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There’s a rare sense of anticipation about the new season among match-going fans.
It’s not a mass outbreak of over-optimism with everyone convinced they will be standing in a stadium next spring seeing their players plastered in confetti.
It’s a far more basic instinct. It’s the prospect of returning to a familiar spec for the first home game, in a packed house, pumping hands of old friends and soaking in the only point of this precious obsession: Going through 90-plus tumultuous minutes with your team, in the flesh, among like-minded souls.
It could all go horribly wrong. The information from clubs about the levels of returning fans is optimistic but sparse and this government does more twists and turns than an Olympic high-diver.
But if full houses are allowed to return, after their longest absence since World War Two, our stadiums will be blessed places to be.
Especially if PGMOL chief Mike Riley’s promises about using VAR to referee the game more sanely are genuine. If so, not only will we get our specs back, we’ll get our football back.
Unless your team won something, last season was probably the most painful and least realistic you’ve ever endured. The stream of non-atmospheric tedium beamed from empty grounds was made infinitely worse by the Premier League’s over-officious application of VAR. Goals became crime scenes that needed to be pored over by forensic teams, leaving fans who live off the adrenaline rush cheated.
Riley this week confirmed key refereeing changes for next season: No soft penalties given for the slightest of contact and a changed interpretation of the handball law to recognise arms are naturally raised when a player jumps.
Linesmen will be encouraged to put their flags up as soon as they spot an obvious offside and if players stay on their feet in the box, after being fouled, play will be brought back and penalties given. All of those moves are welcome. But this is the big one: Thicker lines will be used for deciding offsides, ruling out nose and armpit calls which made every fan, at some point, believe the game had gone.
“We would give back around 20 goals that were ruled out by the more forensic scrutiny,” said Riley, leading to a multitude of blasphemous responses that ranged from, “Who do you think you are, Jesus Christ?” to, “Well why in God’s name didn’t you give us those goals last season?”
Riley is now playing Santa Claus but the truth is he had no choice but to relent.
After the softly, softly approach to VAR worked so well at the Euros there was no going back to the pedantic, emotion-draining literalism that Stockley Park brought to the game last year.
Especially with grounds being full of angry natives who were primed to revolt against the time-consuming chaos. It would have been nice to have heard an apology from Riley. An admission that when football was at its hardest to watch the bureaucrats made it even harder. A reassurance to those who fund the sport that they will never be treated so contemptuously by a jobsworth mentality again.
We’ve all realised over the past year-and-a-half how much we miss the energy created by fans and the sheer joy of free-flowing football. It would be a sin to encourage officials sitting in a room miles from our stadiums to continue finding ways of killing that.
But as we go into a season on a rare wave of anticipation and optimism let’s give Riley and Co the benefit of the doubt and believe we can get back to the matchday experience of years gone by.
If so, it would be the icing on the most delicious of cakes.