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Gordon Smith: At last, a step in the right direction… 10 years late

Gordon Smith (Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)
Gordon Smith (Andrew Cawley / DC Thomson)

THEY say a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.

On Thursday night we saw Scottish football finally embark on a process I advocated 10 years ago.

The SFA summit meeting between the Premier League managers and the country’s top referees ended with unanimous support for the introduction of video assistant referee technology, better known as VAR.

This, all sides agreed, would help support the officials, who have been the source of huge criticism this season.

It would also, through the lowering of their blood pressure if nothing else, help the managers who have been getting themselves so worked up.

Why? Because we would get the correct decisions, which surely has to be a good thing.

That was the point I argued to the international game’s ruling bodies a decade ago.

It was rejected on the grounds it would diminish the essential “human element” of the sport.

While that hurdle has now been crossed, there remains a long way to go, many questions to be answered, and details to be thrashed out.

For starters, I was intrigued why only 10 of the league’s managers made it to the meeting.

Kilmarnock’s Steve Clarke – a very vocal critic of referees on occasion this season – and Hamilton Accies boss Martin Canning were both absent.

This, I would have thought, was as important a date on the football calendar as there will be all year.

In their absence, it was no great surprise to see Neil Lennon – not adverse to criticising referees but an intelligent, articulate guy – emerge as the spokesman for the bosses.

It was nice to hear him state how impressed he was with Clare Whyte, the SFA’s new compliance officer.

Where I did disagree with the comments made after the meeting was the talk about the desirability of having full-time referees.

Provided the officials can reach the required fitness levels – which is, of course, essential – I don’t see any problem with them remaining part-time.

Indeed, I can see benefits because switching to a day job allows them to get away from the strains of taking charge of our national game on a Saturday afternoon.

In short, to keep things in perspective, a commodity which can be in short supply in Scottish football.

There is also a financial angle to this. Most of our refs tend to come from good professions and are already well-paid.

Add in the money they get from officiating, and they are able to earn a good living.

I am not convinced this would be the case if football was their only means of income.

How would it work, for example, when they were required to drop down the divisions – a step that usually involves a substantial drop in fee?

No, I think it makes more sense to focus on the technology itself and get in VAR as soon as possible.

I am at a loss as to why it will apparently take 12 months for the relevant training and testing to take place.

This makes no sense at all to me.

As far as I’m aware, this is not especially complicated equipment we are talking about.

Basically it is no different from what we all have in our front rooms.

Craig Levein has said he would rather VAR was embraced as soon as possible, and I would echo those sentiments wholeheartedly.

Judging by the comments of Ian Maxwell, the SFA’s chief executive, it is likely to be only the top clubs who feel the benefit the technology.

He has implied they are the ones who will have to foot the bill, possibly with the contributions coming straight off the money they receive from the SPFL.

That’s not to suggest the SFA aren’t interested in the thoughts of the lower-league clubs. They will meet with the coaches from the Championship, League One and League Two in due course.

In these case, though, VAR is unlikely to be the main topic of conversation.

That’s a shame as we would like all clubs to benefit from the technology.

The key point, though, is the move in the right direction.