Liverpool VAR controversy: What are their legal options against PGMOL?

In the aftermath of Saturday’s VAR fiasco against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool said they would “explore the range of options available, given the clear need for escalation and resolution”.

But what could they be, exactly? And how might Liverpool accelerate this from a legal standpoint? We analyse the potential outcomes.

What happened?

Saturday’s frenetic match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was overshadowed by Luis Diaz’s first-half goal being wrongly ruled out for offside, with the score at 0-0 and Liverpool down to 10 men.

VAR Darren England failed to overturn the decision after replays showed Diaz was onside, believing that the on-field decision was to award the goal. By the time the error had been realised, play had been restarted.

The PGMOL, the body responsible for match officials across English football, acknowledged a “significant human error” had been made and they would carry out a full review.

Footage clearly shows Luis Diaz was onside when put through by Mohamed Salah (Sky Sports)

England was later stood down from fourth official duties at Sunday’s game between Nottingham Forest and Brentford, and Cook was replaced as assistant referee for Fulham’s match at home to Chelsea on Monday.

It later transpired England was part of a team of English officials, also including Michael Oliver, who took charge of a league game in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday.

In a statement last night, Liverpool demanded “full transparency” with the review and said sporting integrity had been undermined by the failure to correctly apply the laws of the game.

There is no suggestion they want the fixture to be replayed but they have asked the PGMOL to release the audio of the exchanges between the officials, including the VAR team.



Explained: The Luis Diaz VAR error in Tottenham vs Liverpool

Do Liverpool have a legal case?

Dan Chapman, partner and head of sport and employment at Leathes Prior, said it was difficult to see what legal claims Liverpool had.

He told The Athletic: “What Liverpool are probably going to do, perhaps with the support of most clubs, is say, ‘This is no longer acceptable’ and, ‘There needs to be radical changes’. I can’t realistically see there is a legal route. But you don’t need a strong case sometimes, you need an arguable case and then you use it to bring about change.

“I can’t see any circumstances where it’s going to result in any changes being made to the fixture because you can’t demonstrate that the game would have been different had that goal counted.”



Discuss: Your club’s biggest refereeing grievances – and the future of VARs

Hannah Kent, a senior associate in the dispute resolution team at Onside Law, agreed any legal challenge is unlikely to succeed.

She said: “On-field decisions don’t tend to be interfered with after the event. There are very limited exceptions — if there’s been evidence of corruption, for example.

“Their course of action would be to get the official sanctioned or taken off their matches. If Liverpool tried to get the match replayed, which is extremely unlikely and they haven’t called for this, then all sorts of other clubs would try to do the same thing.”

Dev Kumar Parmar, a sports lawyer and principal director at Parmars, suggested Liverpool’s statements were part of a communications strategy designed to “keep the rhetoric going and show they are not taking it lying down”.

He, too, highlighted flaws in any possible legal challenge.

“What are you going to get out of it? Are you going to get a payment? How do you quantify that? Do you do that at the end of a season? Or do you do it on the basis that you want the individuals involved to never referee again? If that’s the case then that will be dependent on a disciplinary tribunal that has to be opened up by the FA.”

Stephen Taylor Heath, co-head of sports law at JWM Solicitors, concurred that Liverpool would find it hard to bring a legal case when it could not definitely be proved that allowing the goal to stand would have changed the result.

By way of comparison, he cited the example of Sheffield United in 2008 when a Football Association arbitration panel ruled the club had been relegated from the Premier League because West Ham United broke the rules when they signed Carlos Tevez.

Taylor Heath said: “Sheffield United were able to persuade a tribunal that statistically, and as a matter of fact, Tevez was the difference between them staying up or going down. If you can get to that stage, you might potentially have a legal argument. But if it’s a matter of human error by an official, then the basic default position would be, ‘Well we just have to live with it’.”

Have there been any precedents involving technology and a failure of process?

There have been plenty of examples of VARs making mistakes in terms of process.

One came last season in the game between Crystal Palace and Brighton at Selhurst Park, when the visitors were denied a good goal because the VAR that day — John Brooks —  had drawn a line from the wrong Palace defender, meaning that he ruled Pervis Estupinan offside when he was actually just on.

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Pervis Estupinan’s goal for Brighton at Crystal Palace last season was wrongly ruled out (Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)

Before Saturday’s blunder, however, the highest-profile mistake involving technology in the Premier League related to Hawk-Eye when its goal-line technology failed to award Sheffield United a goal against Aston Villa in June 2020.

Sheffield United never pursued that grievance and neither did Bournemouth, who ended up being relegated that season as Villa stayed up courtesy of the point gained from the goal that Hawk-Eye missed.

Speaking to The Athletic later about the incident, then-manager Chris Wilder believed the club should have pushed more.

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Sheffield United score their ‘goal that never was’ at Aston Villa in 2020 (Paul Ellis / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

He said: “We were easily pushed aside. Maybe if we’d been in a relegation battle, we’d have pushed a little bit harder because look at the numbers involved when dropping out of the Premier League. Instead, we accepted it, saying, ‘Fair enough’ — but it wasn’t ‘fair enough’ when you look back.”

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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