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At the warm-up game against Real Betis, I was sitting next to a dad with two kids aged around four and six. The older kid was bombarding his dad with questions in a way that was super-cute for all of us listening but, no doubt, maddening if you were the one being questioned when trying to concentrate on the game. 

“Good pass, Brentford! Wasn’t that a good, pass, Daddy? Wasn’t it, Daddy? Daddy? DADDY? WASN’T THAT A GOOD PASS?”

After a while I started to whisper a few of the answers to the kid’s questions, just to give the dad a break. Luckily they were all quite easy ones; I’m not sure what I would have said to “Daddy, do you think 4-4-2 would work better than 4-3-3 in this instance?”

I fully expected this one at some stage. And, sure enough, it came:

“Daddy, what’s off-side?”

“It’s … complicated. I’ll tell you in the car on the way home.”

At that point I couldn’t resist cutting in and saying, “Aw, go on, do it now! I really want to hear this!” The dad then rolled his eyes and said, “It’s just been CONSTANT QUESTIONS ever since we got here. My head’s going to explode.”

I would love to have been in that car on the way home. And I’m sure the dad would have loved to have me there, too. (Instead of him, I mean, not as well as.)

The off-side rule is notoriously difficult to explain, at least without a pen and paper and/or props. I once explained it over lunch to a ten-year-old child, using, erm, salt and pepper shakers as my defender and striker, and a bottle of Sarson’s malt vinegar as my goalkeeper. 

I now explain off-side to anyone who doesn’t understand it as follows: “It was invented to stop players from hoofing the ball along the length of the pitch to their buddy waiting by the goal, and then having that buddy score without any effort. They want players to run for that ball and to work for that goal.” Football newbies understand it better and seasoned football purists, although I can feel them shuddering at my pedestrian terminology, can’t actually tell me that I’m wrong.

However, when you see an off-side situation on the pitch, it doesn’t always look off-side. And sometimes you see an on-side situation which looks off-side. And sometimes even the officials think off-side is on-side and on-side is off-side. 

Are we all keeping up so far? 

Thank goodness for VAR removing all doubt, right? 

Oh, wait … 

It doesn’t. In fact, sometimes it makes things worse, because officials get to see exactly what we saw, in slow-motion, backwards and forwards, from multiple angles and multiple times, and they STILL make the wrong decision. This is far more frustrating than having them make the same wrong decision after seeing a fraction of a second of the live action.

The Fulham game. Oh dear, oh dear. 

When Ivan Toney’s first goal was disallowed, to me it looked on-side. Now, obviously I am no expert and I find it very hard to judge an off-side in the moment, which is why I am a blogger and not a Premier League official. (I also dislike people giving me grief and I would probably change my decision just to get them off my case, plus I don’t think I could be trusted to be impartial which, again, aren’t ideal qualities for an official.) But the Sky commentators thought Ivan was on-side, even after seeing the slow-motion replay. And, when they froze the frame and added that line, we could see that the off-side body part was half of Ivan’s toe. “Millimetres”, said the Match of the Day commentator.

“You’re just salty because you lost!” cry the Fulham fans and their sympathisers. No; I don’t expect us to win everything, and I still have some residual endorphins in my system from the Manchester United game, so my soul is more or less at peace in terms of losing this one. I’m salty because half a toe was the difference between having a point and not having a point, especially since it would most likely have been judged on-side during the old days. 

So … what to do about it? If you are one of those seasoned football purists who winced at my off-side explanation, you may want to look away now:

  1. Which body part is off-side? Should we judge a whole leg more harshly than the aglet of a boot lace gently flapping in the breeze?
  2. Introduce a tolerance level. How far off-side is it: 0.5cm or 100cm? (Ok, 100cm would make quite a long boot lace, but you know what I mean.)
  3. In the same way that they do in cricket, introduce a type of Umpire’s Call for transgressions so minor that they can only be seen via the technology. So, if it’s a boot lace aglet infringing upon off-side by 0.5cm, the original decision should stand.
  4. Is the off-side player interfering with play? This one is very important – in fact, it should probably be number 1 – because it’s an existing rule that should be applied consistently, but we all know that it isn’t. 
  5. Have an appeals procedure, again as they do in cricket, with a maximum number so that teams can’t be silly about it and have to choose their battles carefully. 
  6. Linespeople: raise the flag at the earliest opportunity, not after the non-goal has been scored, if the off-side is blindingly obvious. We don’t want to waste our time celebrating said non-goal, and the players don’t want to risk injury scoring/defending it.
  7. Have all officials join one massive WhatsApp group, and have the Admin ensure that they all operate to the same set of rules. Or, if that’s too many people to be manageable – I have no idea how many officials there are in the Premier League – have them all join a Referees and Linespeople Facebook group which has live updates of matches, on which they can all comment on each other’s performance: “Stuart Atwell has awarded a penalty to Brentford.” “Anthony Taylor reacted to this post with a ♥️.” 

I certainly don’t claim that my system is foolproof; in fact, I am probably flattering myself to even call it a “system”. But when commentators refer to “lenient” interpretation of certain rules (as they did during the Fulham game on Sky), and when even studio pundits cannot agree on what’s right and what’s wrong, it seems that what exists at present isn’t quite fit for purpose. 

VAR should not have good days and bad days, yet it does … and, on a bad day, it can compound the very problems that it’s supposed to solve. Something needs to change.

Nemone Saruman