Until now, the video assistant referee (VAR) in football was a concept like death, an abstraction, something to go 'oh' about. You know it's there, but until it touches you, it is as distant in your mind as Hawaii. Even when I was fortunate enough to attend the World Cup Final, the VAR incident in the match between France and Croatia had a dramatic novelty to it. It was nice, it was a buzz, it added to the experience of my consumption of the game, but it didn't affect my life.
I was very much in favour of VAR as a concept of justice in football. The 'Hand of Henry' would never have happened and 'the right thing' is seen to be done, given the expertise behind the screens. Also, the referee's decision remains final.
However, there are drawbacks. Football is not rugby, it's a game played at pace, that needs to flow. The instantaneous nature of football is one of the essential strands of 'the beautiful game'. Having spoken to neutrals, adding a layer of Hollywood drama with VAR decisions has made the game more entertaining. If there was a test case for this, the Champions League quarter final second leg involving Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur was it.
As an obsessive Tottenham fan, the personal (not professional) experience was one of angst, internalized due to Manchester City's supreme talent and ability to blitz teams at home. When Sergio Aguero's goal went in just before the hour to make it 4-2, the tie looked to be over. I did feel though that City's defence was brittle and if Spurs attacked, they could nick the vital away goal.
Then it happened. Fernando Llorente bundled the ball home in the 73rd minute and there were yells and jumping up and down and the "Yes!" Wait. No? The City players swarmed around the Turkish referee as the goal went to VAR. I thought it was a goal, but my thought process was - "Are we going to be robbed? Will this be a hometown decision?" Of course, those thoughts had no grounds as the referee sensibly allowed the goal to stand. It was unnecessary agony for what I felt was a legitimate goal.
When you are a Tottenham fan for 3 decades, you are hard wired to expect the worst, especially at critical times. So when Raheem Sterling put the ball into the net in stoppage time, after Christian Eriksen failed to clear the danger, I was just devastated, stood, head on hands in front of the television in the pub, the Ballygowan in sync with my silence. I could not believe this was happening again, in this way, in one of the biggest matches in Tottenham's 137 year history.
That it took over a minute for the decision to be reversed meant the devastation turned to a kind of a stunned disbelief. Forgive me for not running around the pub and buying everyone a drink, I was just so dazed and confused that it could be all over one moment and then alive the next. Of course I was wise to it happening before the game, but not in those circumstances. So while I am thrilled Tottenham are going to be in a Champions League semi final, and my flights are already booked to Amsterdam, I found the whole stoppage time experience to be too overwhelming. I need to toughen up, let it sink in and celebrate.