Hackett’s Verdict | Northern Ireland, you have been wronged. Twice

Featured content, Hackett's Verdict

Rarely do you see a referee at international level make one glaring major error in a game, let alone two. It was Northern Ireland’s ill luck to encounter such an unfortunate scenario in their World Cup qualifier with Switzerland.

Referee Ovidiu Hategan produced two surprises, nasty surprises in this crucial first leg play-off game.

The first was his reaction to a reckless challenge with excessive force that clearly endangered the safety of an opponent. Instead of producing a red card for Switzerland’s Fabian Schar, he showed weakness by pulling out of his pocket a yellow.

Referees must ensure that challenges of this nature are punished correctly in order to send out a clear signal of the responsibility of a player towards his opponent, in this case Stuart Dallas.

Yes, the game was dominated by Switzerland on the night in Belfast, but sadly the result also hinged on another crucial decision with the Romanian referee judging that a Northern Ireland player had deliberately handled the ball.

However, it was clear on replays that the criteria for handball – against Corry Evans – had not been fulfilled.

The defender jumped and turned his back towards his opponent in order to defend a snap shot from a short distance.

Evans’ arm was by his side when the ball struck.

It was NOT a deliberate handball and to the amazement of everyone the biggest and disappointing surprise of the night was the referee pointing to the penalty mark.

Oh dear, at this level no referee wants to deliver such a massive error.

Once again these incidents cemented the claims for the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee.

However,  VAR will only operate accurately if the selected VAR official is a top performing former or current experienced referee with a great deal of international experience.


  • Hard to use VAR for handballs. Mostly it will be end up being used for those offences that could already have been decided as the actions that seem to show intent will be clear. This incident was a mistake that VAR might have corrected but VAR is going to be complex if used for those decisions where it is the opinion of the official that is the deciding factor. I am wondering whether on this occasion the referee got a call over his headset from his active assistant so it may be that the assistant is at fault. If he called it, it is probably beyond his credible area to call. It could be that the referee decided that there was enough distance between the attacker and defender that the defender need not have got their arm involved and should have either faced the ball or got out of the way. Leaving your arm in a natural position but failing to remove it when you could is also deliberate handball. I do not believe this was deliberate but I do not know what the referee was thinking.

    The criteria for VAR must be carefully considered e.g. significant match changing decisions – goals scored where an offside is claimed or the referee or AR asks it to be reviewed; decisions to award a second yellow card or a straight red card where the decision is not clear; penalty decisions where the offence is unclear; mass confrontations where misconduct is suspected. I would leave it at that otherwise we will end up in a situation like cricket where they have gone far too far. Looking at the front foot after every dismissal is totally unnecessary if we reinforce the role of the umpire is to adjudicate on no balls. It has become almost unnecessary to have an on-field umpire except to stop the players sledging too much. Restricting the reviews in number goes against the rationale for having a technical solution but allowing them for the stuff an on-field umpire can do has taken away their credibility and authority in my view. This must not happen in football.

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