Rugby's system stops gamesmanship
5 February ~ One of football's many antiquated quirks is its method of timekeeping. The mechanism to allow time taken up by injuries and other breaks in play to be added on at the end was introduced in 1891 because of a cynical piece of gamesmanship. Stoke were trailing Aston Villa 1-0 until they were awarded a penalty with only two minutes remaining. Villa's keeper then kicked the ball out of the ground and by the time it was retrieved the game was over. A rule was also made stating that if a penalty was awarded it had to be taken before the game could end.
Now, due to further gamesmanship, there is a growing case for modern football to change the way time is kept all together.
Graham Poll and David James have both written in national newspapers advocating the introduction of an independent time-keeper (the fourth official). Alex Ferguson stated the same in September 2012; of course Manchester United had just lost to Tottenham. He may have a point though. Officiating a top-level match comes with many demands; controlling 22 players at a time when the pace and skill of the game has developed exponentially, all the while having to spot the slightest contact or flick of a hand it takes TV audiences three or four magnified super-slow-motion replays to see. No doubt many referees would be happy to have the stopwatch taken off their hands.
But should FIFA go one step further than just giving this responsibility to the fourth official? Opta figures reveal that for some Premier League games there are as little as 50 minutes actual game play and rarely more than 75 minutes when the ball is active. That means a supporter could find themselves seeing, in real terms, only half a game. It's a far from perfect arrangement as managers, players and fans often get frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary amount of time added on to the end. Obviously if their team is winning they are angered if added time goes over three minutes. Conversely if their team is behind supporters often expect much more than is held up by the fourth official.
The chances of FIFA actually taking any tips from another sport and adopting a more scientific approach are not high, if the heel-dragging over the introduction of goal-line technology is anything to go by. Both rugby union and league, as well as basketball and American football, operate a system of real-time. This means the clock is stopped whenever the ball is dead and restarted once it is live again. The official in the centre of the pitch has no say in it and a buzzer sounds at full-time, at which point the whistle is blown once the ball goes out of play.
It wouldn't end time-wasting all together, just dead-ball time wasting that the opposition have no control over. Therefore fans wouldn't have the frustration of an opposition goalkeeper prodding and poking the ball before a goal-kick, walking up to it, then moving it again before finally taking the kick. No more would clubs instruct their ballboys to hold the ball up as 90 minutes closed in (or suddenly disappearing all together as they often do in Spain and South America). Another added bonus would be an end to "Fergie time" at Old Trafford. Some would say reason enough to implement these changes.
The downside would be that games could go on much longer and managers already moan about the amount of games played at the current 50 minutes of live play. And gone would be the dramatic "injury-time goal" that has produced so much romance over the years. But rugby is not devoid of last minute drama – just look at Johnny Wilkinson's drop goal during England's 2003 World Cup final win over Australia. The question football authorities need to ask is whether extinguishing these relatively minor annoyances is worth such a drastic alteration to the nature of the game. Christopher Dyer