The Rational Ref

'Fergie Time' puts refs under pressure

Stoppage time can be a vexed issue for managers needing a goal and those eager for the whistle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 1:19am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 2:04am

Scoring in stoppage time always creates an outburst of disbelief, delight, duress, despair and drama. It’s why so many people are hooked on the game.

Initially, there is disbelief and delight, like when South China scored the winner last week in the 97th minute to beat reigning champions Kitchee. Similarly, Barcelona came back from two goals down against Sevilla to grab victory in the 93rd minute. Manchester City did it in the 94th minute to win the English Premiership last season. And Manchester United famously did it in 1999, scoring not once but twice in stoppage time to snatch the  Champions League from Bayern Munich.

On the flip side, duress and despair surface when managers and players believe they have been cheated with time, either with too little or too much. Teams failing to net a last-gasp goal will always feel there is too little added time, whereas teams desperately defending the status quo will always argue “enough already”.  Alex Ferguson brought these feelings to the fore last week when he expressed his disgust at the supposedly incorrect stoppage time awarded during his team’s dramatic defeat by Tottenham Hotspur.

“They gave four minutes. It is an insult,” he said. “It is denying you the proper chance to win the football match. There were six substitutions and the trainer came on. That is four minutes right away.”

Straightaway Ferguson has shown he is disingenuous. He has correctly calculated 30 seconds for each substitution plus one minute for the trainer. However, although there were six substitutions, the first was at half-time and therefore cannot be considered a stoppage in play. Two other substitutions were made simultaneously in the 92nd minute. This is important because the official announcement of stoppage time is made in the 91st minute.

Therefore the referee could only consider three substitutions that actually occurred during the second half. It is standard practice to add 30 seconds for each substitution, so  1-1/2 minutes for substitutions plus another minute for the trainer makes a total of  2-1/2 minutes. There were also three goals in the second half, so 30 seconds for each goal is sometimes given should the celebrations be excessive. The referee actually played almost  4-1/2 minutes of added time.

Ferguson also said: “The goalkeeper must have wasted two minutes. They took their time at every goal kick.”

If Ferguson, and any other manager, can hold his hand up and admit that whenever their own teams are in the exact same position they never “take their time” at every goal kick, throw in or corner, then he has a leg to stand on. Ferguson’s claims smack of sour grapes.

Ferguson is a master at grabbing more than his share of time when needed, which is why this trick is called “Fergie Time”. Last season when Manchester United were losing, their matches were 74 seconds longer on average compared with when they were winning. Whenever Manchester United desperately need a late goal,  referees are under huge pressure to add more than the true calculated stoppage time. But no matter how much stoppage time is added, losing teams will never be satisfied unless a goal is scored. That is the true essence of “Fergie Time”; it is never about the minutes, only the goal.

There is a good reason why soccer stadiums always freeze the clock at 90:00 and never show how much stoppage time is actually played.

Problems arise when this standard protocol is not adhered to. For instance, at the Hong Kong Football Club the giant display board always shows the clock running in stoppage time and as a result referees are easily influenced by “Fergie Time”. Timekeepers at HKFC should be informed about this unsporting practice.

Stoppage time can also be added for injuries, bookings and goals. In South China’s win last week, there was eight minutes of stoppage time, which seems a lot. However, there was nothing improper because there were six substitutions during the second half plus an injury to Kitchee goalkeeper Wang Zhen-peng that took at least two minutes. The feisty match saw 10 yellow cards and a sending off, with five cautions and the red occurring in the final 15 minutes of the match plus the winning goal. Hence, eight minutes of stoppage was correct.

Regardless of Ferguson’s specious criticism of referees’ timekeeping duties, Rational Ref advocates a change in how soccer matches should end. Soccer should follow the example in rugby. That is, when stoppage time has played out, a hooter will sound and everyone will know the match will end at the next natural stop in play. Should that happen, it would mean one less  finger being pointed at referees.