Nick Hayhoe on that thing that's ruining football for us all. No not the football, or the results. That stupid, joy (and despair) sapping other thing.
At my day job’s office, I am lucky enough to have a desk next to a window that overlooks a river. The river itself, to the casual observer, is moderately unremarkable, as it is just like many other canalised rivers in many other small towns up and down the UK.
But to me it is glorious. To look away from a computer and stare at the trees and the hedges and the flowing water and the walkers on the path, is a form of “micro-escapism” that I think everyone needs a little bit every day in modern life - where conference calls, spreadsheets and finances, though not necessarily causing large or uncopable amounts of stress or anxiety, can all be pushed to the background momentarily for a chance to ensure that regain of focus and burst of light relief.
One of the most unique elements of this spot on the river, is that pretty much every other day, without fail, a kingfisher will appear. Right there in the middle of a town, next to car dealerships, office buildings and warehouses. I will be sitting at my desk and I will see that flash of colour out of the corner of my eye, then it will be sitting perched on a tree branch - almost too small for my eyes to focus and make out its features.
My first thought is normally how ridiculous it is that nature decided that a tiny bird with extremely bright colours would be fine at avoiding predators, my second is that how lucky I am to be seeing such a remarkable and rare thing from the comfort of my desk, and my third is that as long as this kingfisher keeps turning up in a world that is otherwise hell-bent on destroying itself, then everything is going to be ok. It will sit there for a while, its head tucked into its body like someone with a short neck trying to keep themselves warm on a cold winter’s day, before diving into the river to catch whatever had passed by and flying off. Every time I watch it go as far as I can, and then I go back to my desk and my computer and my word documents and my emails.
Away from work, for life in general, and the stresses that come with it, we use larger things than kingfishers to keep our stresses and worries at bay and to ensure us that, if they keep being there, everything will be alright.
Back in November, on a chilly Wednesday evening, I was listening to the Champions League football match between Manchester City and Atlanta on the radio while absentmindedly playing a racing sim video game. With around 10 minutes to go, the Manchester City goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, was sent off. The commentator barely concealed his glee when uttering the magical phrase “Man City will have to put an outfield player in goal”. This started a scramble for me of simultaneously booting up the BT Sport App on my PC to watch the game, texting everyone I know who likes football “OUTFIELD PLAYER IN GOAL ALERT”, and then checking Twitter to look at the incredible levels of happiness and joy that others were experiencing at this odd quirk of football (an archaistic carryover from the Victorian Era that really shouldn’t exist in the modern professional game with its sports science and analytics and xG) that was about to unveil in front of our eyes.
It struck me then, that not only was football doing the job of the kingfisher for me in this moment - as it does in so many others, such as walking over Novi Sad Friendship bridge and seeing the groups of Norwich fans outside of the Queen of Iceni or a young girl in a replica shirt waving a flag in the Barclay while holding her dad’s hand - that it was also doing the job of the kingfisher for all of us. While extremely minor in the grand scheme of things, the rare act of an outfield player going in goal had caused so much pleasure to so many, that it made me realise that we need to do everything we can to protect these moments. Little things that can turn a whole bad day on its head. The moments where, as the kids say, you simply love to see it.
In football, the most common, and almost unquestionably, most powerful, type of these moments is when your team scores and, in particular, when your teams scores and you are in the crowd. This moment is without parallel. While there is a sliding scale as to how intense this is, ranging from the strangled “yeahh” with the goal to take you 5-0 up to the outright, unquantifiable bedlam of the last minute goal that wins you promotion, the title or a cup final; celebrating a goal is easily in the top five reasons why we all got into watching football and why we keep coming back. For most it is the number one, the brightest of the kingfishers that gives us 30 seconds of nothing but pure joyful emotion in an otherwise scary and difficult world. It is visceral and raw, spontaneous without the need for any artificial aids to alter it. After all, football is not a television gameshow.
Ah yes, artificial aids. Television gameshow.
When VAR was first introduced, after many years of debate and discussion, an important minority, the actual match attending supporter, calmly put forward the most critical of arguments against the implementation of VAR: needless of all other problems the system could have, robbing fans of the joy of properly celebrating a goal in the stadium without having to worry about a subsequent outside intervention should, alone, be justification enough to not introduce the system.
And yet, this fear was never listened to. They never even attempted to listen to it. No supporter consultation took place. No one really gave a shit. The 2010s lasting slogan “it’s happening anyway regardless”, was all that was ever returned.
And so, inevitably, this is exactly what happened. The act of celebrating a goal has been killed, shot to pieces by both a delay of whether the goal will actually count (because even if it is given the moment has passed, it has gone) and the fear of it being overturned and looking like fools for celebrating in the first place. Unlike a referee overturning the call on the field, an up to five minute delay combined with a complete unawareness of what is happening leads to an impossible to describe level of frustration - like being told that your holiday has been cancelled as you check in.
Further, the referee, in their actual being on the pitch, having seen what you’ve seen in real time, forms part of the whole “realness” experience of actually being at the match. It is the referee who awards the goal. It is the referee who starts that 30 seconds of the most excitement you’ve had all week. And yet, VAR takes all of this away completely. Instead it artificially dictates the emotion of the event, like Dermot O'Leary pausing for three minutes before revealing the winner of the X-Factor. If we want artificially produced excitement, we may as well watch a repeat of Deal or No Deal on Challenge at 3pm on a Saturday instead.
This is not a sour grapes dismissal of the Video Assistant Referee.
This piece has not been written because Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki missed out on scoring a goal against Tottenham Hotspur as a consequence of a bizarre VAR offside call. This isn’t about wanting to try and make VAR “quicker”, or giving coaches a set number of challenges, or changing the offside law or giving referees microphones so that supporters know what is happening. These are all red-herring suggestions. All of them completely miss the point. All of them, just like VAR itself, forget the actual reason people are taking 3 hours out of a weekend to watch 22 men pass a ball around. The actual reason why people are there: to enjoy the raw emotional thrill of watching a football match live.
This piece has been written to draw you, the football supporter, to attention to the fact that the critical fundamentals of something you enjoy have been ripped apart by something that actually had little justification for its presence in the first place. That a sheer lack of foresight and simple stubbornness from people who only want to earn money and do not respect the need for the kingfisher in our lives, have led us down this path that seemingly has no hope of being reversed.
Because while the kingfisher still keeps appearing and we can still keep trying to convince ourselves that it will keep appearing and everything will be okay, it is, right now, flying with a broken wing. Then, eventually, it will not be able to brighten our day at all.