Howard Webb enjoys challenge of introducing video technology in MLS

Howard Webb
Howard Webb

Howard Webb has gone from Rotherham’s New York Stadium to New York City as the former referee spearheads the implementation of video technology in Major League Soccer.

Three years after hanging up his whistle, the man who officiated the 2010 World Cup final is working as hard to smoothly bring video reviews into the USA and Canada’s top division.

It feels a long way from his hometown of Rotherham - where he announced the name of boyhood club United’s New York Stadium in 2011 - and a chance to be at the forefront of refereeing innovation.

“It’s amazing this journey that football takes you on,” Webb said. “When I started refereeing in 1989 in Rotherham’s local leagues, to think that I’m here in New York now heading up the video review project, you just wouldn’t have believed it. It was a really good opportunity for me personally to combine my experience on the field and officiating with some of the recent work I’ve done within television as well.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. It is an exciting, challenging project.”

Webb speaks of “maximum benefit for minimum interference” when it comes to video review - an additional tool aimed at ensuring clear mistakes are avoided and serious incidents are not missed.

The Yorkshireman oversaw the training of 49 officials ahead of video review’s launch in MLS last month, with every available video angle poured over during matches by the VAR team at the stadium.

Constant checks take place during the game looking for clear and obvious errors regarding goals, penalties, direct red cards and cases of mistaken identity, with the VAR able to recommend a review to the referee.

If accepted, they make a TV box signal and can then either watch the footage on a pitchside monitor or take the VAR’s recommendation, with the final decision always belonging to the referee.

“It has been a pretty solid start,” Webb said.

“We’re still learning, we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of making sure that our officials are as consistent as possible, as comfortable as possible.

“It has been okay so far but we’re keeping our feet very much on the ground because we know there will be some bumps in the road ahead.

“It’s a challenging project but so far we’re fairly pleased with the way it has been implemented.”

The first 39 matches brought 13 reviews, with just four of them not resulting in a change in decision.

It has, Webb says, been supported “almost to a man” by officials, giving referees more confidence and a clearer head with which to make decisions.

“Errors are made not intentional,” he said. “Decisions are made with all good intent at the time, based on the angle that you have.

“But the game is played quickly, you get one shot to make a call and sometimes you get it wrong.

“That can leave a scar on your career for a long time, so a chance to avoid those errors I think is something that we all welcome.”

There have been teething problems with video technology but it appears to have gone smoother in MLS than elsewhere, namely the Confederations Cup.

FIFA pledged in the build-up to that tournament that they would use it at next summer’s World Cup, ahead of which they need to educate players and fans as much as officials.

“IFAB (International Football Association Board) have given countries around the world an opportunity to be involved in this trial phase, which will last through until probably 2019,” Webb said.

“All of the time it has been evaluated, they’re looking at how it’s working in different places.

“We’re feeding back to them all the time and then a final decision will be made in 2018 or 2019.

“We’re hoping, of course, that the full ratification will be given and it’ll be part of the laws of the game going forward.”

The Premier League has not dabbled with video technology just yet, but it appears a matter of when rather than if they do.

“If it’s adopted by other leagues, it means that they’ve liked what they’ve seen in the places where it has happened so far, including here in the MLS,” Webb added.

“But it’s a matter for them I guess as to when they want to dip their toe in the water.

“I believe it will be a staple of the sport going forward and every league will want to be involved if they have the capacity to implement it.

“I am sure the Premier League will be looking at it closely.”