Nick Townsend: Play to the whistle, not the remote controller

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The Independent Football

Old Trafford: some time in the future. A tangle of legs in the home penalty area, and a member of the Chelsea All Tsars is apparently felled by one of the Man-chester Magnificents. A hush descends, and all eyes immediately look expectantly towards a man in black. A spotlight picks out Jonathan Ross, the "Celebrity Match Judge", high up in the gods.

He is seated with his panel of advisers: Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Andy Gray. They are offered several views of the incident, and though the evidence is not absolutely conclusive, it tends to suggest that the home defender has committed a foul. Ross confers with his fellow judges, jabs a thumb, Roman Emperor-like, into the night sky towards the All Tsars contingent, before pressing a button which illuminates the electronic scoreboards throughout the stadium: "!!!Penalty Kick!!!"

The Stretford End bays its disapproval, although it does so in the knowledge that a Virtual Replay, the most advanced technology, which takes several minutes to provide an image, could be used in a subsequent appeal against the decision; possibly against the result.

At the same time, the Magnificents' manager, rarely acknowledged for his stoic acceptance of decisions against his side, pushes the "Dispute" button on his remote control. His aides have informed him that a neat piece of gadgetry known as the Lazertech Offsidesman, available to each bench, has just computed, with the help of a complicated series of beams, that there may have been an infringement in the prelude to the move. It has gone unnoticed by the human assistant.

An appeal panel is swiftly convened. While this ensues, the referee, whose services are not required at this stage, takes a "comfort" break, reflecting how radically his job has changed since the era when it was frequently suggested that "officials need all the help they can get" (though never, interestingly enough, from the managers and players who uttered such platitudes) and indeed how relaxing life is these days. So free of responsibility, he need hardly be there.

Still, the important thing is that every-one is content. Justice is seen to be done. Radio's Phone-a-moan has been taken off the air. No callers. There is absolutely nothing for anyone to rage about. Dare one say it, nothing for anyone to get enthused about, either...

We awake from such a disturbed dream and discover that football in 2005 is still largely the game played since the 1880s. Roboref is still packed in his box, the electronic eye in the stand is still blind, and adjudications about the authenticity of goals and decisions are still prone to human error.

But for how much longer? Video not only killed the radio star - or so The Buggles told us - it is sure as hell trying to render the wretched ref impotent. Technology may start out being employed with the most benign intentions, merely to confirm "matters of fact", as exemplified by Pedro Mendes's "goal that wasn't" for Tottenham against Manchester United on Tuesday, but other sports already offer a salutary warning as to the gateway it can become; a bit like that one blast of cannabis leading to a cocaine habit.

During the Superset Tennis Masters at the Albert Hall in October, players could dispute line calls and umpires could be overruled by the video referee. Cricket has its third umpire; rugby league its fourth official.

But is there anything inherently wrong with gadgetry assistance for officials? As Andy Gray, Sky's otherwise excellent analyst, regularly reminds us, the impor-tant aspect of refereeing is getting "the big decisions" right. Where rationale deserts him is on this point - a big decision can be whatever a manager wants it to be: a dodgy throw-in, an offside, a minor infringement in the build-up, all can make a significant contribution to the scoring of a goal, not just a possible foul in the area. If technology is used to investigate the latter, shouldn't it also be employed to trace the prelude?

On Tuesday night at Old Trafford, video evidence (it's on disc these days, I'm reliably informed) or sensors in the ball would have corrected a gross, if unwitting, error by the referee, Mark Clattenburg, and his assistant Rob Lewis on an occasion when everyone but Spurs, who behaved with dignity, got themselves in a real lather. The fact is that it was a freakish incident, involving a combination of a player attempting a shot from such a long range, his remarkable accuracy, and Roy Carroll's error. Such moments are scarcely commonplace.

Chesterfield were denied a goal, and a possible FA Cup final appearance, against Middlesbrough in 1997. And Everton benefited when Gerry Taggart's effort against Bolton in the same year should have been adjudged a goal, but wasn't. And, er, that's about it, really. One newspaper listed the "rows that have raged since 1932". It was hardly a lengthy litany of "injustices".

The paper managed to recall six such incidents: those already mentioned, plus Jack Allen's winner for Newcastle against Arsenal in the 1932 FA Cup final (ball out of play before being crossed); 1966 and all that (enough said); Clive Allen's goal "that never was" for Crystal Palace against Coventry in 1980 (the referee thought it had hit the post when it had actually struck the stanchion at the back of the goal); and the disallowed goal of Spain's Fernando Morientes against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup (see 1932, but ball not out of play).

Even if Fifa accept the argument of the techno-fanatics and decree that a goal-confirmation gadget should be installed at élite fixtures, does anyone really imagine that the campaign will end there, considering the myopia to be found? Not judging by the language being employed last week. "Criminal," Andy Townsend, the ITV pundit, said, referring to the failure by the authorities to use technology, while that dreadful phrase "the game is too big now" proved irresistible to Middlesbrough's manager, Steve McClaren.

Above anything else, isn't a touch of perspective required here? While TV motor-mouth Jeremy Clarkson's view that football essentially involves "David Beckham and his boyfriends kicking an inflatable sheep's pancreas around a field" somewhat understates its significance in the national psyche, neither does the game merit quite the gravitas that those like McClaren imagine. Thankfully, there are some sane voices around, such as that of McClaren's captain, Gareth Southgate, who in rejecting calls for video technology says: "I still believe the game is a sport and not a business".

Meanwhile, back at our futuristic match at Old Trafford... It is evidently going to be a long night. Possible penalties, fouls immediately prior to a goal, offsides - virtually all decisions can be contested, simply by either of the managers reaching for his remote.

Not that disputes have ceased completely. One long-standing appeal over a decision at Anfield had been pending for four years, and has just reached the European Court. It is just past 10pm, and back home viewers are turning to their own remotes: preferring Channel 4 and the umpteenth rerun of Desperate Housewives.

Our official returns to the fray, reminding himself as he does so that he must complete the autobiography he has started. The one provisionally entitled: They Used To Play To The Whistle.