Issue Blackpool undermine the technology debate

As told by Jason Mckeown

To all Football League supporters but Preston fans, the performance and strategy adopted by newly-promoted Blackpool in the Premier League this season is something we should take pride in. True they’ve had a couple of heavy beatings, but their unwillingness to compromise on their attacking principles and refusal to break the bank on star players is a highly commendable approach that it would be heart-warming to see succeed – especially with all the usual pundits ridiculing them for it.

But as manager Ian Holloway snarled into the interviewer’s microphone after refereeing decisions contributed to a 3-2 home defeat to Man City, it suddenly became difficult to muster sympathy or retain the fantasy that this was one of us sticking it to the Premier League elite.

Holloway called for the introduction of video technology, citing that three crucial decisions which went against his team – a disallowed Blackpool goal at 0-0, a borderline offside Man City opener and a foul in the build up to City’s second – would have otherwise been correctly called by the officials. He pointed out the ludicrousness of the fact TV viewers around the world had access to TV replays in seconds, while the referee has no such help in evaluating whether his decisions might be correct.

But he called for video technology to be introduced to the Premier League, and perhaps the Championship, only. He said, “It doesn’t have to go down to every bit of football, it doesn’t, just the top flight. If you can’t afford it for everywhere else it doesn’t matter…it won’t matter about the 1st division 2nd division, non-league, it won’t matter.”

Given this was only Blackpool’s eighth top flight match, it was disappointing to see how quickly the club appears to be turning it’s back on the lower leagues which have been the Tangerines home for the previous 29 years. Sure, the Premier League has the resources and the TV technology to implement the use of video evidence, but what about the rest of us? Are our games less significant? Is it right we play to a different set of rules?

As I’ve argued previously, to me it seems wrong that similar incidents in a game between two Premier League teams and two Football League teams could be subject to a different set of rules simply because one league is more prosperous. Contrary to popular belief, this sport is not all about 20 clubs and the actions taken over the past 18 years in pushing the focus so heavily onto the top flight has had damaging consequences in the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Other sports like Rugby League have been happy to operate under different rules; with Super League employing video technology during televised games and the National Divisions below it having no such support Super League and National Division games shown live on TV employing video technology, but non-televised fixtures having no extra support, but in many ways this is a sport which has had to sell out its core values in order to increase its popularity. There is not even promotion and relegation to and from the Super League anymore.

But above all that, the argument that Holloway made shows exactly why introducing technology could prove a bad mistake for the sport. Once the tap is turned slightly, it will be difficult to switch off.

The main argument put forward by the advocates of technology is to use it purely for settling debates over whether the ball crossed the line. But on Sunday Holloway was arguing technology should be used to settle offside calls. Fine, add that to the new rules too. But wait, he’s also upset that there was a foul in the build up to the second Man City goal, which TV replays could have highlighted to the referee. So do we allow technology to be used for such incidents too?

And it goes on and on. Because if technology is used for one aspect of the game, pretty soon every wronged manager will be telling the press it’s a disgrace if technology isn’t used to settle the type of controversy their team has just suffered from too. Suddenly the game is in chaos and the line between what is fair and not fair is blurred completely. The tap can’t be stopped.

Equally, both the glorious and worst thing about football is its subjectivity. I bet Man City fans would argue Carlos Tevez didn’t foul the Blackpool player in the build-up to the second goal, would video replays have changed the referee’s mind? We can all hold our own opinion over whether the goal should have been allowed or disallowed, but I bet we all wouldn’t universally agree.

How long, after technology had been introduced in this way, would it take for a losing manager to question the validity of the judgement? “I don’t care what the video referee says, that was never a foul. He’s clearly never played the game before.”

Finally, there’s the potential use of video technology in teams’ tactics, which could be to the detriment of the spectacle. If, say, managers were allowed to call for a video replay of a disputed decision, a team defending a lead could make it part of their time-wasting tactics which are aimed at disrupting the flow of the opposition and preventing them building attacking momentum. You’re 1-0 up in the 89th minute and you get a chance to stop the game by asking the officials to review a trivial decision, thereby disrupting the match. Imagine how frustrating that would be as a supporter.

We can all feel sympathy for how Holloway and Blackpool fans felt after their team was robbed of a credible point or even a famous victory, and we all know how horrible that feeling of injustice can be when our team is on the wrong end of bad refereeing decisions – goal line technology at Morecambe’s Christie Park in April 2009 when Peter Thorne’s effort appeared to cross the line, for example, and Bradford City might have achieved promotion. But video technology has assumed some form of idealistic solution in the minds of too many people, as though it would instantly solve all of the game’s problems and football would always be fair because of its deployment.

There has to be other solutions to the problems, such as more officials and closer alignment between the training of footballers and referees. Sure decisions will still be wrong, but this is a game played by humans not robots and if standards could be significantly improved it would be easier to accept fewer occasions where costly mistakes are made.

Bring in the technology for the Premier League only, and it’s almost as though football operates under two codes. It wouldn’t take long for a Football League manager to blame a defeat on the lack of technology, citing that, “if we were in the Premier League that decision wouldn’t have happened, how is that fair?”

And given the historic difficulties newly-promoted clubs have in staying up in England’s top flight for more than a couple of seasons, what price for that lower league manager complaining to one day be Ian Holloway?