Lee Johnson issues 'very careful' warning to Hibs players as St Johnstone boss sets high bar for VAR debut

Lee Johnson has warned his Hibs players to be “very careful” with off-the-ball duels as he prepares his team for the introduction of VAR in domestic Scottish football for the first time.

All eyes will be on Easter Road for the visit of St Johnstone on Friday night when the new video assistant referee technology is used for the first time in the cinch Premiership. Johnson himself has never managed a game with VAR in use before, but he has been preparing meticulously with his players by adapting training this week. He is wary of defenders giving away fouls when by blocking or grabbing at set pieces and is reminding his players to keep playing in case on-field decisions, like offside, are overturned.

“It’s going to be interesting, and it will be different,” said Johnson. “We have to make sure that we’re vigilant, we see everything through from an attacking sense, defend everything through to the end, and that we’re very careful with any off-the-ball scenarios like blocking from corners or tackles. We want to be full-blooded, but you have to make sure the ball is there to be won and not get it wrong, because when you slow it down it always looks worse than it actually is.”

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In preparation for Friday evening’s VAR game against Saints, the Hibs coaching staff have adapted training to ensure the players are alert and ready for the changes that will come into force. “It’s definitely something we’ve discussed,” he explained to the club website. “It was a relatively late shout that VAR was coming in for this game, so we’ve only had three or four training sessions on it, but previously we’d started to implement different things into training sessions, like strikers finishing even if they’re offside or defenders having to try and recover. If there’s a handball or anything precarious in training before a goal is scored, we will question it and pull it back.

“We’ve got some new IP cameras installed at the training ground, which is great, because that provides a live feed, and we can get a little tele out pitch side and start to do our own versions of that. It will be a very different game from what we’ve experienced here before. What we don’t want to do is lose the flow and the passion of the game; that’s the challenge, not just for us, but for the officiating team.”

Paul Hanlon reckons he’ll have more running to do as a result of VAR, but the Hibs skipper is ready and is welcoming of the new technology. “As a centre-half I’m not looking forward to running back as much when it’s a blatant offside,” he added. “Now I’ll need to run all the way back until the linesman puts his flag up! It might add to my mileage in the game. But at the end of the day if it helps get all the decisions correct then it will be all the better for the game.”

Experienced referee Willie Collum will be the first VAR official at Easter Road on Friday evening. The match – which is expected to be a sell-out due to discounted tickets – will see a minimum of six cameras deployed around the stadium, with on-field referee Kevin Clancy able to reassess decisions if necessary. Decisions can only be referred to VAR in the event of a ‘clear and obvious error’ or a serious missed incident, where the issue being looked at is a straight red card, penalty area incident, goal or case of mistaken identity.

Collum, one of Scotland’s most senior referees, will be assisted by Graeme Stewart. All VAR officials for the remainder of the season will be current or recently retired category one referees and will monitor play at a central video operations room. That doesn’t mean it will all go without a hitch. Far from it. SFA chief executive Maxwell disclosed last week that colleagues in other European leagues had cautioned the first three months could prove “horrendous”, with teething problems needing to be ironed out.

Hibs manager Lee Johnson speaks to his players during an open training session at Easter Road ahead of Friday's match against St Johnstone, the first in Scottish domestic football when VAR will be deployed. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS

St Johnstone boss Callum Davidson, however, has made the point that teething problems with the system should not stop officials from getting the big calls correct straight away. “It might take a little bit of time to come to the decision and that’s fine. But I think you want the right decisions,” he said last week. “Let’s hope the decisions are made correctly straight away when we bring it in – because that’s why VAR is there. To help referees make the correct decisions.

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“We don’t want two or three months of ‘oh, we’re not sure’ or inconsistency. We want the decisions pretty consistent from day one. We’ll be the first game now; we’ve obviously been waiting for it to happen for a while. Let’s hope it can run as smoothly as possible and that it’s beneficial to the league and our referees.”

Davidson believes big decisions on handball incidents in the box won’t necessarily be made easier by the introduction of VAR. “We’ve had the refs in here talking to us and we’ve asked them questions about it,” he added. “For me, the handball rule is still a contentious one to get right. I’m just hoping for the big decisions being right on the pitch, not the little things, just the big ones. Whether it’s offside or not will hopefully be a lot clearer. That’s what you’re looking for.

“From what I’ve seen, the flow of the game can be different. Sometimes it takes away from that euphoria, the enjoyment of scoring. Now you’ve sometimes a couple of minutes to see if it’s been ruled off. That’s one of the down sides. But for a manager, hopefully we won’t need to argue with the fourth official to get explanations. They’ll be on VAR, they’ll be clear and made from video rather than human eye.”

VAR will be operated from Clydesdale House, near Glasgow. Picture: Alan Harvey / SNS