IT was the moment that defined the A-League grand final.
A wrong call that proved decisive and left the Newcastle Jets and their fans devastated.
Three Melbourne Victory players were offside, including James Donachie who headed a Leroy George freekick across the six-yard box for Kosta Barbarouses to score. Television replays were conclusive.
However, the goal stood after a failure in the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology prevented the sequence from being reviewed by the match officials.
In the end, it was the difference in a 1-0 win.
Two months on, Jets coach Ernie Merrick accepts that Melbourne Victory are the champions.
But the most capped coach in the A-League does not accept that the VAR was totally to blame for the result.
And as the Jets start preparations for the 2018-19 season, Merrick is far from convinced that the same mistakes won’t occur.
In a wide ranging interview with the Herald, Merrick’s first since the grand final on May 5, the coach revealed his frustration.
“I don’t think it was the VAR at all,” Merrick said. “The VAR feed went down. That was just unlucky, but it should never have gotten to the VAR in the first place. The goal was from a set play, it wasn’t from open play. It was pretty obvious that there were three Victory players offside and two players in the middle fouling and obstructing our players. It is hard to bring it up now because it can come across as sour grapes. Victory won the game and you congratulate them for winning the championship. I am more concerned about the implementation of the rules and I’d like to get that sorted out.”
Merrick has conversed and exchanged emails with Football Federation Australia director of referee Ben Wilson three times throughout the year – pre-season, early in-season and in the lead-up to the decider.
“It has been an ongoing issue that I have had, and some of the other coaches have had, with the referees,” Merrick said. “From pre-season last year they said they were going to stop offside players interfering with play. They were going to put their foot down. Yet it continued all season to the point where I sent the director of referees an email and asked him to explain why the practice is allowed. Several teams are doing it, not just Victory. It happens against a lot of teams, not just ours.”
Merrick, in his correspondence with the FFA and in video examples shown to The Herald, highlighted offside players obstructing and blocking defenders inside the penalty area.
In some instances, offside attackers have moved into an onside position and used defenders to “bounce off” and gain an advantage.
“It is a simple rule,” Merrick said. “It is not just offside, it is blatant fouling. I asked about it several weeks before the finals and it happens in the grand final. This is about going into another season wondering whether this rule will apply or not. If it is going to be continued to be allowed, we will start doing it as well.”
Merrick remains a supporter of the VAR and pointed to its successful application at the World Cup in Russia.
“I am a fan of the technology and think we have to fix it [here] and get it right,” he said. “Get the protocols in place which means it operates smoothly. There is always going to be teething problems. To blame the VAR for the grand final is totally wrong. It was to do with the refereeing and the assistant referees and what they are told and instructed to do.”
Merrick believes officials, rather than use the VAR as a back-up, are relying on the system to make calls.
“The referees don’t make decisions now,” he said. “They leave it to the VAR. If it is very close during open play, I understand, keep your flag down and review it. In the grand final, it was a set play, everyone was in a line, the referee’s assistant was in a line. He sees the freekick taken. They are offside. End of story. The frustration is do we have to go through a whole season with this again?”