended added time and disruption – Due to the stoppages in play that VAR brings, added time has more than tripled at the end of Premier League matches since before its introduction. This has led to matches running obscenely long – beyond 100 minutes, on average – which has caused disruption for broadcasters, and increased load, and risk of injury, to our players.

  • VAR discourse overshadowing matches – Of course we used to debate refereeing decisions before VAR was introduced, but the constant debate we now have about VAR-related decisions every weekend is tarnishing the reputation of the league.

  • Erosion of trust and reputation – Before VAR, if a decision was incorrect, supporters would understand it was due to human error. Since the introduction of VAR, we are giving oxygen to those who believe that the Premier League and PGMOL officials are corrupt, and this is damaging the reputation of our league.

The Premier League rebuff our concerns by saying that there is a higher percentage of accuracy in refereeing decisions today than there was five years ago.

However, it is our strong belief, and the belief amongst the vast majority of match going supporters from all of our clubs, that the price we are paying for a small increase in accuracy, by introducing a level of interference that is at odds with the spirit of our game, is not a price worth paying.

Of course, the decision will be made, not by the supporters who pay their hard-earned money to attend the matches that we are spoiling, but by 20 football club executives in a meeting room at the Premier League AGM. As I did when I sat down with our Fan Advisory Board last month, I call on those club executives, and the league itself, to listen properly to the views of its supporters, players and managers, and consider this time, to vote in their interests.

Removing VAR is not going backwards, but moving forwards, and it is not an admission of failure but a reaffirmation of the league’s commitment to the passion, spontaneity, and authenticity that make English football truly exceptional.

Let us act decisively now to preserve the integrity and magic of the Premier League for generations to come.