Sport Opinion: 'Hibs penalty row shows VAR only part of wider - and more worrying - problem.'

Rocky Bushiri and Will Fish can't believe ref Kevin Clancy is pointing at the spot after Kenneth Vargas goes down.Rocky Bushiri and Will Fish can't believe ref Kevin Clancy is pointing at the spot after Kenneth Vargas goes down.
Rocky Bushiri and Will Fish can't believe ref Kevin Clancy is pointing at the spot after Kenneth Vargas goes down. | SNS Group
Edinburgh derby controversy leaves Hibs wondering if they'll get another SFA apology

A word of praise for Video Assistant Referee Alan Muir, whose timely intervention at Tynecastle last night should – should – have overturned one of the most bone-headed decisions anyone had seen for, oh, a good 24 hours, at least. It’s not Muir’s fault that Kevin Clancy refused to accept compelling video evidence of his own misjudgement; that’s entirely on the match referee. And that is a concern.

So, if VAR actually worked perfectly, giving the match official a chance to save himself from making a “clear and obvious” error, how did we end up watching another miscarriage of justice play out in super slow motion, frame by infuriating frame? The only logical answer speaks to shortcomings more fundamental, and far more worrying, than the ongoing debate over technology’s place in the modern game.

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Because the obvious conclusion is that there are real issues with the standard of refereeing in Scottish football. Whether that’s down to the need to promote/recruit more bodies in order to fill those extra roles created by VAR, or possibly even an increasing reliance on video to make the big calls, confidence in our officials has plummeted to the point where they’re probably getting sympathy texts from Rishi Sunak.

If Clancy couldn’t see that he was wrong to penalise Hibs defender Will Fish for that ‘foul’ on Kenneth Vargas, you can understand why managers no longer even seek an explanation from refs over contentious decisions. It was never a penalty. However hard some will try to justify it.

That’s part of the problem, of course. The “I can see why he gave it …” argument used as a shield to deflect criticism from even absolute howlers. File it alongside “Well, there was contact …” in the list of things that leave footballers foaming at the mouth.

Players’ faith in officials’ ability to make the right call, whether that’s on the pitch or from the comfort of a TV studio, is at a low ebb. VAR is a big part of that problem.

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The fact that the Vargas tumble wasn’t even the worst refereeing decision of the week, never mind the season, speaks volumes. Ross County’s Ryan Leask getting away with a blatant handball in Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with St Mirren was another example of VAR deciding not to send an incident for review – one of the biggest bugbears of those on Scottish football’s front line.

Under the current system, officials have three opportunities to get a call right. It starts with the ref on the pitch. Then there’s the VAR – plus his own Assistant Video Assistant Referee – watching on the screen. Finally, there’s the option of the ref taking another look at it.

All of these checks and balances mean nothing, however, if – just to pick one recent example – the VAR doesn’t think Aberdeen defender Nicky Devlin’s handball in the 2-2 draw with Hibs was worthy of an on-field review. The best system in the world falls flat if Clancy can’t admit that he got this one wrong when confronted with the evidence.

On the subject of admissions, confessions and making amends, Hibs say they received an apology from a senior SFA figure in the aftermath of that Devlin non-call. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone says sorry for this game-changing human error. Don’t hold your breath.

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There is a feeling among players, coaches and club officials that the system always protects itself. That too many people are too invested in pretending that everything is working just fine; witness SFA Head of Referee Operations Crawford Allan’s recent statement that VAR is here to stay.

Interestingly, in his defence of the status quo, Allan said: “For me, it's so important that our referees are allowed to make their decision on the field of play - and then VAR can assist and make the decision better or correct.” It’s a nice theory. Just one not being borne out by events.

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