TV WATCH THIS MONTH’S SCREEN REVIEW
Much has been written recently about artificial intelligence and the threat that automation poses to everything from job security to road safety. As the wider world grapples with the ethical implications of AI, football’s great automation experiment continues apace. “Loads of drama and controversy for you tonight,” grinned Gary Lineker as he introduced Match of the Day (BBC One, February ). “Alan Shearer and Danny Murphy have been entertained and enraged in equal measure.” Well, that’s certainly what people seem to enjoy these days.
Technology was sold to football fans as a panacea. In reality, it has simply replaced one set of things for people to get angry about with another. VAR officials at Stockley Park are now under so much pressure to give a definitive decision on often borderline calls that it’s like being invited into someone else’s anxiety dream. First up on MOTD was Arsenal v Brentford, where Lee Mason failed to rule out Ivan Toney’s equaliser for the away side after spending so long checking whether one player was offside that he forgot to check whether anyone else was. VAR has swapped refereeing mistakes for administrative errors, the equivalent of millions of people paying to watch someone fill in a passport application against the clock. “We haven’t got to the worst one yet!” interjected Shearer, with all the self-righteous fury of a man being escorted from a town planning meeting by security guards who know him by name.
After Chelsea were denied a penalty for an obvious handball in their game against West Ham, Murphy looked one incorrect decision away from barricading himself inside the studio and taking hostages. Mikel Arteta and Graham Potter both made the mistake of giving measured interviews. “I wish he was more angry,” said Murphy, projecting the feelings of a man paid to be angry about referees onto a man who isn’t. Of course, Lineker, Shearer and Murphy are more
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responsible than most for the position we now find ourselves in. As part of the freeze-frame intelligentsia who pored over decisions for years, they stoked the clamour for this brave new world, where a human making a mistake in a split second has been replaced by humans making mistakes over the course of three or four minutes.
By Monday, things had deteriorated badly. I’m not sure if anyone ever collated a definitive list of potential downsides of video technology in football, but Dermot Gallagher being given his own hour-long Ref Watch special on Sky Sports News would surely have been near the top. The following Friday, Mason left his role at PGMOL “by mutual consent”.
And so here we are, in a situation where football hasn’t just failed to eradicate mistakes, they’re now so serious that people lose their jobs over them. “You won’t get consistency, because they’re human,” said Potter when pressed on VAR, so the obvious answer must be to get rid of the human element entirely. Within a decade, refereeing at the highest level will be completely automated, with drones conveying the instant decisions of an all-powerful algorithm that never makes mistakes. Comfortingly, it will still have an anti-Arsenal agenda.
Complaining about the games chosen for television is one of the few great FA Cup traditions left. Grimsby’s visit to Southampton (ITV , March ) saw the lowestranked team in the competition take on a top-flight side fighting relegation. It seemed an irresistible proposition, yet resist it they did. For a commercial station like ITV, picking Manchester United against West Ham was understandable. The BBC choosing Sheffield United’s game against Spurs perhaps less so. But watching the game tucked away on ITV felt like being constantly reminded what a good decision you’d made.
NUMBERS GAME The figures behind the facts
Manchester United’s defeat at Liverpool was their first by that score since December
, when they lost at Wolves The seconds it took Bournemouth to score the season’s fastest goal at Arsenal, who came back to win in the th minute
The record number of League clubs Leon Clarke has played for. He joined his latest,
Hartlepool United, in February
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