The Blind Hammer Column
Blind Hammer looks at the evidence for VAR aiding West Ham.
This season José Mourinho has trotted out a number of excuses. His explanation for the inept performance against us was the lack of VAR. He insisted that it would have disallowed 2 of West Ham’s goals.
It is fascinating that Mourinho should favour VAR. It is especially interesting given the benefit that Manchester United have received from referees over the years. You might expect that Man United, more than most, would lose out under VAR.
We should remember the 2016 FA cup quarter final at Old Trafford. Then our Payet inspired team were denied by 2 crucial refereeing mistakes. Firstly Payet was denied a clear penalty when Rojo slid in from behind and was nowhere near the ball. The second error was arguably even worse. Bastian Schweinsteiger held goalkeeper Darren Randolph immobile and prevented him responding to Martial’s late equaliser.
There is a wide perception that Referees favour bigger teams with key decisions. Some try to deny this. They argue for example that Manchester United and other “bigger” clubs receive more free kicks and penalty awards as a natural consequence of spending more time in and around opponent’s penalty areas. It is their reward for pressure and attacking play.
Recently Mark Halsey angrily denied on TalkSport that Referees are biased towards the big team. He insisted Referees entered games with no agendas and tried to adjudicate as objectively as possible.
Yet Halsey completely misses the point. Nobody seriously suggests Referees are consciously biased. However there is increasing evidence that they are unconsciously persuaded. There is academic evidence, for example, that Referees decisions are affected by the pressure of home crowds.
Graham Poll admitted as much in a recent interview for the Daily Mail. He described his belief, whilst refereeing, that there was no favour shown towards big team. Now however, he is retired he can see that bigger teams benefit. However he insists this is an unconscious process that Referees are not aware of.
The point is that there is, now, enormous scrutiny on referees. Any contentious decision given against a high profile team will expose a referee to a tremendous examination. This inquest will be led by pundits across the media. Videos will be inspected microscopically to identify the slightest error.
This scrutiny places a pressure to err on the side of caution when making a key decision against a “big" team. In contrast, the consequence of making a contentious decision against a lower profile team is far less.
All this is supported by 2013 Leicester University research which tested referees by asking them to adjudicate on key decisions by watching videos. In one sample they asked Referees to make decisions with sound muted. They then played these incidents with the full crowd noise associated with the incident. Not surprisingly the research showed a clear influence from crowd noise which influenced referees to adjudicate more in favour of the home team.
All this proves is that Referees are human and can be influenced by pressure as much as anybody else.
The safety net of VAR may just give Referees the confidence to make decisions they may otherwise feel too intimidated to make. Manchester United, alongside other big clubs may become the biggest losers under VAR.
On the face of it, the impact of VAR on West Ham, as opposed to the bigger clubs, is not so clear. There is little reason to expect that, in the general round of matches, West Ham will benefit more or less. The often quoted cliché is that “over a season these things will even out”.
Yet this indifference ignores a deeper consequence of VAR. If West Ham are to ever win another Trophy they will almost certainly have to overcome a bigger team like Liverpool, or Manchester United or City.
This task is difficult enough without a referee unconsciously pressurised to make mistakes which favour the bigger teams. In 2016 Martin Atkinson allowed this pressure to force him into key mistakes which prevented West Ham progressing to a Semi Finals.
Although we will suffer as well as benefit from VAR in the years ahead, it is precisely against the bigger teams, in these key matches, that VAR may just help to even things up.