There is only one place to start after last night’s events. The awarding of a generous penalty, which risks incentivising the sort of simulation that has gradually infested the once beautiful game, and a sending off immediately transformed a fixture that Fulham were comfortably in control of. You might be able to construct a case for Callum Wilson going to ground under Joachim Andersen’s initial challenge but any forward worth their salt will look to gain as a big an advantage as possible and – unless you are Fulham – there’s nothing more likely to bring a goal than a penalty kick.
It was astonishing to hear Andy Hinchcliffe, an uncompromising defender who had little time for wingers who made the most of challenges in his playing days, decide that it was a clear penalty well before the video assistant referee’s checks were completed. I was ready to head to Bernard Castle to test my clearly failing eyesight until both Jermaine Jenas and Alan Shearer were unequivocal in seeing the matter differently to Sky’s pundits on Match of the Day. If a system supposed to reduce refereeing blunders cannot rectify a mistake of such magnitude, then there is no point having it. When it results in not just a contentious spot-kick but a red card, you must conclude it isn’t going to be your day.
Fulham’s first taste of VAR has been pretty bittersweet. Whilst Danny Welbeck’s handball was punished retrospectively on Wednesday night, Scott Parker’s side have been on the end of more than a few questionable decisions. Aleskandar Mitrovic’s challenge at Bramall Lane would not have resulted in a spot-kick prior to the introduction of technology and I’ve still not seen a reasonable explanation for why Sebastian Haller standing two yards offside at the London Stadium didn’t rule out Tomas Soucek’s goal for West Ham. Fabinho’s challenge on Ivan Cavaleiro at Liverpool contained far greater contact with the forward than either Andersen’s on Raheem Stirling or Wilson and yet only a corner was given. If these things really do even themselves out over the course of a season, then Fulham are due an awful lot of good fortune before May.
There also needs to be some discussion of why it is that the referees are shown worse camera angles on the pitchside monitors than television viewers watching from their armchairs. You would think that there would also be a case for allowing people to hear the dialogue between the referee and the official employed to ratify or recommend a reversal of their decisions, but given that the Stockley Park protocols are more closely guarded than matters of national security, I suspect such a suggestion would be met with the shortest of shrift.
Having once been a referee myself, I am loathe to castigate an official but the performance of Graham Scott and his assistants posed plenty of questions. Both Antonee Robinson and Mario Lemina could consider themselves unfortunate to be cautioned and, even allowing for the confusion generated by the interpretation of the reworked handball law, Scott’s mimicry of Mario Lemina’s disbelief at his decision after Ciaran Clark’s handling in the penalty area in the final minute of normal time was extraordinary.
Scott Parker spoke impressively in the immediate aftermath of events with a candour and measured tone that many more experienced managers frequently fail to match. He has the right to feel aggrieved about a turn of events that robbed Fulham of a commanding position but, being the perfectionist he is, will also question the sequence of efforts that led up to that pivotal penalty. Ola Aina’s squandering of possession in such an advanced position was criminal and Andersen’s own decision making in the fretful seconds prior to Wilson’s theatrics left plenty to be desired. Parker’s side are far from clinical in the final third, but the temperament and desire that ensured Fulham would not be beaten even after being reduced to ten men would have given him plenty of pleasure.