Former Premier League official Matt Messias thinks referees wearing microphones is VAR from the answer to technology troubles


Having refereed 85 Premier League games and overseen several UEFA Cup fixtures between 2000 and 2005, Matt Messias knows better than most the scrutiny that officials are under.

Every decision, regardless of its magnitude, is either jeered or cheered by those in the stadium and analysed with a fine-tooth comb by pundits on television.

Speaking exclusively to Overtime, the 55-year-old reveals his views on Video Assistant Referees (VAR) – the controversial new technology introduced in the Premier League this season.

Official Premier League guidelines say that VAR would be used to eliminate ‘clear and obvious errors’ and ‘serious missed incidents’, which was met with a sense of optimism prior to the start of the season. The idea being that referees were now equipped with the tools they needed to make most decisions correct.

But one of VAR’s most significant criticisms is its ambiguity. The pure elation fans feel after their team scores a goal is often stifled with the frustration of a lengthy VAR check, as those inside the stadium are left in the dark regarding the decision’s progress.

With supporters desperate for the clarity of refereeing decisions, particularly VAR reviews, to be improved, the Premier League is facing calls for officials to wear microphones. While this is a key component in the way video reviews work in rugby and cricket, Messias does not believe referees with microphones are the solution to VAR’s flaws.

“No. And my reason is because footballers talk in a different language to rugby players,” said Messias when asked if referees should wear microphones. “You would be able to pick up on the referee’s microphone and you would hear everything that players would say to the referee.

“Whilst it would be great to communicate like rugby, and I think it’s fantastic and there’s real clarity, the referees are calm; you do sometimes hear a player swear every now and then. Then the TV commentators have to say, ‘I do apologise if you heard that’, but they would have to say that rather more frequently in football,” he said.

Football has a history of playing catch-up to other sports when it comes to adopting new technology. Hawk-Eye technology was first introduced in the Premier League in 2013 to provide clarity over whether a ball had crossed the goal-line. That was 12 years after it was launched in cricket and eight years after tennis.

Messias believes that VAR should be adapted to be more like the Television Match Official (TMO) system used in rugby and the Decision Review System (DRS) in cricket. Both forms of technology are far more developed in terms of communication to fans, compared to VAR.

Messias said: “I think in cricket and rugby it’s good because the fans see what the referee sees. When the referee goes to the TMO (television match official) the fans see that as well. I like the idea that if the referee has gone to VAR or if he has gone to judge it himself on the TV monitor, there is no reason why the spectators can’t see the same pictures that the referee sees.”

While the objective of VAR is to eventually arrive at the correct decision, Messias raises concerns regarding a possible confliction of views between the referee and VAR operator. Does the constant reviewing of decisions undermine the referee’s responsibility to control the game?

“You have the referee’s opinion, and the opinion of the guy who’s judging the VAR might be completely different,” Messias said.

“My personal view is that the referee judges the heat and tempo of the game and if he then feels ‘you know what, I need to check that’, he then goes across to the pitch-side monitor and he decides. Nobody else [should decide],” he added.

The Premier League’s website states that “there will be a high bar for VAR intervention on subjective decisions to maintain the pace and intensity of the matches.” Despite this, the sight of referees holding finger to earpiece for one or two-minute periods, for many supporters, occurs with too much regularity.

Before the start of the season, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) instructed referees to use the monitors “sparingly”, but so far the Referee Review Area is yet to be used in any game.

In response to whether referees should use the pitch-side monitor more frequently, Messias has no doubt that they are a key part of winning over VAR’s critics. “100 per cent, I think it should only be that – it should just be the pitch-side monitor. I think the managers will be saying ‘just let the referee go across to the monitor and let him decide what needs to be done’. And he doesn’t need to speak to another guy because that other guy will have a different view of it,” he said.

VAR will always divide opinion. It seems as if the Premier League is a fair distance away from winning over fans, managers and players as the Premier League approaches its first quarter. But with many aggravated fans hoping for VAR to be ditched next season, Messias notes that the technology is far from the finished product.

“It will be continually refined and developed until it becomes something of more use to everybody with greater clarity. It’s still in its teething process.”

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