THAT football took another significant stride towards belatedly entering the 21st century at Wembley last night when a video referee was used for the first time in an official game in the United Kingdom will have done nothing to lift the spirits of Northern Ireland and their supporters.

In fact, the prospect of the beautiful game being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era and joining a raft of other mainstream sports which use replays to aid officials in their decision making will probably just exacerbate the pain they are feeling just now.

If a system was in place where contentious incidents could be instantly reviewed then it is inconceivable Switzerland would have been awarded a penalty in the first leg of their Russia 2018 play-off match at Windsor Park on Thursday evening or that they would have lost the game 1-0.

There have been many shocking incidents and appalling injustices in high-profile games over the years which have highlighted the need for modern technology to be used.

Before this week the most infamous of them came in the second leg of a World Cup play-off between France and the Republic of Ireland in Paris back in 2009 when Thierry Henry blatantly handled the ball in the build-up to the winning goal.

But what happened in Belfast was arguably worse. Xheridan Shaqiri’s powerful volley struck Corry Evans’s back from close range. For reasons only known to himself Romanian match official Ovidiu Hategan pointed to the spot. Ricardo Rodriguez converted the chance.

Michael O’Neill’s players – who were also aggrieved that a Fabian Schar on Stuart Dallas early on went unpunished – were outplayed by Vladimir Petkovic’s men and could have lost by a larger margin. It looks highly unlikely they will recover and progress to the finals next year.

Still, it will be nothing short of a disgrace if Northern Ireland’s gallant bid to qualify for their first World Cup finals since Mexico ‘86 is effectively undone by the backwardness of the sport.

Not surprisingly, O’Neill, who will become the leading candidate to succeed Scotland manager Gordon Strachan should his team fail in their objective, was bewildered afterwards.

“The referee has no-one in his line of sight,” he said. “Corry’s arm isn’t in an unnatural position, it’s by his side. The ball hits him on the back more than anything. I thought the referee had blown for a foul or an offside. Nobody had claimed for it.”

Mercifully, an end to such sorry scenes may be in sight. The International Football Association Board, the organisation responsible for developing and preserving the laws of the game, last year approved a two year test of the Video Assistant Referee system.

It involves assistant referees watching a game on TV screens and being available to review four types of situation – goals, penalty decisions, straight red cards and cases of mistaken identity – and correct errors in match-changing situations.

The match official is the only man who can initiate a review and he has the ability to study footage on a pitchside monitor and make the final call.

Around 20 countries, including major footballing nations like Germany, Italy and Portugal, are involved in trials and the majority of the feedback has so far been encouraging. At a summit in, ironically enough, Switzerland last month the results were described as “very positive”.

There have certainly been issues. In the Bundesliga, Hellmut Krug, the head of the VAR system, was replaced after being accused of influencing decisions to favour Schalke, who he supports.

Sandro Wagner, the Hoffenheim striker, also bemoaned the length of time it took to make a decision and the fact that mistakes were still being made. “We should can the thing,” he said.

Sami Khedira, the Juventus midfielder, feels it has impacted negatively on the atmosphere at Serie A matches. “A lot of emotion and passion has been lost,” he said.

But it was inevitable there would be teething problems. Done properly, it can actually enhance the drama of an event.

Video referees in football can not come soon enough. Certainly, nobody in Northern Ireland will object to them being brought in.