MURDER, She Wrote. Who wrote? Why, Jessica Fletcher, of course. That high priestess of the detective fiction genre which reached its zenith in the early 1990s when Dame Angela Lansbury cornered the market with her singular depiction of the busybody amateur sleuth hellbent on working out whodunnit before the slightest splat of DNA or the faintest smudge of a fingerprint had been detected by the hapless Cabot Cove police force.
In submitting to this seemingly benign subset of crime fiction, one becomes accustomed to the regular slights of hand and attempts at misdirection thrown in by the writers as part of a puzzle-solving exercise with more in common with your crossword on the back of your newspaper than CSI. An enraged threat of physical violence here, the wielding of an offensive weapon there. Indeed, I’ve often been left with a sense of “What about wrongful conviction?” when that chirpy soundtrack kicks in to accompany a still frame of Ange beaming at her own success in solving the case. In a country like the United States, whose threshold for criminal conviction is supposed to be “beyond a reasonable doubt”, the detection of a brooch here or stray thread or button as proof that Mrs F has led the authorities to the right wrong’un (presumably carted off to Death Row after the credits have rolled) has always left me a touch uncomfortable. In fact, more often than not, I found the red herrings more plausible than the perceived wisdom of our hearty heroine.
Anyway, from red herrings to Peter Haring’s red card at St Mirren last week, the theme of wrongful conviction this week was once again brought into full focus in the cinch Premiership. Luckily, our top flight does offer a fairly speedy appeals process, and Haring wasn’t left languishing in the county jail for too long after his ordering off. A foul barely meriting a yellow card was, somehow, deemed worthy of a red in the heat of the moment by referee David Dickinson – no, not that other bespectacled daytime TV relic known for catching a bargain rather than killers. The man in the middle’s real bobby-dazzler on this occasion was a prized item, however. In real time, the challenge from Austrian midfielder Haring looked like a foul; wilfully, with another viewing, you could take into account the charge towards the St Mirren man and the fact that he was halting a counter-attack by the home side and conclude that a yellow card was merited. Dickinson, meanwhile, hammered his gable and dished out his punishment of a straight red card.
The decision itself is the red herring here, however. The ordering-off is a distraction from the really important question: What on earth was VAR doing?
In detective fiction, red herrings work because in most cases they are just as plausible as the creative conclusions the writers of this fiction reach. But Dickinson, in getting this one so clearly wrong, should have been alerted to the error of his ways by those narrating the plot into his earpiece from the VAR control room. Bizarrely, the decision was checked and the video assistant referee quickly agreed with the original call, which was upheld.

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Hearts went on to play the remainder of the match with 10 men and it finished 2-2. They currently trail Aberdeen by five points in the race for third place with three rounds of Premiership fixtures remaining. How priceless an additional couple would have been ahead of tomorrow’s lunchtime clash against the Dons at Tynecastle, and who knows what the outcome would have been if they had kept 11 men on the field at the SMISA.


In the case of Haring, the news that the Hearts midfielder’s appeal was successful was tediously inevitable. Just last month there was a similar incident when Jimmy Jeggo had his red card for Hibernian against St Johnstone reduced to yellow after appeal, despite VAR being in use at that match also. 
I have opined all season that VAR referrals should be reserved for clear and obvious errors during a match. The lines determining fractional offsides and endless loops of balls bouncing up and flicking the fingers come across like “evidence” in a ’90s sleuth drama. But in instances like this, where the referee has so clearly made an honest mistake, VAR has an open goal to take centre stage and unmask the truth while everyone else argues the details and clutches at their own conclusions.

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That the decision was referred to VAR, checked, and the wrong decision was still reached leads to the cognitive dissonance for the club of having to appeal the decision after the fact, presumably confident that a panel will see sense. This was a chance for VAR to justify its existence in Scottish football, something the seemingly endless referrals appear to demonstrate a thirst for from officials on a weekly basis, and they blew it. Forget the red herring of the Haring red card, it’s patently clear who the real villain of the piece is.