With 82 minutes on the clock and a few VAR checks already under Kevin Clancy’s belt, he got in front of a static Ryan Porteous to stoop and head past a helpless David Marshall. Hibs 1–2 St Johnstone. The visiting support delirious. A huge win for Callum Davidson’s men and an unlikely one after a submissive and insipid first 45 minutes as it looked like the home side would consolidate their position in third.
As the Hibs fans sighed a sigh which has been sighed many times before and the Saints support bounced, cavorted and tumbled in the away end it was a healthy reminder of the great and good of football. The emotion. That immediate, knee-jerk and visceral emotion. Something which VAR will impact. But on this night it played a mere supporting role.
The moment arrived in the eighth minute. Martin Boyle fell to the floor in the St Johnstone box following a challenge from Liam Gordon. There were appeals all around a packed Easter Road. Was Kevin Clancy going to point to the penalty spot? No was the answer. The referee reached for a yellow card instead. The Australian international has a reputation amongst fans of other teams and on this occasion he was deemed to have dived.
Was this the moment for Scottish football history, the first intervention of VAR? Clancy wrote on his notepad as the visitors prepared to take the free-kick. Then he did it. The official gave the indication of a pause in play as the decision was double checked. Fifty-two miles away in Ballieston Willie Collum viewed the footage. Meanwhile, in Leith fans built the anticipation with ‘ooohhs’. They barely had time to get started as Clancy waved to continue play. Boos met the anti-climax.
The Video Assistant Referee's introduction to Scottish football was the equivalent of an unwanted wedding guest attempting to make an impromptu speech only to have it quickly shut down. But it wouldn’t be long before it was clinking its glass once more for attention and this time it got its moment in the sun.
Hibs had finally scored after 35 minutes of dominance. Big Mykola Kuharevich rose highest in the box to plant a towering header from a tantalising Chris Cadden cross into the corner. Clancy once again indicated for a period of patience. Boos grew louder and louder as the wait went on. The Easter Road screens came to life. VAR was checking the goal. For what? No one at the ground knew. It confirmed the goal then the check was ‘complete’. The same happened in the second half when Nicky Clark muscled out Ryan Porteous to nod in an equaliser. Then with Stevie May's winner.
That ‘period of patience’ is one which will begin to grate. The first check for Boyle’s dive was swift but the one for the goal was longer and the crowd made their feelings known, more so because it was for a goal, especially because there was no indication as to why it was being checked. For those in the anti-VAR camp, the one convincing argument could be the extra layer of pantomime it adds to Scottish football, which already constitutes a year-long melody of pantomime shenanigans.
Credit to Hibs and the club's marketing team for the role they played in the lead up to the game. Reduced ticket prices and a 7.30pm kick-off on a Friday attracted a sell-out crowd of 20,010. It was the biggest attendance of home fans in 33 years. The match-day experience has been taken up a notch at Easter Road. The addition of a violinist playing Freed from Desire provoked looks of curiosity, the crowd responded positively, but the presence of fireworks let it be known it was a special occasion. If VAR was sentient it would perhaps think the red carpet was rolled out as a welcome.
There was an expectation that it could be a disaster, SFA chief Ian Maxwell going as far to suggest the first three months will be “horrendous”. VAR was in the background. Its intervention rare, swift and lacking controversy. Collum could have afforded to put his feet up at VAR HQ but there would be many within the game who would speculate that is not in his nature, instead analysing everything, Clancy’s ear drum battered for 90 minutes with his colleague desperate to intervene.
We don’t come to the football to look at a screen in a state of confusion. It’s what happens within the confine of the white lines which is of most significance. What really matters. It turned into a captivating encounter. The first half belonged to Hibs. It finished 1-0 to the home side but should have been more. Kuharevich passed up two chances before he scored. St Johnstone handed the hosts the initiative with a set-up which was more acceptable for a trip to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid. The visitors completed just 99 passes with the five players to have the fewest touches the Saints’ front three and two wing-backs. Negative was being generous.
Hibs attacked in waves but would come to regret that profligacy, including a second half miss from substitute Elie Youan after fine work from Martin Boyle and Joe Newell. Then the game changed. After 390 days since his last start, also against St Johnstone, Kyle Magennis was shown a red card. Callum Davidson's men had already started to display more ambition. It put them in the ascendancy, even more so when Clark sent the visiting fans, who had suffered, wild.
May then had his say. VAR checked but didn't intervene. A huge night for Scottish football passed without technological incident. But the way the game transpired provided a reminder of why the game is brilliant.