Fifty years of instant replay torture

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the anniversary of the founding of the Football Association and with it the Rules of Association Football, which happened one hundred and fifty years ago. There is another anniversary of an event which has affected football, at least on television but which has received little recognition. Fifty years ago this month saw the first television instant replay in a live sports broadcast. Replays had been used since 1955 but it took several minutes to process them so they couldn’t be seen immediately after an incident happened. Today of course, when there is a goal or a controversial incident, it is shown again and again and again ad nauseam. It is so imprinted into our sports watching that even when we are at a live match and an incident happens we will say, ‘I’d like to see that again’. But is it a good thing? Many referees will argue that it is not. They feel that instant showing of refereeing errors and we all make mistakes, has resulted in a worsening view of referees by the footballing public. A referee will make anywhere upwards of five hundred decisions in a match but if one is shown by constant replays to be incorrect, then that it what he is going to be judged by, whereas without instant replays it would over and finished within a minute or two. Take assistant referees as an example. On the Premier League their success rate for offsides is over 99% and from someone who has run probably a thousand lines, I can tell you that is brilliant. And yet if they get one wrong it is continually shown, almost certainly with disparaging remarks and they are made to look as barely competent.

But like any two edged sword, the instant replay cuts both ways. How many times have you thought when watching a television match that a goal was offside or alternatively a goal has been denied by an incorrect flag. Then we discover from the instant replay that the assistant referee was perfectly correct and we lose our sense of injustice. The problem often comes with the commentators, who might say something like ‘that was a tight decision’ in a deprecating way with no credit to the assistant referee when in tight situations, probably more credit is due. Even ‘tight but right’ would be an improvement. To be fair, some commentators will acknowledge this and say something like, ‘that was good call from the assistant referee’.

The difference in tackles is often minimal between fair and foul, between a foul and a yellow card or red card but it is a decision that a referee has to make. Take the recent West Ham game against Liverpool. Michael Oliver had no hesitation in sending off West Ham’s Kevin Nolan for a tackle from behind on Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson. You could sense the commentator’s hesitation however before a quick glance at the instant replay on his monitor confirmed that it was a correct decision. So here was another example of how referees can benefit from instant replays. Later in the game however when a replay showed a West Ham player brought down by a tackle from behind, there was a question whether the perpetrator should have also been shown a card. The difference was that the West Ham player was brought down by a clumsy tackle, what the Law calls a careless tackle, penalised by just a free kick. Nolan’s tackle however, stamping on Henderson’s calf from behind at speed, fell into the category of serious foul play.

So the answer lies I think not with doing away with instant replays but better education of the commentators and perhaps a little appreciation when difficult decisions are shown to be correct, by this fifty year old innovation.


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