Mark Halsey believes the Premier League have made a mess of implementing VAR – but he wishes it had been available in 2013 when he missed a bad foul on Newcastle’s Massadio Haidara.
Halsey believes there would have been much less controversy surrounding VAR this season had the Premier League followed the International Football Association Board protocol to only overturn clear and obvious errors made by the on-pitch officials.
“VAR will be beneficial in the long run but we are not implementing it the way the IFAB want it implementing,” the now-retired referee told us.
“The buck stops with Mike Riley.”
Halsey officiated in the English Premier League for 14 years between 1999 and 2013, while also being listed by the world’s governing body FIFA from 2001 to 2006.
His story is also one of triumphant recovery after a battle with cancer, and he looks back on his career with a great deal of pride.
However, like every referee, he made mistakes – and remembers one in particular from a Premier League relegation six-pointer between Wigan Athletic and Newcastle United in March 2013.
Wigan snatched a late 2-1 victory in the end, but it could have been very different had Callum McManaman been sent off for a challenge on Haidara, the result of which kept the Frenchman out for some time.
McManaman went unpunished, and Halsey said it soon became obvious pretty clear he had made a big mistake. The week after, he was sent to referee in League One, but he looks back at the incident philosophically.
“I’d have loved to have VAR on that one!” he says.
“When you made a mistake, it would tear you up inside for a couple of days; you try not to watch Sky Sports or anything like that.
“But you had to look at it and learn. It would play on your mind, and as a top referee, you don’t want to get the big decisions wrong.
“During the game, for that one second, a player ran straight in front of me. You can’t see through a wall, you can’t see through a player. I saw the ball coming away after McManaman’s challenge and it looked like he’d got the ball. No one reacted, everyone just carried on.”
“It wasn’t until I saw it afterwards and I thought ‘Jesus!’. I was told at half time and obviously Newcastle weren’t happy, Alan Pardew wasn’t happy, neither was John Carver, quite rightly.
“I thought to myself: ‘How have I missed that? What a poor tackle to miss!’ But all you can do is apologise.
“I remember having a conversation with Pardew on the phone on the Monday, he apologised for what he said in the tunnel and I did for missing the challenge. But he realised my view was blocked, it was just one of those things.”
Despite Halsey not booking the Wigan man, the FA were powerless to act because one of his assistants had appeared to spot a coming together. That rule was changed off the back of that afternoon, much to Halsey’s relief.
“I had reported it to the FA, but because the assistant was looking in that direction, they felt they couldn’t take any action. That was disappointing, but thankfully the rule changed afterwards.”
Referees are rarely popular with players and fans, but Halsey believes some of today’s top-level officials make life more difficult for themselves because the communication isn’t as good, which comes down to the coaching.
“As a referee, you’ve got to be mentally strong,” he says.
“It’s a football family, we all have to get closer. Sir Alex Ferguson would always offer me a glass of red wine after the game, regardless of what happened on the pitch. David Moyes was another.
“Referees nowadays are a little bit robotic, I don’t think they endear themselves to managers and I know the PGMOB (Professional Game Match Officials Board) don’t really like that sort of thing to go on now.
“I think it is essential to have that relationship with the players and managers. It is down to the coaching and leadership; they say good coaches turn average players into good players and good players into excellent players. It is no different with referees.
“There are coaches now who have never refereed in the top flight and we’ve got to go in a different direction. A few years ago, we were renowned as having the best officials in Europe, I don’t think you can say that now.
“At this present time, it is one of the best times to become a referee because an average one can get in high up. When I was refereeing, you had Alan Wiley, Graham Poll, Jeff Winter, Paul Durkin. It was difficult to go from the Football League to the Premier League. It isn’t now.
Halsey also believes referees should be encouraged to stamp their personality on games, even if it means getting a reputation among supporters and the media.
“Look at Mike Dean, you need personality to referee at the top level,” he says. “You can’t argue that he’s got it. There are a lot of people out there that loathe him, but he’s experienced.
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“I bet if you asked a lot of the players, they’d prefer to have him than someone like Kevin Friend.
“I’m not saying Kevin is a bad referee, but to me he always seems very aggressive. You don’t see him smile or engage with the players and players don’t like that. Mike adds personality to the game.”
Halsey says he always looked to build a relationship with players and referee what was in front of him. But there were some that were tougher to deal with than others, and it was always about being stern when a player with a certain reputation came along.
“Sometimes before a game, with certain players, you would go up to them and say ‘hey, behave yourself today, I’ll be watching you.’ I always remember saying to Cristiano Ronaldo at Liverpool vs Man United ‘don’t you be going down easy today, because you’ll be getting nothing if you do.’ It worked, because he didn’t.
“It was all about talking to the players. With someone like Craig Bellamy, you’d knew he’d mouth off but you just had to put cotton wool in your ears and give as good as you got.”
“I got on with a lot of good captains, John Terry would come into my dressing room and we’d have a good chat, Vincent Kompany was good. Some were tough, like Gary Neville because Sir Alex drummed it into his players to leave the referee alone.
“You’d just go up to them or the players themselves and tell them to calm down. But there was a lot of ‘shop floor’ language.”