We’ve all seen it a million times now. The Merseyside Derby challenge that ruled Virgil van Dijk out for the remainder of the season.
Everton‘s 2-2 draw with Liverpool back in October was littered with controversy and ill-tempered challenges, but the incident that raised the most ire was Jordan Pickford’s knee-high challenge on Van Dijk in the second half.
The keeper went unpunished after VAR uncovered an earlier offside, sparking furious debate among fans and pundits over whether he should have been given his marching orders. But for the first time, Michael Oliver – the on-field referee on the day – has shed some light on the decision.
The referee reckons Pickford didn’t go in with the intent to do harm, but knows more thought should have been given to the challenge itself, rather than the surrounding circumstances. Had that happened, he says the outcome would have been different.
He told the print edition of the Mail on Sunday: “It was a big game. Both teams were flying. The assistant has given offside and there is a delay in the flag as we have had this season. Jordan Pickford then comes out to Virgil.
“The thought initially was, it can’t be a penalty if it’s offside so we need to check the offside first. I think I said to VAR that ‘if it’s not offside, I’m going to give a penalty.’
“I have watched it back so many times. I don’t think Pickford has done anything apart from try to spread himself but he did it in the wrong way, as the injury has shown.
“We have all, myself included, not thought about the challenge as much as we should have done. We could still have given offside and sent Pickford off. What I was surprised about afterwards was that nothing was expected on-field in terms of a red card. None of the players were asking for that.
“We got sucked too much into going step-by-step as opposed to thinking about the bigger process, which was considering the challenge itself and not just the fact that it can’t be a penalty. We should have restarted with the offside, as we did, but with a different punishment for Jordan Pickford.”
Oliver, who is regarded as one of the Premier League’s best referees, also gave his backing to VAR and technology use in football, despite the ongoing criticism the system has faced.
‘I know VAR has become an obsession but I am for it,” he added. “There is all the clamour about it changing the game. But if you scrapped it tomorrow lunchtime, all you would hear all weekend would be people shouting “that would be a pen with VAR”. As soon as you moved it away, people would want it back.
“Ultimately, even with VAR, it’s still my decision. I’m the one who makes the decision on the field. And if I get it right first time around, there is no reason for VAR to get involved. Now that I can go and watch on a pitchside monitor, you’ve got a second chance, too. You can change your mind or stick with it.”