In terms of recent changes to the Rules of the Game, perhaps none are as controversial as the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee.
The system was brought in in order to help referees that seemed to be struggling with the pace of the modern game, but there has been one glaring issue: the same referees that struggle on the pitch are the ones responsible for using it in the control room. As a result, the exact same levels of poor officiating and inconsistencies that we’ve experienced for years are now happening even with the benefit of a video replay.
One question that hasn’t been answered particularly well is why it is that the Premier League made the decision to base the Video Assistant Referees at Stockley Park, rather than having them inside the stadiums that the match that they’re assisting with is taking place. Other leagues that have also introduced VAR tends to do that, but the same is not true for the Video Assistant in England. Why would the English choose to do something different to everyone else, other than the standard reason of a weird superiority complex borne out of years of ruling over others?
Where Is Stockley Park?
The first thing to consider is where, exactly, Stockley Park is. You would be forgiven for thinking that it is some sort of footballing centre, especially when you consider the fact that other such locations have ‘Park’ in the title, like St. George’s Park. In reality, however, it is nothing more than a business estate located in West London.
To be more specific, it is located between Hayes, Yiewsley and West Drayton, all of which fall in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It has been given a Grade II status since 2020 by the Register of History Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.
Based over 274 acres of parkland, Stockley Park is home to more than just the Premier League’s Video Assistant Referee base. Apple Inc, Marks & Spencers, Toshiba and Canon Inc also all have venues there. Those that enjoy comparisons between fictional things will doubtless enjoy the fact that the ‘Big Brother’ style VAR shares a location with the American biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc, with Gilead, of course, being the patriarchal society where the novel, film and TV series of the Handmaid’s Tale was set, suggesting a wealth of related dystopia.
Why It’s At Stockley Park
The most important thing to acknowledge is that the Premier League has at no point offered an explanation of why it is that the VAR Hub is located at Stockley Park. As a result, all we can do is speculate and try to come up with our own reasons why that might be the case.
Every Premier League match has a Video Assistant Referee, an Assistant VAR and a Replay Operator. The Replay Operator almost certainly doesn’t need to have any refereeing experience, instead being required to help operate the technology.
This fact might well mean that a decision to keep everything in Stockley Park will save the Video Operators from travelling around. There is also the fact that a huge amount of equipment is used by the VAR Hub, including countless screens and other forms of technology.
It would be expensive to install of that permanently in the 20 grounds that are based up and down the country, housing Premier League clubs. The cameras used are the pitch-facing cameras of the broadcasters, but there are also additional cameras to monitor offsides, plus the ability to project lines onto the pitch.
Despite the amount of money in the Premier League, the expense of installing VAR equipment everywhere, or of having to transport it between locations, is likely to be high on the list of reasons why it was decided that the VAR Hub should simple be located in one of a few possible locations.
Add to that the cost of paying for the transport of the Video Assistant Referee, Assistant VAR and Replay Operator will also make things expensive. Instead, the AVAR on one match can become the VAR on another relatively easily, which will keep costs down at least a small amount.
The Problems Of Operating At A Distance
As you might imagine, keeping the Video Assistant Referee and their team away from the ground where the football match is taking place can cause problems. As Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley were gearing up to play their match in April of 2021, a fire alarm at the VAR Hub went off, presumably causing the building to be evacuated. Gary Lineker revealed the news just before the midday kick-off, much to the delight of the panel in the studio with him. Danny Murphy, for example, replied, “That’s not good news. That’s phenomenal news.”
The match kicked off on time and it isn’t clear where the VAR Hub was back operating in time for the early stages of game. It was, however, definitely back up and working when Matej Vydra scored a goal, only for it to be disallowed for offside by the Video Assistant Referee. It was also working when Manchester City took on Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup final later that afternoon. It was, however, a neat example of the ways in which the fact that the VAR Hub is in a separate location to the actual football can cause problems.
Whether people like the use of the Video Assistant Referee or not, and the evidence is certainly there to suggest that people don’t, the reality is that it is now an integral part of football. Being in a situation where it might be used in one match in an early kick-off but then out of use in the late afternoon match is far from idea. For many football fans, it isn’t even good news that it will be a different VAR team looking at decisions in one match compared to another, such is the level of inconsistency that we’ve all learnt to expect from the officials taking charge of matches.