A seething Gary O’Neil was asked about the use of VAR after his Wolves side lost 3-2 to Fulham at Craven Cottage on Monday.
“Maybe tonight has finally turned me against VAR,” he told Sky Sports.
Three penalties were awarded during the match. The first saw Fulham take a 2-1 lead after Nelson Semedo caught Tom Cairney. A long VAR check upheld referee Michael Salisbury’s decision to award a spot kick, despite Semedo touching the ball as he made contact with Cairney.
Fifteen minutes later, Tim Ream caught Wolves’ Hwang Hee-chan who converted from the spot to make it 2-2. However, Willian’s second penalty gave the home side three points after Harry Wilson and Joao Gomes collided in the box. Salisbury overturned his call and awarded the penalty after the VAR advised him to look at the pitchside monitor.
“The impact that you are having on my reputation, and the club and people’s livelihoods is massive,” continued O’Neill. “We should be able to talk about the game and not decisions, but unfortunately we can’t.”
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The howls of disgust from Molineux will be seen by some as sour grapes; the bitter protests of a club and a group of fans looking to blame officials for their own shortcomings. But that would be grossly unfair. O’Neil estimated last night that mistakes from officials had left Wolves seven points short of where they should be 13 games into his first campaign in charge.
So, let’s count. A point at Old Trafford, where they were denied a late penalty and a chance to claim a 1-1 draw.
Two points at Luton Town, where a late penalty for handball against Gomes denied them a 1-0 victory that would, admittedly, have been a smash-and-grab affair but a spirited one with 10 men.
Two points at home to Newcastle, where a dubious penalty gave the visitors a 2-1 lead that Wolves eventually cancelled out to draw 2-2.
A point at Bramall Lane, where Fabio Silva was wrongly penalised in stoppage time for a foul on George Baldock.
And now a point last night. That is O’Neil’s seven, although it is far from an exact science.
But while an independent panel appointed by the Premier League ruled that the Luton decision was correct, last night’s match-winning penalty was very much a subjective call.
Wilson was looking for a foul and was arguably on his way down before Gomes made contact, but the Wolves man hung out a leg, got nothing on the ball and something on his opponent. Had the roles been reversed, Wolves would have wanted a penalty.
Despite the subjectivity of that decision, the club have still lost a lot of points courtesy of decisions that were debatable at best — and last night’s game might have been different had Carlos Vinicius been sent off for headbutting Max Kilman.
So while non-Wolves fans can legitimately question O’Neil’s maths, they cannot fairly question his essential argument. And in any case, this is not just about Wolves; O’Neil and Co just happen to be one of the clubs bearing the brunt of VAR failings.
The whole game is suffering from a system that leaves it with the same old poor decisions it has always had but added with a huge portion of its wonderful drama ripped out thanks to the technology.
Goals scored and penalties awarded are no longer the trigger for supporters to set free the pent-up excitement that they carry through the turnstiles; they are simply the start of a soulless process of analysis that still often ends up with a baffling outcome.
However much the VAR process is improved — and the direction of travel is not promising — it will not be able to give fans those magical moments back.
“I think the referee probably would have done a better job on his own last night,” said O’Neil. “I haven’t felt that too often. I think VAR actually hindered him.
“What is the point of VAR if we have all those slow-motion incidents and they are all missed? We might as well say to the referee, ‘We are not helping you, we are not giving you any slow-mos, or sending you to any screen — just make the best decision you can.’”
In truth, we should have said something similar to begin with. It’s too late for Wolves — and other teams this season — but on the night when O’Neil turned against VAR, how many more came to the same conclusion and what can now be done about it?
(Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)