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GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

The vision of a brave new world in which football fans would have less to complain about has, for the time being, dimmed, writes pleased supporter Giles Smith in this week’s column…

It really does depend how you look at things, doesn’t it? Take that penalty decision in the Tottenham game the other night. What I saw (as a completely independent and utterly disinterested witness supporting Chelsea on the night) was Harry Kane, in the process of booting the ball out for a goal-kick, clumsily catching the carefully averted shoulder of Kepa Arrizalabaga with his shin and going over like an upright piano pushed out of a second-floor service hatch.

Yet what the VAR boffins saw, from their war-room in a remote bunker near drone-plagued Heathrow Airport, was a stick-on penalty offence. Extraordinary. And this (still more remarkably) after ruling that Kane wasn’t offside in the build-up to that incident when it was blindingly obvious to me (again, speaking as an unprejudiced Chelsea fan with absolutely no axes to grind in this area) that Kane was a mile off – and remained a mile off even after those VAR boffins had finished drawing one of their clever yellow lines across the pitch.

Certainly, one would like to know who, exactly, was playing Kane onside, in the VAR team’s replay-informed opinion. Unless you count the away fans in the far corner of the ground, there is, surely, nobody in blue between Kane and the train station at the point that pass is made.

Two contentious VAR decisions for the price of one, then – a classic VAR two-fer. And consequently we’re a goal down going into the second leg, after having utterly dominated the first leg in every sense except that one that ultimately matters.

On the plus side, though, some of us worried that the increasing use of remote electronic surveillance in football would entirely eliminate human error from the sport’s judicial processes – and that, in a world entirely deprived of corking gaffes by referees, we’d have almost nothing to talk about.

Because let’s face it: if goal-line technology had been around to rule definitively on Geoff Hurst’s off-the-crossbar number in the 1966 World Cup final, the nation would have lost more than half a century of conversation, argument, speculation and general intrigue and our cultural life would be that much poorer.
 

However, clearly we were wrong to worry because all of the evidence thus far suggests that, even if we don’t have referees to complain about, we’ll have VAR to complain about instead. And, if anything, VAR gaffes are going to prove even more irritating than unassisted refereeing gaffes, and even more fun to complain about, on the grounds that they involve expensive technology which was supposed to make errors redundant. I guess it’s a bonus of sorts.

Ah well. The key detail is that it’s 1-0, by whatever means, to Tottenham at half-time in this Carabao Cup semi-final, after a performance from our team which merited much more, if merit had anything to do with football which, unfortunately, on so many occasions, it doesn’t.

Not that it would have made any difference if we had scored – or not according to Scott Minto, formerly of this parish and now smoothly presenting for Sky Sports, who informed viewers at the start of Tuesday night’s encounter that ‘away goals don’t count.’ (I think he meant to say ‘double’. Seems a bit unfair otherwise.)

Still, in the game that ensued, among many exquisite passages of play, my favourite was probably the one in the second half when Kane was entirely rag-rolled, first by Eden Hazard, then by N’Golo Kante, within the space of mere seconds. Kane was left doing a classic comedy ‘where’d he go?’ double-take twice in quick succession, making this, in total, a quadruple-take, which you don’t often see, even in the work of the greats of the silent era. Football gold.
 

Furthermore, in the opening moments, there was a burst of fleet-footed interplay between Hazard and Callum Hudson-Odoi which almost cut the opposition’s defence into eight separate and equal-sized pieces and which happened so quickly that the television commentators didn’t even notice it. Our players’ ability to retain possession in the tightest of spaces and eventually move it out into more open areas meant that, for very substantial portions of the game, Spurs had no access to the ball worth speaking of. Overall, I very much doubt that Tottenham have had a run-around quite like it this season, and certainly not on their own ground (or, to be more accurate, they ground they are currently borrowing from neighbours).

And yet we didn’t score. We hit the post and the bar. And on occasions too numerous to mention we hit Spurs players who unfortunately and inconsiderately happened to be standing in the way at the time. But we didn’t score. Which has been very much the story of the past month or so, when we have grown somewhat used to the frustrating experience of watching our team do absolutely everything that they need to do, except the most important bit. Which is to score.

And now, in the second leg, we’re left needing to do the most important bit twice. Is that too much to ask? Clearly not. And is it too much to ask that VAR gets its lines straight this time? Well, maybe. But we’ll certainly enjoy complaining about it if it doesn’t.
 

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