sportsbiz VAR

The PGMOL Has A Communication Problem

November 15, 2023

In this week’s Member Insights piece, David Alexander, MD of Calacus PR focusses on the communication problem Professional PGMOL has.

A few months after VAR had been introduced to the Premier League, to great fanfare, the then-PGMOL chief Mike Riley admitted that there were problems that needed to be addressed.

He said at the time: ““There are significant things we can do to improve it. We can get better consistency in decision-making, we can improve the timings and if we achieve those – which we will over time – then what we’ll end up with is better quality decision-making that minimises the impact on the game.”

We are now into the fifth year using VAR and nothing has really changed.

Riley was replaced by Howard Webb, and his failure to address the problems facing top level officiating has raised more questions about the competence and integrity of referees.

The inconsistencies that referees and VAR exhibits on a weekly basis suggest that there is a long way to go – and the spectacle of the game has been ruined by slow decision-making and obvious errors that the technology was supposed to eradicate.

It’s no surprise, then, that a YouGov survey carried out in 2020 found that two-thirds of fans in England believed that VAR had made the game less enjoyable, and just 8% wanted to keep VAR operating as it was.

Former referee Mike Dean, never one to shirk the limelight, has hardly dampened the concerns that referees apply the law evenly and fairly, when he admitted that he did not send the referee to the screen when Cristian Romero clearly pulled Marc Cucarella’s hair at the end of a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in August 2022.

He explained: “I said to Anthony (Taylor) afterwards: ‘I just didn’t want to send you to the screen after what has gone on in the game’. I didn’t want to send him up because he is a mate as well as a referee and I think I didn’t want to send him up because I didn’t want any more grief than he already had.”

We have had instances of VAR drawing offside lines in the wrong place and even forgetting to place the lines altogether.

Webb later called a crisis meeting at Stockley Park and Lee Mason, responsible for one of these errors, then left the Select Group by mutual consent.

This season, the controversies have continued, with Wolverhampton Wanderers three times the victims of erroneous decisions which led manager Gary O’Neil to admit that he has given up on referees.

Webb now participates in ‘Mic’d Up’ which discusses refereeing decisions using match footage and previously unreleased audio.

“We made a commitment to be more transparent,” said Webb on Sky’s Monday Night Football. “We know and recognise that people want more information about refereeing processes, particularly with the advent of VAR.

“We want to show spectators what goes into making the decisions on the field and then how the VAR works as well. We’ve got a professional group of officials working hard to have a positive impact on the game.”

On the face of it, this is a good move, improving the transparency of the PGMOL and the thinking that leads to certain decisions.

But there are two major problems with the concept. First of all, former Liverpool and England striker Michael Owen is not a journalist, and so does not press Webb with the challenging questions an experienced journalist should ask.

That gives the impression that Webb is afforded the easiest of rides from doing the show, so it feels more like propaganda than a genuine dissection of key decisions.

The show is also only on monthly, meaning that heat-of-the-moment decisions from the previous weekends may not get covered in the 30-minute show.

The controversy reached boiling point when Luis Diaz of Liverpool was denied a goal for offside against Tottenham Hotspur in September this year, with the Londoners going on to win the game in the dying seconds.

To their credit, the PGMOL issued a statement soon after the game, as did Liverpool, who urged for a swift escalation and resolution of the ongoing issues.

Perhaps the PGMOL thought they were doing the right thing by releasing audio of the discussion between their officials which led to the error but all it did was underline the chaos, and some would argue the ineptitude, of the VAR process and personnel.

Former PGMOL chief Keith Hackett said: “I was staggered by the level of communication on show in the short clip released on Tuesday night… There was no joined-up thinking, clarity of thought, or any sort of collaborative approach. It appeared people were passing the buck until it all dawned on them what happened, and how they could not — or did not want to — rectify it.”

The Premier League announced an evaluation of VAR, amid scathing criticism in the fallout of what happened at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and a spokesperson said: “It is clear that there were not only human errors but systemic weaknesses in the VAR process. We accept PGMOL’s immediate recommendations to ensure that such failures are not repeated in the future.

“However, a wider review to seek consistently higher standards of VAR performance will be conducted by the Premier League and PGMOL, supported by other stakeholders, and where necessary further recommended actions will be brought forward and implemented.”

As a consequence, a new protocol aimed at enhancing the clarity of communication between the referee and the VAR team in relation to on-field decisions has been arranged, underlining that speed should never be more of a consideration than accuracy.

It also does not help the PGMOL’s reputation that some of its referees have travelled to officiate games in the Middle East.

In April, Michael Oliver took charge of a Saudi Pro League game between Al Nassr and Al Hilal while the VAR officials Darren England and Dan Cook, who were on duty in that Tottenham v Liverpool match, had been officiating in the UAE Pro League game between Al Ain and Sharjah a few days earlier.

Given that there are Premier League clubs with significant ownership groups and interests in the Middle East, at the very least the decision to allow referees to accept these well-compensated freelance opportunities can only give rise to suspicion and conspiracy.

It seems that every week, the discourse is more about referees than the players, and nothing seems to change.

After so much controversy, is it any wonder that the League Managers Association (LMA) is lobbying for major officiating changes?

LMA Chief Executive Richard Bevan said: “The managers strongly feel that a VAR specialist should be considered a member of the close team of officials (Referee, 4th Official, Assistant Referees and VAR specialist) that become one unit for every game they are officiating together.

“The managers are also calling for a review (and simplification) of the interpretation of the term “clear and obvious” in VAR decision-making, as this is a cause of much confusion at present.”

Hackett described the current standard of refereeing as “woeful both in the middle [of the pitch] and VAR room at Stockley Park.” In response to one user on X, Hackett said there is currently “incompetence and a lack of leadership” at the PGMOL.

Clearly something has to change, and perhaps football needs to look at other sports.

Fans and coaches may be more accepting of controversial decisions if referees were more relatable and the transparency seen already in rugby and cricket was in some way replicated.

Both have greater communication around decision-making and there is a tolerance for imperfections which take into account the fact that not every decision can be absolute.

Currently VAR tries to hide the process from its audience, but IFAB secretary Lukas Brud recently ruled out broadcasting refereeing deliberations.

“I categorically say no, they shouldn’t [be played out live,]” he said. “I was allowed to observe and see communication between match officials during a review and it is quite a chaotic situation, not in a negative sense but there’s many people talking at the same time and I think it would be counterproductive for anyone to listen to all those voices talking to each other.

“We have given the green light to test the announcement of decisions to bring a little more transparency to decision-making, but we are not prepared at this point to open up communication live to the audience.”

Brud perhaps gave too much away and the “chaotic experience” is part of the problem football faces.

The introduction of semi-automated offside technology was introduced at the 2022 World Cup and its deployment in the Champions League, Serie A and La Liga, but is not yet adopted in the English top flight, which may also have helped with some decisions such as that of the disallowed Diaz goal.

There is so much for the PGMOL to improve, but while VAR continues in its current form, confidence in referees and the game in general is being undermined with referees changing their minds, managers angrier than ever and clubs calling out conspiracy.

A monthly 30-minute TV show isn’t going to change hearts and minds anytime soon.

David Alexander is Managing Director of Calacus PR, a sports public relations consultancy which provides communications and crisis support to a wide range of organisations in sport. You can connect with him here.

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